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Whenever I Am Hungry

Whenever I am hungry
they crowd past me,
gaunt shadows elbowing each other,
rushing toward the tables.

The tables are many, rude wooden slabs,
peasant tables with bread, cheese and wine,
homey kitchen tables covered with oilcloth
or rococo dressed in white linen, platters
piled high with roasts, au gratin potatoes, peas;
for dessert, tortes lathered with crème fraiche.

The weakest want only soup, dream
of it steaming, the lone carrot, a few bits
of chicken floating in the broth, a crust
of bread to hold in their mouths a long time,
one slice of apple they dare not yet eat.
They would fall to the floor,
to grab the few noodles I dropped.

Sometimes, when they are working
in the fields or digging graves,
they break into their food oratorio,
soprano, alto, tenor, bass—tones
rising, falling, blending, in the endless
chant of fruit, of toast with jam, eggs,
coffee, oranges, schnitzel, schnapps,
over and over to fill their emptiness.

Alone or in dreams I see them,
old and young, staring.
These shades live in my kitchen,
perhaps in all our kitchens.
They are the kitchen ghosts.
Their bony fingers gesture
as I go to my bursting cupboard.

They are an itch, a wound in my mind,
a hollowness in my stomach.
They ask me for their peace.
Their peace? I can only give them
a place here, next to me, at my table.

They linger, weeping softly
bodies half turned away.
They stand quietly, shuffle,
cry out at the screech of a cabinet door,
bob in prayer before the ark of food.

At first I wanted them to go.
Now I know I cannot live
without them. I would shrivel
into empty egg shells,
a mushroom growing on garbage
in our sumptuous dumps.

So I thank them for their presence.
If only I could feed them,
turn back time! I bow to them.
They are holy,
witnesses
to the abyss
within us.

Judy Neri, the author of the book of poems Always the Trains (New Academia Publishing, 2008), also writes memoir and essays.