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Poetry from Lenore Weiss

followed by Q&A

Börte’s Perfect Love Song*

 

1. Börte Sings Both Loud and Softly to Temujin

I am Mongol, loyal to one master.

When that other khan

 

touches my cheek, it turns into a salt pond.

Nightmares rim my eyes with darkness.

 

My husband, Temujin, is a gray wolf

who kissed my mouth.

 

I remember when Temujin lifted

the fringe of my silk banner

 

with his spear.

Now his spirit pole is gone from my tent.

 

I drip candle wax along the fissure of my heart,

drink warm kumis.

 

A woman in black sable calls me

to stand before my dream.

 

Floating seeds join each other in air.

I hear them laugh.

 

The seed in my bowl is not his.

It doubles me.

 

I will slip away like the whip of a horsetail

upon the frozen steppe.

 

I was not born to die in another clan's tent.

The Blue Sky follows me between branches.

 

The face of the marmot and falcon is Temujin's

face. The birch hides my secret.

 

 

2. The Lichen Clan

Stolen from Temujin to this mirror camp, days

stick in my throat and sicken me.

 

I see men, women, and children

with the same two arms and legs.

 

They stare

and wait for me to circle.

 

If I remove my silver necklace,

I must bow my neck.

 

How long can I nurse emptiness,

a heartless child?

 

The fire at night warms bootless feet.

My silver gelding with a black tail does not run toward me.

 

I search the Altai Mountains for rising dust.

Before a cooking fire,

 

I dry a blanket, the same color

as an arrow that strikes

 

the curved tip of a falcon's wing.

I see it.

 

Men come to crush each other,

and every woman and child with two arms and legs.

 

Stallions mash bones with hooves

into the black rock of Lake Baikal

 

covered with the faces of lichen

that speak as one clan.

 

3. Wild Onion and Pear

Lying next to this man, Chilger,

through the smoke-hole of our tent,

 

I hear a grasshopper

burrow in sheep dung.

He throws a hand over my chest

like a lasso pole to draw me in tight.

 

His breath travels up an elk-path

and comes back down, snorting.

 

All night, even without sleep,

I cannot rest.

 

I'm the one who holds his willow branch

until it topples,

 

and in the morning, the one who fills

a leather bucket with mare's milk

 

until it runs down his face

and drowns him in a white river.

 

I draw my lips over my teeth.

He wants to capture a smile.

 

He can bridle me.

No one commands my heart.

 

Only the child that floats on its back

with fingers pressed against my belly.

 

I will dig in the ground,

feed him wild onion and pear.

 

4. A Wolfskin with a Silk Rope

My ears hear everything at night.

My eyes see everything during day.

 

I could not tell who entered my tent

through the evening smoke-hole and stood

 

with his legs, an arrow's width apart.

Then I saw him.

 

Sky blue. Even his nose.

Maybe he was a cloud.

 

In his hand, several wolfskins tied

with a silk rope.

He said: From the water of your waters

will grow a nation. Four sons

 

with the strength of a wolf pack

tied together.

 

He placed a bundle in my lap.

When I awoke, it was my head's soft pillow.

 

Then I knew Temujin would come.

Who else could be the father of such men?

 

Part of me

wanted daughters to braid my hair,

 

to brew tea when news of the tangled grass

reached my ears.

 

Piles of rotting bodies like dead trees.

I am not prepared.

 

5. The Strongest Hand

Soldiers drink horse’s blood,

fill moats with dead bodies,

 

pile catapults with excrement

near a thousand flickering fires.

 

Quivers of horn and wood

hug arrows for their intended.

 

Ashes of men rout a birch

with locust memories.

 

Now I pour ashes into my palm

and blow breath on them,

 

men in a season of slaughter

who disappear beneath a saddle.

 

When I was a child,

my mother carried me on her hip.

 

I wore boots as soft as doeskin.

One day she found a mare,

escort to a pool of water

between shoulders of earth.

 

The sky grew black. I could see back

to the beginning

 

before I held a horse’s mane

and breathed in its sweet sweat,

 

where I sat and wondered why people kill each other,

and then scatter to the strongest hand.

 

6. A Sparrow in Search of Spring

Temujin, wolf-man with cat eyes

came to me in a goat-skin cape

 

to replace my companion of months,

a shadow. Now my twin flies

 

like a sparrow in search of spring

away to a peak covered in grass,

 

or like a sturgeon that leaps

with the oar of its tail.

 

I run free.

Night is studded with pearls

 

and wraps us in black velvet.

Inside each other's den,

 

no one sees

what we do,

 

our backs etched raw

by root and stone.

 

Thunder from our sated voices

widens a stream-bed.

 

Who we are together

shines in our eyes.

 

The child that is mine

becomes his.

 

Temujin has come back.

I pick out straw from his beard.

 

 

*Börte was the first wife of Temujin (Chingis Khan). She was captured by the Merkid

tribe and temporarily married to Chilger the Athlete. Chingis Khan began his drive to

unite the clans of the Asiatic steppes in an effort to reclaim her.

 

Lenore Weiss  is an award-winning writer who lives in the Bay Area. Her collections include “Sh’ma Yis’rael" (2007) from Pudding House Publications, “Public and Other Places” (2003), and “Business Plan” (2001). Her work has most recently appeared in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Nimrod International Journal, Copper Nickel, and Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal as well as anthologized in Not A Muse: Inner Lives of Women and Appleseeds. She is the editor of From the Well of Living Waters, an anthology of poetry.

 

Q&A

Q: How did you come to be interested in Börte and Temujin?

A: I attended the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Tech Museum in San Jose. As someone of Hungarian descent, I’ve always had an interest in Mongolia. The exhibit opened new doorways, including mention of the marvelous books by Jack Weatherford who traveled Mongolia for a period of five years and traced the footsteps of Genghis Khan. I was excited by a quality of language, a narrative that was based on survival and an intimate awareness of the physical world. I wanted to work toward achieving that same quality in the Börte and Temujin poems.

 

Q: What did you collect as a child–rocks, insects, stamps?–and why?

A: Mostly, I coveted unbroken crayons, notepaper, and books.

 

Q: Perhaps you would offer your thoughts on the narrative poem and its place in the contemporary poetic landscape.

A: The narrative is strong, especially in the work of young hip-hop artists throughout the world who tell stories of what it takes to survive in a difficult urban landscape.