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Keepers of the Image


                          —for Ilona Karmel
                          and Fanny Howe

This poem is not about Janusz Korczak
who chose to lead his orphans
on their march from a Warsaw ghetto
to the long line of trains headed for Treblinka
rather than be freed like a butterfly
to inhabit the meadows      the woods
filled with berries and mushrooms

It is about those butterflies
perched on a tight imaginary line
stretched between awareness of what is
and that longing for what can be
and how we might stir their wings

And how image is kept alive
and who are its keepers
          shoes left behind
          food they were denied
          jewels ripped from their bodies
          barracks emptied
          beds left unmade
          tracks in the snow
          and faces

But today it is summer in Poland
so there is no snow
no tracks to follow these orphans
as they march
according to one observer
dressed in meticulously cared for clothes
each carrying a blue knapsack
favorite book or toy
and at the front of the line
Korczak himself followed by one orphan
playing Jewish folk songs
on a small violin      perhaps among them
           Never say you are treading the last path

And how was this image preserved?
It came to me via Fanny Howe’s review
in Poetry magazine of some old notes
by Ilona Karmel titled, Keepers of the Image
in which she concludes:
          Terrified and alone we turn to others
          because of the self-centered need for comfort
          these are the shabby beginnings of our love
          and he who knows how to grant comfort
          becomes the guarantor of hope and this is not
          self-sacrifice but an inner necessity to preserve
          that which is too precious to be destroyed

There is a freedom in that moment
when an unforeseen act of self-abandonment occurs
and one steps outside of one’s self
for the sake of a distant achievement
it is the freedom 
           of an awakening
                              butterfly
                                               R. T. Sedgwick

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