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.
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
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
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: 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.