A Very Jewish Poet

Yael Flusberg is the 2010 winner of Poetica Magazine’s annual chapbook competition. The prize is the publication of her newly released collection of poems, The Last of My Village [www.poeticamagazine.com]. The poems — including “Vidui,” “Sukkot,” “Purim,” “A Family Portrait,” “Yom Kippur Blues” — are knowledgeably Jewish, and also worldly. Sifted through Flusberg’s staggeringly tragic childhood, the poems become a monument to healing. Flusberg lives in the Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Cooperative in Washington, D.C., and makes her living as an executive coach for non-profits, a yoga teacher, and a Reiki practitioner. She is 42.

Susan Schnur: What was it like to grow up in your family, Yael?

Yael Flusberg: I knew, as a small child, that when human flesh burned it had a certain smell. People killed each other. Those were my bedtime stories. I thought that when we get to be a certain age, we get killed so we’re not a burden on others. That’s why I thought I had no grandparents. It wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out that my mother’s experience was a specific incident of genocide.

What was your parents’ particular experience?

We were a totem pole of suffering. My father went deaf as a child, from scarlet fever, and he was bipolar. He grew up in Gdansk in a Hasidic family — his father was a rabbi and mashgiach, but my father was so pained by Hasidism. He was an orphan at 13 and left the Hasidic world at 25. He was hospitalized many times, psychiatric and physical. He was a skilled laborer, but he dreamed of being a physicist or a Jewish historian. His life was tragic, but he wasn’t a Holocaust survivor. He died when I was 13.

And you’re saying that your mother’s experience was worse than this?

She was at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. When she was there the crematoria were at full capacity — 10,000 to 14,000 a day. She killed herself when I was 15. She had made many, many attempts. The last four months of her life she was in a hospital and she used to beg me, “Will you kill me?” I come from a family where people die young and have led very harsh and tragic lives.

I can’t imagine that there was room for a child in this family.

I hated that my parents couldn’t do what other parents could do. They even died without leaving instructions about what to do with me, and there were horrible fights — foster care, legal guardians…. And I just wanted to keep living in the printers’ union co-op in Queens. I grew up the only child of two very loving, very troubled human beings. They tried. They tried to live. My mother tried very hard to transform her own life, even in having me.

Was the printers’ co-op the place where you fell in love with words?

My father was a printer for the New York Daily News. As a child, I’d see him do the dummy with metal plates, putting each letter down. He would make up fake ones for me when I visited. He’d do my name: “Yael Flusberg, colon, The Smartest Girl in the City!” He’d print it out on a piece of paper for me.

Did you know, as a child, that writing would be such a source of sustenance?

I went to an Orthodox yeshiva where I knew for certain that every single letter had a whole life.

Help me understand how writing works for you.

It clarifies my life’s themes. I am always a bit thrown off that people think of my story as full of trauma. Certainly there was some of that, but I am also thankful for all the rich dark soil I’ve been given.

What have you grown in this soil?What are your life’s themes?

Well, there’s transformation, of course. Learning how to work and work with something until there’s a shift. When I get the urge to write, it almost feels like I’m just vomiting it, then I have to let it sit for a long time. It has to be exteriorized. Once it’s on paper, there’s so much work to do. Revisions allow me to understand the thing I’m writing about, whether it’s my mother’s suicide or Tu B’Shvat.

Being a Jew is certainly a theme. Given my parents’ cultural and spiritual traumas, it was such a negative identity. I had such a conflictive, pediatric view. There’s no hiding with the name Yael Hanna Flusberg, named for both of my grandmothers. One died in Auschwitz, the other also had an early death, a mysterious one, in a sanitorium. She was married off as a child to her late aunt’s husband. I’ve never even seen a photo of her.

Transforming my Judaism through poetry was an explicit task I gave myself.

Your poetry also has the recurrent them of “home.”

Yes. What does it mean to be at home? How do we act in the world if we’re at home? How will the world change when we feel at home? Feeling at home, we engage with one another, we listen, we ask. We refuse to be enemies. When I learned to be in my own presence, I came to home. I’ve shifted that notion of having everything taken away from you into a sense that we carry our most important gifts with us at all times, and that home can never be taken away, even if they kill you.

You poignantly dedicate your book: “To my dead — for all that you passed on, even after you passed over, for teaching me not to believe in death.”

I have often felt the presence of my dead. If the TV turns on when I’m in the other room, I say, “If you’re trying to give me a message, be a little clearer.” There has often been energy around me, I’ve often felt protected and blessed. And the only way I can explain this is that my dead people are looking out for me — and I have so many dead people.

I’m exploring the difference between absence and loss. My parents’ deaths were a loss, but not having grandparents, not having an ancestral land to go to — this is an absence, a vacuum. I felt born out of a void. After my parents died, I craved absence — that I hadn’t been born, not that I wanted to kill myself. And when I started writing, I was trying to fill absence. I didn’t have normal stories around the kitchen table, stories about family. I had this huge void about what happened “Before” and “Over There,” and without these stories, I didn’t feel human. Even as a kid, I would say, “You shouldn’t have had me. I wish I wasn’t born. I wish I wasn’t born.” Writing, for me, fills in the absences.

What does it feel like to experience your book as a physical object? To have it in your hands, to see it on the shelf.

Most chapbooks are stapled because they are too thin to have a spine. But my book has a “perfect spine” — that’s a technical term. On the spine it says, The Last of My Village. The title is for my Aunt Julie, the last of that generation to die, and she lived in Greenwich Village.

I’m proud to be a part of many people’s villages. I live in a limited equity co-op with activists. We’re from Lebanon, Colombia, Iran. Half of us are African-American. A diverse group, and we’re all working class, which means keeping it real; we have to work. It’s a small version of how I lived as a kid. A spine supports you. That’s what I see on the book’s spine.

I will write about my mother’s suicide again when I’m 60, when I’m 70… . But a physical book feels like something is finished. It feels like a reconciliation. It’s allowed to rest. It’s like Shabbat. Resting, but also — what’s going to be next?

I’m in a wonderful, wonderful place. 

Dislocation by Yael Flusberg 

There’s no one alive who remembers my nervous laughter
at my 10th birthday party when Mom repeated lines
like lyrics on a scratched disc, her first weekend home
from the hospital where they tried to shock her memories away.

I dislocated myself to rid New York from my speech,
forfeit the sing-song of my mother — this is a nice cake, no?
a foreign tongue in a familiar mouth. I distanced myself from
survivors accented by Galicia or goulash-breath who’d tell me

how lucky I was to be born, urge me to study hard or marry
well, learn to keep a good home, and I’d start to suffocate,
each of New York’s eight million fast asleep on top of me.
I gave up being small among skyscrapers, walking for hours

surrounded, anonymous. I abandoned being an adult
in the city where I had been a child. They’re all gone now,
the ones who’d tuck me in with stories about the scent
of burning flesh, grey smoke rising in factories

that I pictured like the pasteurization plant I could see
from my bedroom window. There’s no reason
to return to the city where I thought I was born to lambs
strolling to the slaughterhouse and discovered I was the one
                  who couldn’t run fast enough.

Tu B’Shvat  by Yael Flusberg

This full moon of nuts and fruits
comes closer to the Chinese New Year
than the vernal equinox, birthing wood from water.

I bless the Tree of Knowledge, of Life
for circulating nutrients that help
leaves bear fruits of the seven species.
I wrench nothing, slaughter only
dark energy built up over cold long nights
spent in bed without You.

Wheat, for bread is enough to beget friends
Barley, for a crown like Samuel or Sampson’s
Figs of truth from the primordial tree
Pomegranate drippings like a scarlet letter
Olives of the salt-craving satisfaction
Dates, divinely sweet sex.

We’ll partake of the grapevine —
the red of blood, the white of semen —
fertilizing Earth with our drunkenness.

Waiting Outside the U.S. Capitol Where She Lies in State, Eve of All Souls by Yael Flusberg
The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.– Rosa Parks

after the first three hours
the temperature dropped to visible breath.
my fall coat no longer protected and my toes
went numb so i tried to transcend time
by thumbing a rose quartz bracelet
each bead proof of my will to persist,
my mother always said standing appels
for hours was a sentence of death
for the weak.

in the muddy field where thousands of souls made solitary
by the cold snaked around a makeshift fence,
i found a handful of warmth, a single ruby glove.

i practiced standing meditation following the ringing
in my ears to keep my mind from wondering why
i was on this line, not in my down-covered bed
when i’d see the coffin just as well in the newspaper
in the morning. each time i lifted my sole i knew
i was one step closer to the dome with 108 windows
like a rosary i could pray with my eyes.

it was dawn when i finally circulated once around
the ceremonial space then down to the crypt below
where i begged that her being where she was
would bless where she was laying — and all of us
who’ll never have moments like hers on the bus
will still find something worth standing up for.