poem: tanya (an american tail)

Note: Sometimes writing takes you to some wild places. At some point I knew I wanted to write a poem about assimilation through the lens of this animated film, with some drastic reimagining, of course.  I also knew that I wanted to incorporate another film called The Searchers, a John Wayne film where he plays a racist that is searching for his niece, who has been taken by Indians. When he discovers how they’ve transformed her, he has a drastic decision to make. I always felt that the film would have been truer to his character had it ended differently. I decided to place my revised ending in the American Tail poem. But the surprise didn’t end there. The way the ending occurred was the wild bit for me; it’s considerably more surreal than I was planning. I wonder if there’s a way to explain all this in the poem instead of a preface, but it would likely be a seven minute poem, which isn’t my first choice. Still thinking. Also, I wrote this poem with an old Russian folk song in the background called Do Not Blame Me. It’s haunting, and wish you could hear it while reading/hearing this piece. Anyway, here’s the poem.

Tanya (An American Tail)

As I searched every filthy alley for my sister, my Tanya
the cats spread word that an immigrant mouse knew how to end them,
how to leap into their mouths, slip down the tongue,
plunge the knife into the throat and tear myself out.
As they bled their final hairballs into the New York cobblestone,

I’d remember Papa’s deathbed, as he’d whispered,
Fievel, what have they done to you? You’ve grown so cold.
I told him: Papa, it was you that swore
that there were no cats in America.

Now mere steps from where they have tortured and left her,
I imagine what they’ve done;
everyone knows that the strongest of us, those that they
do not kill…they change. No one knows
how they do it, but when they are finished,

you can no longer bear the scent of your mother’s fabric,
you’ve forgotten every recipe you were given,
you tear your tongue tasting Pashka in concrete,
and our music…it reminds you of everything the ship tore away from you,

til the very grief possesses your hands.
I once watched a survivor play a folk record
then tear himself apart.

Before Mama’s heart gave out,
she begged me, just once, to play Papa’s violin,
to let her spend her final breaths in Russia.

I’d promised her, that if I found Tanya,
I’d play it for her. Though privately I knew what it would do.

Now, I could smell her. Behind the speak easy on
4th Street. Licking her arms on the filthy ground,
she convulsed at the sight of me.

I whispered her name, gently as Mama.
She bared her teeth. Hissed.

In that moment, I knew that this
was the horror Papa had dreamed,
shaking in tenement bed, American tongue bleeding.

I leapt toward her, dodged her bite and rammed her head
into the ground. Her body limp, I carried her home.

In Papa and Mama’s room I laid her down.
Grabbed the violin. She woke, wailed at the sight of it.
I tried to calm her, pleading, Papa’s violin,
Tanya, Papa’s violin!

Her wails grew higher as I pressed the bow to the string.
The first song I played sent her skull into the wall.

I kept playing, begging her to remember:
Tanya, mother loves you,
will never forget how that ship carried us away,
when wisps of your hair began rising,
not from static, not from wind,
but the grip of a mother that could not hold you.

I didn’t stop playing until she’d clawed out her eyes.

I then sang. It was a folk song dressed as a siren.
Her hands moved on their own, swarming her throat.
I knew her heart could not take it.
We both knew I could not stop.

Her frozen breath, our favorite winter.
Our cheeks, the Moskva river.
Tanya. Beautiful as Mama.
Her hair. Rising.

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