Julia Vinograd: poems from The Book of Jerusalem

Richard Misrach, Julia, 1974, from the series Telegraph 3 AM


Jerusalem dances on living bodies,
on dead bodies, on flesh, on stone—
she doesn’t notice, she is not looking down.
“You love death more than me,” God accuses her,
“but I own death,
do you think you can win him away from me?
I give you leave to try,
and if you succeed
will you want my blessing on your marriage?”

“Always,” says Jerusalem, shielding her eyes
against the dazzle of his grief
and searching his face without mercy.
“Death brings you closer for a time
so I can’t refuse his dusty flowers
of blood and pity but his memory’s terrible.”

“So is yours,” God replies like an old chant.
“How many times have you forgotten me?”
“As many times as you remembered me,” Jerusalem completes it.
“No more, no less.”

She is walking on madmen now,
who weep at their small dirty victories,
snuffling without dignity,
if they could only lose
and be right again,
losers are always right,
whoever wins has a good wife and a home and goes mad.
So goes the legend.

But Jerusalem is looking at God and laughing,
“I’m sorry for death and he’s sorry for me
but I thought we were speaking of love.
Of course,” she is teasing now,
holding shadows over her face,
perhaps it will rain this afternoon,
“I’ve often thought of adopting him,
the pathetic fallacy is so charming,
don’t you think, and orphans even more so.
I know you agree with me,
you’ve made so many.”
“We were speaking of love,” God won’t change the subject,
“and of death
and I want an answer,
would you still love me if I never killed again?”

Jerusalem stops and looks suddenly younger,
an awkward schoolgirl handed an awkward question.
She bites her lip and thinks
till a dog starts barking at her ankle,
almost visible now
and not what dogs expect to find in the street.
“I don’t know,” Jerusalem answers slowly.
“You wouldn’t need me then.
I don’t think I could forgive you.
I would be too lonely.”

“I know,” God agrees.
“You have very beautiful hair.”
Jerusalem smiles her feet back into dancing.
“Do you really think so?”
“Yes,” says God bleakly, “I do.”


Jerusalem held a ramshorn in her cradling hands,
turning it over and over.
“Put it down,” the Lord told her, “it’s not yours
and what would you do if it were?”
“I’d like to hear the sea in it,” Jerusalem mused,
“a deep gray sea,
full of floating dead eyes and the salty froth of time;
like a conch shell, but a different sea. Not sad, just fixed,
each wave standing in line forever.”
She stroked the inside of the curve with a sensual abstraction,
as if the horn were her pet cat and might purr.
It didn’t, so she considered the Lord’s question.
“Tell it my secrets and break it, of course,” she decided,
as though trying the idea on for size, “both at once, preferably,
if I could manage it.”
“You don’t have any secrets,” the Lord pointed out.
“I might learn some,”
Jerusalem said wistfully catching an eager prayer
exploring the ramshorn and pinning it firmly back,
“if it were mine, I mean,
I might learn how to learn secrets.”
“I would be a secret too,” the Lord reminded her.

“No,” Jerusalem decided, “it’s better as it is.”
She put the ramshorn down
regretfully, still stroking.
“Wave after wave in line,” she repeated,
“that’s a strange sea, I wish I could hear it.”
“You just did,” the Lord said and Jerusalem pulled her hands away
as if she’d been clawed.
“Yes,” the Lord agreed. “It’s a strange sea.”


Her warriors are children and her children are warriors
and she gives them all kisses,
sweet kisses, bitter kisses.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tell her proudly
they just killed the Dead Sea and Jerusalem says “of course”
and kisses them. Snipers come back from guarding her hills
with their rifles leading them
like guide dogs leading the blind
and Jerusalem kisses their eyes. For her own costume
Jerusalem wears a tallis she took from a rabbi while he slept,
the sacred stripes don’t quite cover her breasts
and it’s as hard to stare at her face as the sun.
The Little Mermaid is tired of both land and sea
and sick of smiling, she asks Jerusalem for directions
to a lake of tears. “Later,” says Jerusalem softly
as if speaking to a mirror.
Spiderman is getting a little bored
with fighting cardboard villains and wants to express himself.
Is there one empty temple, just a small one for him to fill
with his webs and make a thing of beauty?
When he looks at Jerusalem he just has to ask.
Dead children come dressed in blood, it’s halloween
And Jerusalem kisses them,
sweet kisses, bitter kisses.
Some children from the children’s crusade,
some from last week,
time is collapsible.
Jerusalem’s hands sift through history
gently ruffling the hair of her children, her warriors
playing with toy dinosaurs and real knives.
She can’t change them.
Wind blows her beauty into their eyes.
She is a fountain of kisses.
Sweet kisses, bitter kisses.


Jerusalem played with a box of wooden soldiers.
The Lord watched, raising a thick white eyebrow.
She mounted the wooden soldiers on seahorses
curling their legs underneath and putting on toy red bridles
and she put them on giraffes, leaning them forward to clasp
the long spotted necks.
Jerusalem put lilies in the soldiers’ hands instead of flags.
She mounted a small troop on the back of a tortoise to be a tank.
She even put toy rubber skeletons on the ground
to look realistic.
A wooden soldier rode the wooden cuckoo of a cuckoo clock
and when the clock struck the hour
she had the soldier shoot his gun into the air.
Jerusalem lifted 5 wooden soldiers around a glass paperweight
with a castle inside, the kind of paperweight that snows
if turned upside-down,
but the wooden soldiers couldn’t break in.
One of the wooden soldiers rode a toy rubber ball
and he didn’t fall off as long as Jerusalem smiled.
“This,” asked the Lord, “is your idea of war?”
“Why?” Jerusalem looked up “What did I get wrong?”
“You’ve been in the middle of so many wars,”
the Lord reminded her,
“you know better.”
“Maybe I don’t want to know,” Jerusalem shook back her hair
refusing history like bad tasting medicine
“and the wooden soldiers don’t mind.”


Jerusalem and the Lord have been playing chess
for centuries, on a black and red chessboard.
“I don’t understand the game,” Jerusalem laughed.
“But I don’t need to.
I sing to my pieces and they dance
and leap and move to my music.
Sometimes it’s funny,” she added.
“Imagine a castle, for example
a fortified dignified stone castle
with archers at all the windows
ready for a siege.
Imagine that castle suddenly dancing
and sweating like a drunken peasant,
shouting to the moon and a fiddle and landing
wherever it belongs.
I wonder what they think inside.
Don’t you wonder what they’re thinking?”
Jerusalem asked the Lord.

“I wonder what you’re thinking?”
answered the Lord,
“I’m afraid I know what they’re thinking.”
One of his pawns had decided it was in danger
and it was telling the Lord
what the pawn expected him to do about it.
The pawn had made the situation clear 5 times,
not leaving anything out
and was heading for 6.
The Lord looked back at Jerusalem.

She’d grown red rosebushes on all the red squares.
“It gives them something to look at between moves,”
Jerusalem explained when the Lord raised an eyebrow.
“You can take forever.”
“They were supposed to be looking at us.”
The Lord glanced back at the scolding pawn
and shook his head.
“I suppose roses will hide the blood,” he added.
“Plant all you like.”

The board curved over the horizon
where the lines met.
Jerusalem began another song
and a knight spun on the back of his horse
like a circus acrobat
shimmying to little golden bells.
The Lord didn’t watch the move,
just the soft pulse in Jerusalem’s throat
while she sang.

“This game makes me so happy,”
Jerusalem broke her song, not noticing her knight
falling off his horst in between squares.
“I must be winning.”
“Nobody plays chess like us,”
the Lord answered Jerusalem,
still just looking at her face.
“We’re both losing.”

image: Jerusalem from Mt. Bezetha: United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division
under the digital ID matpc.22800. Public domain.

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