The Ghetto and Other Poems

By Lola Ridge, 1918
The Ghetto and Other Poems

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Excerpt

THE GHETTO

I

  Cool, inaccessible air
  Is floating in velvety blackness shot with steel-blue lights,
  But no breath stirs the heat
  Leaning its ponderous bulk upon the Ghetto
  And most on Hester street…

  The heat…
  Nosing in the body's overflow,
  Like a beast pressing its great steaming belly close,
  Covering all avenues of air…

  The heat in Hester street,
  Heaped like a dray
  With the garbage of the world.

  Bodies dangle from the fire escapes
  Or sprawl over the stoops…
  Upturned faces glimmer pallidly—
  Herring-yellow faces, spotted as with a mold,
  And moist faces of girls
  Like dank white lilies,
  And infants' faces with open parched mouths that suck at the air
       as at empty teats.

  Young women pass in groups,
  Converging to the forums and meeting halls,
  Surging indomitable, slow
  Through the gross underbrush of heat.
  Their heads are uncovered to the stars,
  And they call to the young men and to one another
  With a free camaraderie.
  Only their eyes are ancient and alone…

  The street crawls undulant,
  Like a river addled
  With its hot tide of flesh
  That ever thickens.
  Heavy surges of flesh
  Break over the pavements,
  Clavering like a surf—
  Flesh of this abiding
  Brood of those ancient mothers who saw the dawn break over Egypt…
  And turned their cakes upon the dry hot stones
  And went on
  Till the gold of the Egyptians fell down off their arms…
  Fasting and athirst…
  And yet on…

  Did they vision—with those eyes darkly clear,
  That looked the sun in the face and were not blinded—
  Across the centuries
  The march of their enduring flesh?
  Did they hear—
  Under the molten silence
  Of the desert like a stopped wheel—
  (And the scorpions tick-ticking on the sand…)
  The infinite procession of those feet?