My great-grandfather came over from Odessa
packed into a box in the hold of a ship,
with nothing but a hole through which to breathe.
He had a wife he hated, who hated him,
and they set up a shop in the valleys of South Wales.
Above it, they slept in separate rooms.
When he laughed he made lokshen come out of his nose.
His wife had fled the Nazis just before the war,
but her polio meant she could never catch my grandpa
or Aunty Helen when they were naughty.
Digging one day in the family archives, my dad
discovered that my great-grandfather and his wife
were also uncle and niece. Grandpa said that
should this ever get out, he’d never speak to my dad again.
He bore his shame silently, like a lump in the throat
that could not be got rid of. He’d take tots of vodka
when he thought we weren’t watching,
and although he claimed not to believe in God
he prayed fervently every night, just in case.
All the books on his shelves were about Hitler
or the Jews, and one time he swore he saw a ghost.
And like a ship the dread traverses generations,
criss-crossing the strata back and forth, from
my sister refusing to go to school to me huddled tight
in the doctor’s room; from my mum with a husband
who doesn’t understand to my brother
who vanished across the world. Here I am
in a box of my own. Here we all are, trying to breathe,
packed tight together, reaching through holes
as our ghost ship lurches on endless seas.
(published in Poetry Wales)