Tag : poetry

November 5, 2019 by

Poetry: Greetings from Treblinka

He stood there, waiting for
the
104 bus.
An old man with a cane
wearing a shabby black coat
and carrying an umbrella
even though the sidewalk
sparkled with sun.
Just another old man
on the Upper West Side.
But she recognized
the zigzag scar
that ran down like
a lightning bolt
from his right cheek
the small hands with
the stubby fingers
that still could do
such horrendous acts,
She could never forget those hands
Squeezing her in a death grip
for the soldiers.

“Jewish vermin,”
He had called all of them.
Her grandmother.
Her aunt.
Her mother.
Her sister.
She was only seven.
But taught never to forget.

Memory is like a dying plant
that with just a little water
flourishes.

He tapped his umbrella
impatiently,
The bus was late.

She had a knife in her bag
Always. Even though
her husband
told her she was safe
In America.

She opened the clasp
felt the sharpness of the blade.
So easy to plunge
into the old man’s heart
and say
Greetings from Treblinka.

The bus groaned to the stop.
She moved quickly
and stood behind him
Smelling his sour stale
old man scent
like milk gone bad
Such an old man now.
His hand trembling as he
reached
into his pocket.

Now,
she said
in her own language.
But now passed too quickly.
The old man was an old man
Shuffling toward the unfold-
ing bus door.
The sun filled her eyes.
And just maybe
maybe
he was the wrong
man.

 

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 3.53.08 PM

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

November 5, 2019 by

What Use Is Poetry in a Ravaged World?

WhatUseIsPoetryWhat Use Is Poetry, The Poet Is Asking (Shearsman Books, $17) is both the title and the opening line of the latest collection from Rachel Tzvia Back, a slim volume of protest poetry written from the perspective of “the mother who sent her son to war, didn’t / Stop her son from going to war,” and “Was found to be / Guilty.” An American poet, scholar and translator, Back lives in Israel, where, as we learn in this collection’s opening poem,

in lieu of truth, expert and
ex-general of the demarcated
worlds, barbed-wire words

hurled across the room, the anchor
confidently moored with her earnest nod-nodding of head

stating stately readiness
for next round of certain warfare
around the news table.

In addition to four earlier collections of her own poetry, Back has translated the works of major Hebrew poets into English, among them Lea Goldberg, Tuvia Ruebner and Hamutal Bar Yosef. She also translated into English the anthology With An Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry, published in 2009.

If Israel looms large in Back’s work, her poetry engages with issues of broader concern and her political commitments, while shaped by her experiences in Israel, extend far beyond its borders. “There should be nothing/left in the world/after his little body/ on the beach,” writes Back in a poem dedicated to the memory of Alan and Ghalib Kurdi, the Syrian refugee brothers whose tragic deaths in 2015 made news when a photographer captured Alan’s two-year-old body lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. The image of the tiny corpse was seared into our collective consciousness, and drew attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. Back’s poem takes on added urgency in light of a more recent image, this one shot at the U.S.- Mexico border, where a Salvadoran father and his two-year-old daughter drowned while seeking asylum in the United States. The image of the two, their bodies lying face down at the edge of the water, their arms eternally linked, sent shockwaves once more.

This poem, like many others in this collection, reflects on what it means to go on living in a world ravaged by poverty and violence, a world in which children’s corpses are washed ashore, or “Lost to the serious sea.” Later in the same poem Back writes, “If pain made a sound / the world would be/ a steady hum/ all the time.” But if pain is silent, Back’s poetry makes itself heard, filling in the aching void with its own sorrowful music.

In the cycle “Summer Variations,” Back reflects on how, in a country consumed by war, there is little variation: “Slowly summer will / scalding pass, autumn will / arrive unnoticed.” To write poetry in this political landscape is to be conscious, always, of the incommensurability of poetry to offer any resolution to the pressing issues of our time, as Back’s title makes clear. And yet, as these poems remind us, poetry’s worth lies not in its purported usefulness, but in the fact that it exists at all, that it persists, despite everything, much like life itself.

Shoshana Olidort is a writer and translator completing a Ph.D. at Stanford on Jewish women’s poetry. Her work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review and the Jewish Review of Books.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

November 5, 2019 by

A Woman of Valor Who’s Single

Edreifus birthrightrika Dreifus is a generous soul on the overlapping writerly and Jewish internet. Her monthly e-newletter, “The Practicing Writer,” and its weekly supplements provide valuable resources for writers. On Fridays, she also publishes a roundup of Jewish literary news in her Machberet (Hebrew for notebook) blog.

One of the delights of these sources is that Dreifus shares her own writing process, including rejections and successes. Like her 2011 short story collection Quiet Americans, Birthright, her new collection of poetry (Kelsay Books, $17), is one of those successes. These accessible meditations on being a Jewish woman, a Zionist, a critical consumer of social media, and a witness to violence committed and averted reflect a soul dedicated to repairing the world with smarts, spirit, sincerity, and a bit of snark.

With any such gathering of poems, there are those that you move through quickly and those that speak to you with an intensity that causes you to linger and to reread. For me, “A Single Woman of Valor,” a revisioning of Proverbs 31, falls into the latter category. Here—and elsewhere— Dreifus uses Jewish textual traditions to champion the diversity of Jewish women’s lives and to value those who, by choice or circumstance, are not wives and mothers.

Being such a champion of self and others comes “After years of self-doubt, and therapy” and with the sometimes sad recognition that her mortality will represent, as she puts it in the title of another poem, “The End of the Lines.” Yet, in “This Woman’s Prayer,” she clearly and explicitly affirms her own divine self-worth with the words, “Blessed be the One/who made me me.”

Just as Dreifus values her own unique being made in the image of God, so does she employ a midrashic impulse to revalue and reas- Everyone wants to be loved; everyone wants someone to love; obvious, and bland and thrilling and eternal. Championing the diversity of Jewish women’s lives and valuing those who, by choice or circumstance, are not wives and mothers. sess those Biblical foremothers who have found themselves on the margin of tradition. In “The Book of Vashti,” Dreifus powerfully gives voice to Esther’s predecessor: “I was cast out/the royal stage cleared for another/whose name would live on in light/while mine receded./ Until now.” And in “The Price of Lilith’s Freedom,” she imagines the namesake of this magazine embracing her “liberation from . . . unequal coupling” and asserting that, despite the “pain, loss, grief,” she would “take that deal again.”

In a series of Israel poems that includes “The O-Word,” “Questions for the Critics,” and “Pharaoh’s Daughter Addresses Linda Sarsour,” Dreifus poetically exposes double standards when it comes to discussing the Occupation, the death drive that seems to animate disproportionate criticism of Israel, and a tweet by a leader of the Women’s March that declared Zionism “creepy.” The awareness in “The Smell of Infection” that social media can sometimes be likened to a tooth needing root canal leads to “Sabbath Rest 2.0,” which entails keeping the “Sabbath free from Facebook and Twitter.”

Birthright ultimately reminds us that we are an amalgam of still-relevant old stories as well as new technologies. Dreifus’ poetry is a worthy read, as is her Twitter feed.

Helene Meyers is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

The Lilith Blog

August 20, 2019 by

Talking Back to The Red Tent in the #MeToo Era

I assign Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent in my Women in the Hebrew Bible course because it helps students learn about the concept of midrash and highlights just how little the biblical text itself centers women’s experiences and relationships. Plus, it’s a fun read! But times have changed in the 22 years since Diamant reimagined the tale of Dinah’s rape (or perhaps, since Biblical Hebrew lacks a word for rape, her “sexual humbling”) in Genesis 34 as a love story. Our societal understanding of rape, rape culture, and consent has evolved, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement calling powerful men to account for sexual harassment and sexual assault. Thus, when I ask students to respond in writing to The Red Tent, one question is, “Is Diamant’s midrash a feminist one? Can the redefinition of (possible) sexual assault as consensual sex be a feminist enterprise?”(Consider the following from Diamant’s website: ‘I could never reconcile the story of Genesis 34 with a rape, because the prince does not behave like a rapist. After the prince is said to have ‘forced’ her (a determination made by her brothers, not by Dinah), he falls in love with her, asks his father to get Jacob’s permission to marry her, and then agrees to the extraordinary demand that he and all the men of his community submit to circumcision.’) Students may respond to their chosen questions in essay format or in another medium, such as poetry or visual art.

When I taught the course in Fall 2018, two students coincidentally chose to write poems addressed to Diamant from Dinah. I was struck by how different their viewpoints were. One student, Muktha Nair, referenced class discussions about whether we can consider what happened to Dinah “rape.” That debate will never be resolved, Nair suggested. In a note accompanying her poem, she wrote, “Would a little girl want her name to be limited to the debates under literary scrutiny among biblical scholars and the clergy? Wouldn’t she much prefer to flourish and become immortal through folktales and mystical stories of being the knowing woman, the skilled midwife, a lover?… And that’s where I concluded that Diamant wasn’t doing a disservice to Dinah! By giving her a form, thoughts, a voice, a life, Diamant is ensuring that Dinah’s name lives through the eras to come. All we can give to Dinah is a lasting place in the thoughts of humanity—not as an object of debate, but as a Woman.” In her poem, Nair, writing as Dinah, thanks Diamant for giving her new life.

The other student, Sara Milic, wrote a poem comparing Diamant’s treatment of Dinah to a second rape. In the note accompanying her poem, Milic wrote, “This poem gives Dinah the opportunity to finally speak and to tell the truth herself. This also gives Dinah the opportunity to address how she might possibly feel about Diamant changing her story of rape into one of love. I felt a poem would be able to match the drama of the actual situation both in Dinah’s rape and in Diamant’s silencing of Dinah’s rape. I’m paralleling Dinah’s rape to Diamant silencing her by making similarities in both attacks (foreign prince, covering mouth, silencing, etc).” Milic’s poem has Diamant taking from Dinah what isn’t hers: Dinah’s story.

When I read these two poems, one right after the other, I immediately thought of seeking to publish them in Lilith. These two college students struggling with questions of sexual assault and female agency in a 2,500-year-old text and a 1990s bestseller have produced powerful poetry.

Caryn Tamber-Rosenau is instructional assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Houston. She is the author of Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (Gorgias Press, 2018). She is a former Lilith intern.

_____________________________________________________________________________ 

By Muktha Nair

To my daughter

Through whose words,

my soul lives on.

Some say I was raped,

But the world is yet to know the truth,

One that cannot be avenged, in my name.

But you, my Anita,

You have given me voice.

No longer just a forgotten name

Among words,

Written by men who know not.

You, as a fellow woman,

Have fulfilled the secret womanly vow,

By ensuring utterance of my name

giving a life to my name,

Thoughts to my name,

A voice to my name.

Giving me a place in the hearts of all;

Realizing the debacles of debates

Only wither away at the little felicity

Left for me.

Now my name

will be remembered,

In love,

In pain,

At birth

At death.

Not as a cursed whore;

But as a knowing Woman.

 

 

A Note to Anita by Sara Milic

I am being stripped of my story

You’re covering my mouth

I can’t breathe, I’m panicking

You were supposed to be the knight on the white horse,

The foreign prince coming to save me

You tricked me with your stories of sweet bread

And nights of cuddling in the tent

I trusted you, my sister, to let my soul go free

To unleash me from this burden I’ve been carrying

To tell my truth, to expose my aggressor

Anita, I’m crying – can’t you hear me?

Tell them he raped me, Anita

Are you listening?

You changed my story

I know it’s hard to read

My sister, I wish I could forget it

You’ve taken from me, just as he did,

My voice and my sense of self

Will there ever be justice for me,

Or for the sisters before me?

Will the sisters after me be believed?

Anita, will you be the savior of the silenced?

Or will you lay your hand over their mouth,

And take from them what isn’t yours to keep?

Don’t tell them he loved me,

Don’t lie and say I loved him

Please, don’t tell them I was happy

When will my rape end?

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

The Lilith Blog

July 15, 2019 by

Belladonna Founder Rachel Levitsky on Poetry, Politics, and What Comes Next

Rachel Levitsky calls herself a “lesbian, commie, poet, and polemicist who makes things.” And she does: Levitsky has written three full-length books and nine chapbooks herself, teaches undergraduates, and is the founder of the Belladonna Collaborative, a 20-year-old feminist avant-garde literary salon and publisher of experimental, multi-gendered, and linguistically bold titles.

Among Belladonna’s releases are award-winning texts from writers including LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (Whiting Award) and Beth Murray, whose posthumous book of poems, Cancer Angel, won the 2016 California Book Award. Levitsky sat down with Eleanor J. Bader in Belladonna’s office.

Eleanor J. Bader: Have you always been a poet?

Rachel Levitsky: When I was a child my dad told me not to be a poet. Writing poetry was not an occupation in the Levitsky consciousness. I did not come out as a poet until 1994.

LevitskyEJB: Do you know why your father had this attitude?

RL: My parents seemed to value invisibility. My mother had been born in Germany and came to the US as a toddler in December 1939. Her uncle survived Auschwitz, but no one in my family was willing to talk about any of this and I always wanted to know more.

EJB: Is this why you became interested in history?

RL: Maybe. I was a history major as an undergraduate at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany and got a Master’s in American Social History. My focus was labor. My thesis looked at the way the cigar industry in Binghamton, NY became segregated by gender.

EJB: But you chose to pursue activism.

RL: I wasn’t interested in pursuing further academic study in History. I plunged into activism in New York City, joining ACT-UP and WHAM!—Women’s Health Action and Mobilization.

My job at the time was with the Home Program of the Bond Street Homeless Center run by Catholic Charities. Every night, five of us would load into a van and drive around Brooklyn trying to convince mentally-ill, chemically-addicted people to come to the Center’s drop-in program.

I did this work in 1991 and 1992, until I got a job teaching adult basic education classes for the Consortium of Worker Education (CWE), an educational organization that serves union members. In 1993-94 I taught English in Mexico. When I came back to the US, I returned to the CWE and eventually got a full-time job running an English as a Second Language program at the Painters and Finishers Apprenticeship program in Long Island City.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

July 9, 2019 by

Run to Them: A Poem by Desiree O’Clair

I ran so fast,

I couldn’t look over my shoulder. I ran so fast,
I didn’t feel my legs.
I ran so fast,

the child clinging to my hip thought we, like birds, were flying.
I ran so fast I out-ran my fear.

When we reached the sea,
I just kept running.
We were running for our lives,
with nothing more than what we could carry on our backs. We left our homes, our community, everything we knew. Always the stranger.

That was long ago,
but you must not forget.
When you see the refugee
washed ashore on rafts through waters that did not part, Remember me, your ancestor, a slave.
Remember the people of your tribe.
When you see the refugee children,
hungry for the mothers and fathers who did not survive, looking to the sky for manna that does not fall, Remember where you came from.
The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand,
by an outstretched arm.
When you see the refugee today, remember this.
They are the strangers, and you are free.
The hands of free people are mighty
And yours are the outstretched arms.
Run to them.

-Desiree O’Clair 


Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments:

This poem begins as a midrash on Exodus, bringing to vivid life what it was for a Hebrew woman escaping slavery to run for her life.

We are then asked to imagine what it is like for today’s refugees, people lacking miracles to save them. No sea parted by a divine hand—and many, we know, drown. No manna from heaven—and many are hungry. We are reminded, at the poem’s ending, that the divine “mighty hand” and “outstretched arm” are ours. The imperative to us as free people who were once slaves, is not to walk away from today’s desperate refugees, not to look away; “Run to them.”

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

April 2, 2019 by

Poetry: Brisket Wars

The oven preheats to 325. Mama prepares the brisket.

In the warming kitchen, she follows her recipe for the meat

as her mother and grandmother had, tenderly

placing the slab in a roasting pan, pointed-fat

side up, sprinkled with onions, salt, garlic; bloody-

flat side down, hiding the family’s rough-cut

 

history. Mama proclaims the piece is prime, first cut.

She buys from Irv the butcher. His koshered brisket

promises a sacred knowledge. He throws a bloody

extra chunk into our package already leaking from juicy meat.

He winks at me, thick arms hovering, fat

cheeks quivering, and hands our purchase over tenderly.

 

At the Formica table, I smooth Doris Day paper dolls tenderly.

Bad luck to tear thin skin. Along dotted lines I cut

evening gowns for figures that never fatten.

Mama brags to her two sisters that she makes Cleveland’s best brisket.

I prod stringy strands, forklift a bite of gristly meat,

chew hard until I can swallow without gagging on the bloody

 

legacy. Mama and her sisters escape Poland, its bloody

pogroms in 1938. Batya, the elder, uses bone broth to tenderize,

and horseradish to spice up her beef. On Shabbos she meets

Mama and me for cake and coffee. At 13, Batya cuts

out patterns 8 hours a day for a seamstress. Batya advises brisket

should be choice, not lean; do not trim the saddle of fat.

 

That layer makes the dish delish. My tongue’s slick with fat.

Mama whispers her papa beats Batya bloody

when she refuses to hand over her wages. They only eat brisket

on Passover. He gambles the money away even when Batya tenders

her living. Doroshke, the younger sister, doesn’t cut

her schooling short. She’s his pretty favorite. But her meat’s

 

dry, tasteless, tough. Mama and Batya for once agree. Meetings

over. Done. All gone. No leftover recipes for how to cleave a fatted

calf or breed a better beast. I move far, order take-out, and try to cut

the cord clean, but can’t staunch the bleeding.

No recipe to dress wounds that remain so tender.

Mama worries who’ll marry me if I can’t make a decent brisket.

 

You can’t overcook brisket. Stick it in the oven and the meat cooks itself.

Men like a little fat to grab hold of as long as it’s tender. Learn to make

the bloody recipe. Be generous. Brisket’s a forgiving cut, a very

                 forgiving cut. 

 

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Part of what charms me about this poem is that it is a sestina, a complex form: six stanzas of six lines plus a final triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line-ends in six different sequences that follow a fixed pattern, and with all six words appearing in the closing three-line envoi. You get special points for end-words that have double meanings. Sestinas are hard to write but easy once you get the hang of them—just like cooking a good brisket. Originally used for refined topics such as romantic love, a sestina can be used even for the nourishing tragicomedy of multigenerational Jewish family life. So the poem uses a recipe, and is itself a recipe—for celebrating survival. The details, of course, are what make it so delicious.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

January 10, 2019 by

Poetry: “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You”

“The Auschwitz Album is the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to the mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau.” — www.yadvashem.org

He looked like a man I could have spent my time with. Relatable, handsome even. Dapper and tall with pants a little too loose on his lean frame. A good Jewish boy. I could have brought him home to my mother except he’s in black and white. Except he happened 70 some odd years ago. Waiting patiently to approach the commander on a small platform. Second in the endless line of men with brimmed hats settled politely against their sides. From here I want to scream out his name but I don’t know it. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring. From here I’ve decided to claim this man as my good Jewish boy. Absorbed in his lips twisted to one side. He’s smirking. He’s beautiful and smirking while he’s waiting in line with the thousands of men of all shapes and sizes in their best rumpled winter attire. I think it’s summer. My good Jewish boy. Except following the rules will kill you. He’s beautiful and he’s next up and looks like he’s already cleared his throat. Ready to reason with the commander. Understand what this procession is all about. That the train ride was days of hell. And the last few years leading up to it were like treading water. Except following the rules will kill you. I’m staring and I can’t stop. Except he’s in black and white and I can’t reach back to tell him. I’m staring and my skin is prickling sour and I can’t stop. Body clenching. Pain sharpening through my bones. Heart throbbing in a thick monotonous rage. My Jewish boy. I don’t even have his permission to claim him. He has no idea. They have no idea. From here I can’t stop what’s already happened. 70 some odd years later. How could anyone believe it to be true. Except following the rules will kill you. My Jewish boy. My people hold shame like wine overflowing through cupped hands, like blood hemorrhaging without a way to stop the bleeding. He has no idea. They have no idea. Except following the rules will kill you. From here I see there are so many more of them, than them. From here I see the giant pits of fire and limbs and babies and ash. From here I’m dying to tell them to break their ranks and take over even if the result is still the same. Fight back I scream with the bluntness of the back of my throat. Even if the result is still the same. From here I know he’s dying. They are all dying and they have no idea. My Jewish boy. Except all that’s left of him is this photograph from Yad Vashem’s website called “Auschwitz album.” Except I will never know his name, their names. People who were here that were matter with alive bodies, blood running through them. Except the worst thing about the past is that it is still here and following the rules will kill you.

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments: Reading Gabriella Theisen-Jacobowitzr’s prose poem “Except Following the Rules Will Kill You” was for me a stunning experience, in which a woman’s voice very like my own seems just short of crack-up. Irrationality—illogic—rules this poem, beginning with its title, which becomes its obsessive refrain. What can “except” mean? If the fragment of a sentence were a full sentence, would it say “A civilized person should obey custom, should respect how things are done, should follow the rules, except following the rules will kill you?” What are we looking at? The behavior of the man in the photo who is like a good Jewish boy ready to argue rationally with the Nazi officer? The speaker’s own irrational response to a man dead seventy years as if she could take him home? Or her horror that “he has no idea. They have no idea” as if the horror were still going on? The speaker’s awareness does not lessen her anguished helplessness—or mine, or yours.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •  

October 3, 2018 by

Poetry: Ten Metaphors for Light

TEN METAPHORS FOR LIGHT

by AISHA DOWN

i.

God in you

talking love

to the God

in another place

in you

ii.

The God that beats in sky and sun

is it in all things

speaking in hot rays through your skin

to you.

iii.

Skin that shines on all things: apples, men at work,

great boats on howling seas—

unknowable beneath their light-skins

as the bodies of strangers,

the shadows inside of faces.

iv.

Honey

hot beneath the tongues of sky.

v.

Water in the morning

to rinse sky and hands and you:

great waves from the clean sun.

vi.

Feathers riding skyward on backs of birds.

A white owl at flickering distance

watching the years of night.

vii.

Faith

burnt as the dust

that surged

all those eternal miles

about the ankles.

vii.

A soul, because it cannot be photographed

or measured,

or caught alone.

ix.

A throat

for it lies above the heart. 

x.

Blood, for it moves

relentlessly—

with no sound through

these cells of days.

Lilith poetry editor, Alicia Ostriker — just appointed New York State Poet: “Ten Metaphors For Light” fascinates and ravishes and teases, all at the same time. How can so many things all be metaphors for light, which is itself a metaphor for so many things? Imagination rules this poem. But a thread of sensual joy unites these images, along with a sense of play, and of the abundance of the universe which began, we are told, with “Let there be light.”

Continue Reading

Tags: ,

  • No Comments
  •  

April 12, 2018 by

The Lives of Sarah

My cousin turned to salt when Sodom fell.
I taste it still, as though my lips are pressed
forever to her own. I’ll spend the rest
of time remembering her name. To hell
with tears! I haven’t cried since Ishmael
was born. God hears!—but not my prayers, I guess.
Besides, I’m dried up now: dry eyes, dry breasts,
dry womb. My husband says it’s just as well.

I won’t say “Abraham.” I call him “dear,”
since Abram was the man I used to know.
He hears God’s word, but I speak too. That’s half
as good, I think. But all I do is laugh
when guests suggest I’m pregnant even though
we haven’t touched each other in a year.

Leah Schwartz is a poet living outside of Philadelphia.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments
  •