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for Murray Baumgarten

At night, under wraps, often none too soon,
the ghetto gave up what it must—bodies
rowed in silence across the long lagoon.
Bora winds scattered dust on canvas
shrouds intended to disguise Venetian
Jews as freighted cargos—to ward off spit
and stones. Dust and water, all the ablution
Venice would bestow, faceless behind
its marble masquerade, enforced oblivion.

On the Lido’s sandy waste, they found
the graves which they were not allowed to own
in parcels of unconsecrated ground
sanctified by troubles they’d endured.
Monks collected rents from families bound
to pay until eternity when, according
to the rants of blood-eyed friars, their kind
would swelter in fire to pay hell’s rent.
Till then, the slow assault of gale-blown sand.

Cautious carvers labored to invent
tombstones with Hebrew walled in by Baroque
and heraldries no noble would resent—
Scorpions for Copio; roosters for Luzzatto.
When Napoleon needed convenient
targets for his firing range, these stones sufficed.
Turned upside down, they doubled as pavement.
With his defeat, those duties were relieved
and families guessed at rearrangement.

Today in this tree-shuttered enclave,
we come to parse inscriptions, searching for
a past that punctuates our lives.
In Venice, La Serenissima, city
apart from everyday earth, these graves
define a separate district of apart.
Outside the obscure gate, sunbathers thrive.
From the busy street, no one spares a glance.
Hidden still, these dead have managed to survive.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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