after Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938)



The cross is a plank nailed to a branchless
tree that a gray-white stream angles into.
The stream is an opaque light that rushes
toward oblivion. It has a cool weight, an anti-
radiance that brushes earth and heaven.

I know the lean Jew who lingers on this cross,
his useless arms thrown to the side in utter
yielding, his long Semitic head—turbaned
and heavily bearded—propped on his sunken
chest. There is blood on him, but only

at his splayed hands, pinned as they are
to the bare tree’s desiccated wood.
And this sallowness that seems to have been
rubbed into his naked body—has anyone else
ever looked so imposing in his imprisonment?

The white sea of assassins   the storm-wind
that rails against saviors and survivors   rips flags
out of the sky   yet he hovers there in the only sliver
of wholeness while entire villages are blown out of time.


Isn’t that the tallit of Abraham that covers his thighs?
isn’t it the same fringed cloth that haloed our grandfathers
when they faced Jerusalem and sang their welcome
to the sabbath bride? Perhaps he is our long-lost brother,
Joshua, who will ascend now. And these must be

what is left of his people, the holy ones: catch them
if you can before they disappear into root cellars and sewers
before they escape into death with their pitiful psalms
and silver   before they trudge into fire and darkness
before they break for the woods, embracing

their smoldering torahs   before they race aimlessly
into the gray mist   into the white flames of the sea.
These are his people who burn like flares of snow-lit night:
they float above him, more ethereal and haunting than he.


What is this light that holds steady at his feet
that burns like a ghost-shadow softly around his head?
Is not everything alive tormented by this unwavering glow
that will not crack into filaments of whitest fire   that will not
fracture into sparks   or shatter into burnt-black ash?


© Charles Fishman