It was my father’s drum –
but he was ill, and so when
they summoned his musicians,
I hauled the gold and crimson
tub into the square, strapped it on.
The killing had already begun.
The Germans had stripped us
of our guns, but the townsfolk
made do: sticks and stones,
scythes, axes, kitchen knives.
There was no resisting them,
hundreds cornered, cowering –
such shrieking like you can’t imagine.
We were told: Play! Play loud!
First we struck up a polka,
then a wedding march. I watched
a man hoe a bloody furrow
down one Jewess’s back. A crowd
pinned the old rabbi to the ground,
stopped his mouth with
a bloody mash, sawdust and dung.
Our tuba boomed like a cannon.
There, by the fountain, a game of catch,
her black braids twirling
across the air between them.
Our cornet player – the finest
in the district – his horn squealed
like a snared boar then
roared with a crazy laughter.
Me, I beat the drum, pounded it
hard with my father’s baton.
My heart thudded with the rhythm.
I beat and beat until
my hand went numb.
Steven Ratiner has published three poetry chapbooks, and his work has appeared in dozens of journals in America and abroad, including Parnassus, Agni, Poet Lore, QRLS (Singapore) and Poetry Australia. He’s written poetry criticism for The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post. Giving Their Word – Conversations with Contemporary Poets was reissued in a paperback edition (University of Massachusetts Press) and features Ratiner’s interviews with many of poetry’s most vital talents, including Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Bei Dao, and Maxine Kumin, as well as the last full-length interview with Bill Stafford before his death.
(Photo courtesy of David Andrews)