“Loose Jewels” from Arc’s 2019 Shortlist

Loose Jewels

Mum, remember your moss gardens
gathered from the bush by the railroad tracks?
You’d take the dog with you, Puli or Vizsla
bred for that other life we might have known,
seen on Super 8: wild boar in the hills
of Miskolc, smoke from the hunters’ fire,
zsírós kenyér and carved bone pipes.

But Grandpa took after his mother
who owned the movie theatre, before
the Russians came, put her money into loose jewels,
later sewn into his pockets before he fled in the night,
so that you could make shrines upon the supper table:
Your mother would water them and they’d stay alive for weeks.

Grandpa paid somebody to tend his mother’s grave,
while we, the ancestors, stayed busy an ocean away.
Who washed the stone, lit a candle in a red glass jar
and prayed on All Saint’s Day?

Today your mother is ash, feeding the moss
of three gardens in York Region
as I stroll Nefelejcs utca, peering in at the flower sellers.
I would choose chrysanthemums (she always said
they were funeral flowers). Csókolom kívánok
the gatekeeper greets me, mistaken for a local
mourner. Temető tourist, we never lost anybody
in the wars, only minds and fortunes
but those can be rebuilt.

The last Thanksgiving before she forgot
how to bring a fork to her lips,
Grandma smiled at me, held my hand,
looked at our matching crooked fingers and said,
“We were so worried that the Russians would rape us”
— she who stood on her head daily, studied psychology
at sixty, stretched strudel dough by hand,
preventing tears by twisting round her rings
made from those loose jewels
glinting on my twin fingers,
as I read inscriptions on cracked stones.

Édesanya, when did the payments stop?

The grey-green lichens grow thick and brittle here
and it is 1983 and I am born
and it is 1963 and you are making moss gardens
and it is 1943 and my grandmother is hiding
in a basement, afraid, for three months
and she doesn’t know that she will have
a daughter who gives her living things
or that even as ash she will still be
tending our gardens.

Notes for “Loose Jewels”:

zsírós kenyér: bread with lard, raw onion, and paprika.
Nefelejcs utca: Forget-me-not Road, Pestszentlőrinc, 18th District Budapest
Csókolom kívánok: formal greeting, ‘I wish to kiss your hand’
temető: cemetery
Édesanya: respectful endearment, ‘sweet mother’

Kevin Matthews on Emily Vanderploeg’s “Loose Jewels”

This poem is sharply drawn, grounded, even when it’s founded on darkness and uncertainty. In our esteem of ancestors, a sense of loss mixes with a lot of wonder—does heritage itself carry a sort of tenacity and resilience, or is that rather a richness of culture? Heritage drops the pretense of intentionality, and makes way for survival, thriving, tender joy.

Emily Vanderploeg is from Aurora, ON, and lives in Wales. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, and she is a Hay Festival Writer at Work. She teaches creative writing online for Queen’s University.

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