Tag : poetry

October 7, 2014 by

Poetry

the coffee drifts down these long bronx halls into my young waking nose

Wake to coffee my mother
says I am too young to drink.
O, the future, so far, so aromatic,
so dark and hot, like the envied
coffee she takes to her lips.

What more do I envy about her,
my mother whose scent is Paris
while she struggles in New York.
Sometimes I smell her sweat,
never heavy or harsh, but distant
and dusky like rivers in an old
country she’ll never see again.

Inside, I promise to visit those rivers,
but do not tell, for fear of her
militia-rage, unseen as land mines
set to blow at any tremor.
I remember to tread lightly
around her long wide nose filled
with smells, gunpowder dust, she
can’t extract, subtract, detract.

I lie in the shadow of war and death
when she bends over my bed,
kisses me light between the eyes
with lips that taste beloved brows
she kissed and cursed as they lay dead.

Falling off to sleep, in my nostrils
still, the scent of Paris, sweat
of New York, dreams of morning
coffee, of futures, rich, dark and hot.

Equipment*

What in her life equipped her
to dig a bullet from her leg
to lie still under many bodies
until decay and stone seeped
into blood and breath?

What in her life equipped her
for smuggling the few guns
a farmer may be bought for,
hoping S.S. or Home Guard hadn’t gotten to him first?

What in her life equipped her for
executing traitors, for burning down
squealers and Jew murderers?

What in her life equipped her
to see a pregnant sister butchered
ghetto burning, brothers shot
running, father gone to forgotten
grave in a hole somewhere in
the surrounding woods?

What in her life equipped her
to walk alone through this life
always dancing for the dozen
seeing traces of eyes and hands
in children she dared to deliver from the fires and the pits?

*a term used by Eta Chait Wrobel, my
mother, to describe (sympathetically)
what one was or was not capable of

her poem

She read me her poem, dated July 1943.
Two months after the liquidation of her ghetto.
The words were clear, direct and undramatic.
She used no metaphors.
Nothing was like anything else.
The words all in Yiddish
the language a message.
Dead languages like people
kept alive if we speak them.

Her voice sweet, fragile, even scared.
Not the iron woman so many see.
A folded yellowed page.
She can’t recall exactly where she wrote it.
The woods bore no address.
So many years unshown.
Today to be disclosed, exposed, made known.
Nothing I haven’t heard in content and in fact.
But dated… July, 1943.
So near, so there, so unembellished clear.

This is she. This is me.
She reads. I hear.
It digs down deep
a dentist’s slim needle into a root canal.
Novacaine spreads from brain to groin,
feeling but a shadow of the painful procedure.
Novacaine now is wearing thin.
Dull ache reveals the sorrow concealed.
Thank you for this gift, for the simple-tongued sharing.
Tonight I pick up my pen for the
first time in many months.
Bless you, mother.

worship

I worshipped the ground she walked on.
She worshipped life.
Not only mourning for twelve
but dancing for them
and laughing for them
even joking for them.

She lived always times twelve.
There was human greatness,
at times heroic pettiness.
She was our own King Lear
but with glimpses so sweet
delicate and breakable
of porcelain, not steel.

It wasn’t easy to be hers.
To grow up in a house-of-the-murdered.
Mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers
multiplied many times in all their friends and kin.

Glass and iron, glass and iron.
So much glass and iron.
A hard yin-yang
seldom light-hearted
always profound.

In the last decade and more
we found much peace together.
She never ceased to be my hero
and finally got to be my mother.

I am mother now down three generations.
It is for me to pick up her staff, to walk
with her wounded feet and strong legs.
She is a mountain.
I am still climbing her.


Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel is an American historian, poet, Holocaust educator, labor union activist, refugee advocate, and curator of a monthly poetry series in Portland, Maine. Her first poetry collection, Marengo Street, was published in 2012 .

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July 15, 2014 by

The Shabbat Before Her Wedding

She is the braid of the challah
twisted between second grade bible stories
and the breath of modern Israel. She is turning
off the oven, placing trays of sliced meat
and bowls of sectioned fruit onto the lazy Susan.
She is the candle that has not yet been lit,
the matches on the ledge behind the sink
waiting to be taken, to be brushed along
the coarse striking surface, a wavering flame.
She remembers the dozens of times she opened
the front door to the smells of the rabbi’s Shabbat
during college, the homecoming of flavors
that committed her to kosher.
Her fiancé in the bedroom now
tries to memorize the blessings, the transliteration,
figuring out how the mixing of their blood
will work for the unborn children.
She is the heat of the kitchen after the steam
of her food has slowed, the shadow of her grandmother
setting silverware on linen napkins, her hand
miming the pride of Jewish women. 

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July 15, 2014 by

A Woman’s Tashlich

thedaysbetweenIt’s been 18 years since Marcia Falk, renowned Jewish feminist scholar and poet, brought us her groundbreaking The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, a prayer book that not only uncoupled liturgy from patriarchal themes and imagery, but that gave women —and continues to give women —contemplative, gender-corrective ways to connect to the sacred.

In Falk’s new book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (Brandeis University Press), she takes us further down the same spiritual path, reminding us that it is good to experience “the turning of the Jewish year” in nature, and that it is holy to immerse ourselves mindfully in endings and beginnings, in solitude and in relationships. “What kind of life will we live in the time we have?,” Falk asks. “Where in our life will we find purpose and meaning?” 

Falk underscores that the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah) is intended to be a continuous devotional span; “ten days of meeting oneself face-to-face, opening the heart to change.” The word “between” in the book’s title palpates one of women’s special strengths: connection. Alas, we humans cannot stop time —we can’t make our six-year-old stay six forever, or bring a beloved deceased person back to life —but we can strive to be “fully aware of our connectedness to everything in our world,” and in that way live ourselves into “wholeness, serenity, and fulfillment.” 

I asked Marcia if she would take a walk with me, for tashlich, along a river’s edge, using five poems from The Days Between as guideposts. (Tashlich is the ceremony in which Jews throw crumbs into the water to symbolize casting away our sins. In The Days Between Falk calls her new ritual Nashlich, which is gender-inclusive, “we will cast,” rather than Tashlich, “You [God, masculine] will cast.”) In the pages that follow here, she does this, helping me journey spiritually through her translations of poems by the well-known Hebrew poets Zelda and Leah Goldberg, and by the less well-known Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman. We begin our walk with Falk’s own poem, which revisions Micah 7:19, the biblical verse that opens the traditional tashlich. As we recite and then discuss the poems, they become cast as a prayer cycle. (I have distilled our conversation.)

Each of the poems, says Falk, “uses the archetypal sym- bol of water as revelatory, transformative, and redemptive.” Each “explores time, change, and mortality in the context of intimate relationships; and in each, water is given a voice. Zelda’s sea sings, Goldberg’s river hums, Tussman’s creek babbles.”

Reader: Take a walk with us. Put some crumbs in your pocket for tashlich, and find a serene place alongside water…water that eddies or babbles, water that cascades or crashes, water that hardly ripples. Enter “the between,” give voice to a conversation with your life, move forward along the meridian of deepening t’shuvah.

Hey, you! Come along, too. 

CASTING AWAY

We cast into the depths of the sea our sins, and failures, and regrets.

Reflections of our imperfect selves flow away.

What can we bear,
with what can we bear to part?

We upturn the darkness, bring what is buried to light.

What hurts still lodge,
what wounds have yet to heal?

We empty our hands,
release the remnants of shame,

let go fear and despair
that have dug their home in us.

Open hands, opening heart —

The year flows out, the year flows in.

—Marcia Falk 

MARCIA FALK: The High Holiday language is full of power and terror, and the verse from Micah that we recite for the traditional tashlich ritual is vivid, almost violent, asking God to hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea. I have a different image of the new year, of life and change. A wave comes to shore and then pulls back, there’s ebb and flow. Is it only our “sins” that we need to let go into the sea?

SUSAN SCHNUR: In the third stanza of Casting Away, you ask, “What can we bear?” Help me understand this.

FALK: For example, can I bear to live with the knowledge that I was mean to my child? Can I accept the “mean” parts of myself? Can I forgive myself?

SCHNUR: And then the poem asks, “With what can we bear to part?”

FALK: Yes. What can we let go of? I’m in the process of clearing out 20 years of clutter from my house, and I’m overwhelmed. I have to look at each thing: Can I part with this? Can I part with that? It can be hard to let go, to stop looking backwards. This is the time of year when we want to be able to walk into the new, but the old holds us hostage. Can we “release the remnants of shame,” let go the despair that has “dug [its] home in us”? The holiday is about perfecting ourselves —but not everything can be changed. Can we accept ourselves?

SCHNUR: Okay, here’s what I want to personally ponder in the palimpsest of this poem: This year, can I live less reactively in life’s ebb and flow? 

FACING THE SEA

When I set free
the golden fish,

the sea laughed
and held me close

to his open heart,
to his streaming heart.

Then we sang together,
he and I:

My soul will not die.
Can decay rule a living stream?

So he sang
of his clamoring soul

and I sang
of my soul in pain.

—Zelda 

FALK: Now we come to “Facing the Sea,” in which the speaker finds this Other —the sea —that is so unlike her. The speaker is quietly suffering, but the sea is noisy, laughing, bubbling over. Nature is completely alive, always alive —this noisy sea, embrac- ing us, holding us close.

SCHNUR: “My soul will not die”—they sing together about their shared immortality, that dying never conquers life. But the speaker remains so alone. The “Other” can only comfort us up to a point. Is that right?

FALK: The speaker lets something go —“the golden fish,” what- ever that is —and she is embraced. Then the speaker and the sea sing together, but their voices are very different. This poem, for me, is about being in pain and trying to find comfort.

SCHNUR: Here’s what I think I need to think about here: Can I learn to accept someone else’s imperfect love? Can I sing with the universe? 

THE BLADE OF GRASS SINGS TO THE RIVER

Even for the little ones like me,
one among the throng,
for the children of poverty
on disappointment’s shore,
the river hums its song,
lovingly hums its song.

The sun’s soft caress
touches it now and then.
My image, too, is reflected
in waters that flow green,
and in the river’s depths
each one of us is deep.

My ever-deepening image
streaming away to the sea
is swallowed up, erased
on the edge of vanishing.
And with the river’s voice,
with the river’s psalm,
the speechless soul

will sing praises of the world.

—Leah Goldberg 

 

FALK: This poem and the next are from a sequence by Leah Goldberg called “Poems of the River.” In the first poem here, a tiny blade of grass sings to the river. We all feel, at some time in our lives, that we’re “on disappointment’s shore,” that we are insig- nificant, “children of poverty”—a very touching phrase for me. But nature can comfort us —“the sun’s soft caress.” The river, in fact, takes our “images” —our faces, our selves —and deepens them.

When our mind quiets down, we get to sing “with the river’s voice, with the river’s psalm,” and we finally feel ourselves part of everything. Water here is wholeness, vitality, moving, streaming away to the sea.

So many of us experience ourselves as small—“even for the little ones like me” is such a poignant image. Why does the little blade of grass want to assure us that the river hums for us, too, lovingly? The blade of grass itself becomes our comforter.

SCHNUR: I love the rushing compassion of this poem. I want to say, “Yes, yes. Don’t leave without me!” This poem makes me want to think about the spiritual challenge of trust. Can I trust that everything will be okay? 

THE TREE SINGS TO THE RIVER

He who carried off my golden autumn,
who with the leaf-fall swept my blood away,
he who will see my spring return

to him, at the turning of the year —

my brother the river, forever lost,
new each day, and changed, and the same,
my brother the stream, between his two banks
streaming like me, between autumn and spring.

For I am the bud and I am the fruit,
I am my future and I am my past,

I am the solitary tree trunk,
and you—my time and my song.

—Leah Goldberg 

FALK: Ah! Here we find a less quiet voice, the self-possessed voice of the tree describing its relationship to the river. We don’t normally think of “blood” [in the second line] when we think of trees; we associate that with animal life, and when the animal is drained of blood it dies. The image is shocking, even suggestive of domination and submission: the river carries away the tree’s life-blood, yet the tree returns to the river again and again. Or, another way to look at it: perhaps the voice is defiant; it will not die, it will return, year after year.

There’s movement, a shifting of perspective. In the second stanza, the tree and the river are kin: the river streams, like the tree, between seasons. But in the last stanza the tree lets the river know that he, the tree, is solitary, whole in himself: “I am the bud and I am the fruit, I am my future and I am my past.”

Then, at the end, there’s a powerful reversal. The tree no longer addresses the river in the third person—as “he,” as “my brother”—but says, “you—my time and my song.” We aren’t solitary after all. There’s always “the other,” we exist in time, vis-à-vis the other. What is my voice if I’m just talking into the emptiness? I don’t have a voice unless I’m speaking to you. 

SCHNUR: This poem breaks my heart. The tree is learning how to move from Martin Buber’s “I-It” relationship —separate, detached, full of defensive bravado—into an “I-Thou” relationship—of mutuality, of reciprocity, of touching interdependence. This challenge hits home for me: Can I learn to be more empathic and more yielding in my relationships? 

from TODAY IS FOREVER 

I stroll often in a nearby park —
old trees wildly overgrown,
bushes and flowers blooming all four seasons,
a creek babbling childishly over pebbles,
a small bridge with rough-hewn railings–
this is my little park.

It’s mild and gentle
in the breath-song of the park
and good to catch some gossip

from the flutterers and fliers.

Leaning on the railing of the bridge,
seeing myself in clear water,

I ask, Little stream,
will you tumble and flow here forever?

The creek babbles back, laughing,
Today is forever:
Forever is right now.

I smile, a sparkful of believing, a sighful of not-believing:
Today is forever.
Forever is right now…

—Malka Heifetz Tussman 

 

FALK: This last poem is a little touch of mameloshn [Yiddish] in the middle of my book. Once again, water gives us its wisdom. The speaker talks to a stream, sweetly, as though to a child: “Little stream, tell me. Will you be here forever?” Human beings want to know! Are we going to live or die? What’s coming next?

And the creek laughs: Why are you asking such a question? This is what there is! “Today is forever.” The poor creek to have such a foolish disciple!

SCHNUR: Yes, how can we humans think about ourselves with- out thinking about the fact that we will die?

FALK: In every nature poem, there’s a dark thread. I like this poignancy; so much of Jewish liturgy doesn’t acknowledge it. I’m talking about sadness. There’s awe, fear, trembling, God is big, we’re small, all of that. The Kaddish: we exalt You, we enlarge Your name. How does that help one feel better? You’re sorrow- ing, you’re grieving, and what does the liturgy give you back? A big silence. Not much comfort. These poems by Jewish women offer us more.

SCHNUR: This poem asks the biggest question perhaps. Here go my last breadcrumbs into the water. How can we acknowledge life’s sadness? Can we do so and smile? 


Sections in blue are excerpted from “The Days Between: Blessing, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season,” © 2014 by Marcia Lee Falk.

 

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July 15, 2014 by

Great (Jewish, Feminist) American Poetry

Four new collections of poetry by Ellen Bass, Robin Becker, Alicia Ostriker, and Maxine Kumin demonstrate how powerful Jewish feminism is in the consciousness of American poetry.

Ellen Bass, co-editor of the ground- breaking anthology of women’s poetry No More Masks! and self-help best-seller The Courage to Heal, reminds us of the vast universe that poets create from small, sharply-observed moments. In her third collection, Like a Beggar, Bass builds the epic from the ordinary and celebrates the ordinary as exceptional. Filled with odes and lyrical, prayer-like meditations, Like a Beggar “love[s] the truth.” In the first poem “Relax,” Bass warned, “Bad things are going to happen;” and they do, in this book, in life, but Bass renders them livable and beautiful. After gruesome details describing the killing of a chicken, Bass reminds us, “looking straight at the terrible,” of the “one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.” Like a Beggar is an exuberant celebration of living in the world.

Couplets, tercets, and quatrains order the pages of Robin Becker’s eighth collection Tiger Heron, but the emotions they contain are unruly. In one beautiful poem about her mother, “A Last Go,” Becker confides, “Now that medical studies show/ the skinny live longer, she’s gained/the sweet taste of being right all along.” Still, Becker encourages her to “try the ginger scones, / the lemon poppy seed cake,” not- ing, “there’s time for a last / go at pleasure.” Grief and loss punctuate pleasure in Tiger Heron, but through this dizzying emotional landscape, Becker’s technical prowess dazzles. In “The Sounds of Yiddish,” she moves seamlessly between lighthearted bromides, like “when a schlimazel sells an umbrella the sun comes up,” to grim reflections on her Bubbe leaving a shtetl with the Yiddish aphorism “Spare us what we can learn to endure.”

Alicia Ostriker creates a new cosmology in The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, interrogating what makes the world operate for the salty old woman, the comely tulip, and the flippant dog. A sequence of persona poems, often ending with a joke, this collection differs from Ostriker’s previous work, which featured her strong confessional voice and lyrical narratives. In The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, Ostriker summons William Blake as an intellectual companion, infusing his voice with her Jewish, feminist sensibility. For example, in “The Wind That Blows Through Me,” the old woman posits that God is inside her hand when she writes, while the tulip says she feels “the presence / of the goddess inside me.” The dog rejects theology as “bunk” but while running in the park affirms “the springtime wind is real.” The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog is a joyous, accessible engagement.

Maxine Kumin finalized And Short the Season just before her death, at age 88, in February 2014. The collection confirms her formidable poetic talents as well as the wide range of ideas that occupied her as a poet and public intellectual. Reprinting “The Revisionist Dream,” Kumin gestures to her storied friendship with Anne Sexton; she grapples with reports of torture at Guantánamo Bay and celebrates the natural world. In “Purim and the Beetles of Our Lady,” Kumin considers beetles that “emerge in a moment of melt / to slip into our homes through crevices too slight / for a whisper.” In spite of her delight with nature, Kumin confides that these beetles “eat holes in my love for this earth.” While Kumin’s love of nature may be frayed, it is persistent—and visionary. In And Short the Season, Kumin explores catastrophic climate change, explaining its effects in “Going Down:” “they call it climigration, these / experts in vast shoreline loss / and islands swept by rising seas.” She also warns of losses, command- ing “Blow a kiss to this drowned world.” 

Most spectacular in this collection is Kumin’s series “Sonnets Uncorseted.” Ten linked sonnets meditate on seventeenth-century poet Margaret Cavendish and the progress women made in poetry during Kumin’s lifetime. This triumphant narrative lessens the pain readers feel from Kumin’s loss. In “Allow Me,” she portends her own death, imploring a godlike reader to make it “sudden and quiet, surrounded by friends.” She then recognizes “But who gets to choose this ordered end / Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand?” Kumin’s life may have come to an end, but at least we can keep her books at hand. 

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Live from the Lilith Blog

June 18, 2014 by

The Poem that Went Viral, and the Woman Behind It

 Anna Binkovitz, 21, is a proficient slam poet and author of a published chapbook, The Love Hypothetic. At a national slam poetry competition in March, Anna performed a poem called “Asking For It” that addresses a refrain perpetually directed against rape victims: that by dressing provocatively, they invite sexual predation.

The poem invites viewers to “a strange world in which all of us…can only express our wants and needs through our clothing” – a dystopian, darkly comic imagining, in which nudity—during bathing, changing, or even childbirth—always signifies wanting sex.

 

Last week, the poem went viral—at 400,000 YouTube views and counting—after news blog Upworthy reposted a video of Binkovitz’s performance; Jezebel and the Huffington Post, among others, marked it as an important contribution to a heated cultural conversation about consent. So Lilith’s Malka Editorial Fellow, Talia Lavin, took the opportunity to have a conversation with the outspoken poet, rape survivor, and activist.

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May 8, 2014 by

Counting the Omer Through Poetry

Barley sheaves (Wikimedia Commons)

Barley sheaves (Wikimedia Commons)

Lilith editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider asks, “Is counting a women’s preoccupation? Counting days before one’s period, counting the months of pregnancy, counting the years til menopause. Perhaps counting the Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot, can become a time when the counting provides another kind of embodied pacing.”

Harvard Divinity School student Molly Moses has a unique approach to counting and contemplating the Omer, which she’s shared with us.

Molly Moses: Counting the Omer through Poetry

The Omer is a 49-day period–a period of seven weeks–leading from the second night of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot, which today serves annually to commemorate God’s giving of the Torah to Israel. (The word “omer” itself refers to the measurement of barley offered up at the Temple on the first day of this period.) Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy relate a commandment to count these days. Some people choose to enhance their counting with reflection and self-cultivation in preparation for receiving the Torah. Rabbi Karyn Kedar’s new book “Omer: A Counting” offers a spiritual guide. 

Like Advent and Lent within the Christian tradition, the counting of the Omer, for me, is a practice in mindful, measured anticipation. Having benefited from short courses taught by Alicia Ostriker and the KlezKanada Poetry Retreat team of Adeena Karasick and Jake Marmer, I decided to write a poem to mark each day of the Omer last year. Drawing inspiration from poet Hank Lazer’s experimentation with form, I decided that each line would have the same number of words as the number of the day. My two other rules were that I could not write in advance and that I could not edit afterward; day-ness became both a discipline and a meditation. The resulting poems varied in quality as well as content, reflecting both my passing thoughts and the ebbs and flows of time and energy resources. I often used kabbalistic concepts associated with each day as prompts, making heavy use of Rabbi Jill Hammer’s “Omer Calendar of Biblical Women.” In what is now an annual practice, my Omer poetry has acted as a deeply personal, yet public journal, a way to make myself externalize thoughts on–and thus to keep wrestling with–God, doubt, truth, beauty, ritual, human relationship, and other experiences of daily life that, without the encouraging structural rigor of this time period, I find hard to record and contemplate with diligence.

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April 9, 2014 by

Written on Matzoh

a slave breathing
limestone dust,
carries a heavy stone for a backpack.

Waiting to set it down for generations,
waiting to rest it by the foot of a quilted bed.
During the last year of suffering

fists let go and blossom.
We have no time to think,
only time to get through,

searching for straw to make bricks,
under the refrigerator, in the cabinets,
in the cracks of the car seat.

The only whip ticking at the hour,
a slight change on the face.
Ancestors walking forty years in the desert
compressed to one week each year.

Matzoh falls from heaven. We collect the broken
manna glistening above the sand like frost.

Gathering the sparks falling from it with brooms.
On the table it loses its shimmer,
sheets of stiff parchment,

the typewriter keys are white teeth
eating up our story.

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