(for Susan Hiller)
my mother, who could not sing, told me.
As a young woman, she helped garner
the last grains of Tyrone Irish.
A teetotaller, her job
was to carry the whiskey bottle
which uncorked memory—
the old people remembered scraps of songs
when they remembered nothing else.
And today I heard a recorded lullaby
sung by a woman long dead
in Kulkhassi, a language also dead.
No one understands the words
or knows what the singer might have sung
to an infant who may be a grandparent today
walking, haltingly, in the shade,
down a street in South Africa.
Did she sing about stars, or rain,
or tall grass, or blue flowers,
or small boats on a quick, brown river
or antelopes in a mountain valley
or a dark spirit who might snatch away
a little child.
Whatever promises or prayers
the song’s words held
in that forever lost language
the mystery remains
that any infant on this hurried earth
could still understand the lullaby’s intent.
Through its rhythms and syllables
love pours still
through a round sieve.