The plume of a steam train crossing
the Vistula mixes with thick cumulus.
Dark smoke from dockside shacks
and warehouses gathers like a sail
in the wind. On the bank, open fires
smudge the near surface of the river.
Oblivious of all that will soon engulf
them, a scattered dozen bearded
men pray and chant in the new year’s
first dawning. Dressed in black
caftans, each swaying man is facing
a different direction, as though God
were everywhere and prayer the sole
purpose of their being in the world.
Some have empty hands folded behind
their backs, eyes toward heaven
and the absent sun’s shining. Others hold
holy books open, or their naked palms
up, or hands clasped before their hearts.
Beside the fire, dressed in white,
one peasant balancing a bucket
on his hip stares at the worshipers.
Ready to feed another scrap of wood
to the fire, a friend squats at his feet
and listens to something: Whispers,
perhaps, from the man in white,
the hiss of rising flame, lapping river
water or the train’s sudden whistle.
Floyd Skloot won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for his memoir, In the Shadow of Memory (Nebraska, 2003). His fourth collection of poems, The End of Dreams, will be published by Louisiana State University Press, and his fifth collection, Approximately Paradise, by Tupelo Press. He lives in Amity, Oregon. (updated 1/2005)