from City of Palaces

Isaac Berliner


Pyramids of a thousand years, stone silence
amidst the hills and quiet flatlands—
how many prayers, how many enigmatic commendations
did a peaceful folk sing to you here?

I have internalized the silence—
I know only that centuries ago
a folk stolen away from others
chanted songs to unknown idols.

And maybe my great-great grandfather walked upon you
and my blood contains the heritage of an ancestral mystery
and maybe my heritage is buried beneath the stones
and forever keeps the timeless stillness.

Who were the stunning giants, the young men
laying heavy stones and granite?
Other elders have given birth to new ones.
Yet the pyramids have not changed their face.

maybe your builders were Egyptian,
or Jews?

The Spanish Inquisition,
I know, with his holy Christian faith,
tarnished the Toltec’s name,
in order to scare
the entire world with Indian tales,
to steal
a silent peace,
to obliterate
these nations from the earth.

Sun over the pyramids,
hiding a perennial secret with your flames.

Desierto de los Leones

From the ancient ruins of the convent,
from earth, iron, and stone,
I continue hearing the stifled cries,
the sour wailing coming out
from each corner and crack,
creeping through the walls . . . 

And I apparently see, from the old convent
an old monk, Capuchin,
he sweeps his hands like a spider
and he whispers from his scornful lips:
“A man has blasphemed God.”

A man has been burned.

From the cracks of the old convent,
the priest’s voice in prayer:
“The love of women, a sin.”
“Oh God, man is made so small.”

The priests themselves
have “transgressed” against those sinful bodies.

From the ancient ruins of the convent,
a tremor, a swish, and a call.
“With pliers the body torn apart,
the hands seized from the trunk,
the children, the sister, the wife,
cut up—hands and feet.

Bodies shackled in chains,
racked limb by limb,
one drop of water after another,
drilling holes in the head.”

One still hears the walls whispering
in the caves of the convent.

From the ancient ruins of the convent,
the secrets crawl out,
a gift as large as a thousand,
one body after another, like a snake,
they travel on their own to the night,
the head and the feet and the hands.


laying stolid with a plumage of stone,
crying from your body, with a quiet scream,
are thousands of years.

in the bluish dawn of rose,
the sun hides its whitish head
with rainbow stripes,
like a hair band.

hidden monsters in the gallop,
throwing themselves onto you, yelling as they pillage,
humming songs and whistling
from unknown lands.

what secrets,
stored in the passing of generations,
are hidden inside you?

what scars
stapled in blood,
are engraved in individual stones?

Carry me inside your body, Popo,
your mysteries in my silence.

furtive hoary giant,
the sun throws you a ray
in the darkening moments of dusk,
enlightening you fully.

I see in you now
ancient generations gone,
their blood spilled
from your vertebral column.

What plethora of travelers wandered on your silvery skin?
Have you counted their steps?

At your knees
death announces its journey,
and on your back,
this frigid, whitish inscrutability
pours . . .

translated from the Yiddish by Ilan Stavans