Tag : poetry

October 23, 2020 by

Poem: My Grandmother’s Dishes

My Grandmother’s Dishes

 

are shaped like kidneys.
I don’t know why
they have been boxed up

in my musty basement
for the past seven years
useless and forgotten

like my grandmother at the end
tucked away in the dreaded
nursing home. God’s waiting

room, she called it, patting
my hand as if I were the one
in need of comfort.

“It takes a long time
to die, Mameleh,” she said,
and she was right

it took her more than 99
years. But she is not gone
exactly. I inherited

her flat feet, her widow’s
peak, her heart-shaped
locket complete

with a photo of my dashing
grandpa whom I never met
but was named for

and her kidney-shaped dish
set the color of Coney
Island’s cold wet sand.

I dreamed of them last night
smooth and heavy in my hand
like they are this morning

when I set the table with them,
and suddenly I am sitting
in the one-tuchus kitchen

of my grandmother’s fifth floor
walk-up. I can feel the yellow
vinyl seat of the chair

that always stuck to the back
of my thighs, I can hear
the honk and screech

of the Brooklyn traffic down
below, I can see my grandmother
in her rolled-down stockings

wearing her flowered apron
over her flowered housecoat,
her back to me as she stirs

something on the stove
that smells like the world
to come. But as she always

said, “Enough is enough.”
It’s time to give these dishes
to someone who could use them,

it’s what she would want,
right? Wrong, says my dead mother
whose voice is never far

from my ear. If you don’t
have to feed them and they aren’t
hurting anybody, leave them

alone. Which is what she did
and which is why I have
the dishes that sat in her basement

for twenty-five years
now sitting in mine
which makes me wonder

where they will sit 
after this daughterless
daughter is gone

Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments:

“My Grandma’s Dishes” is humorous and elegiac at the same time. Her affectionate tenderness for her grandmother and mother rises like cream to the surface of this poem,
partly by quoting them, partly by gesture. Grandmother “patting my hand” is irresistible, and so is the “one-tuchus” kitchen, and the smell of her cooking “like the world to come,” which gently reminds us that the grandmother is now herself in that world.

But what charms me most is the description of the dishes themselves, not only “shaped like kidneys” but also “the color of Coney Island’s cold wet sand.” It takes a truly gifted poet to come up with that image.

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August 10, 2020 by

Countering Isolation with Poetry

Over the last few months, I have found myself attending fewer and fewer of the Zoom live-streamed events that keep popping up on my Facebook page. What at first seemed like an exciting way to connect to new and old faces in the age of social distancing has started to feel like more of a chore, a less-than-pleasant activity to be avoided whenever possible. Time and time again, I exit these Zoom events feeling even more isolated than before.

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“Poetry in Times of Peril,” presented by Hebrew College-Interfaith Youth Core PsalmSeason project, with co-sponsors Jewish Women’s Archive and Lilith magazine, could have added to that feeling of isolation. Instead, it addressed those feelings of isolation head-on, and as a result, actually left me feeling more connected to the rest of the world.

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July 27, 2020 by

Poem: “Playing Scrabble With God”

Last Thursday

God and I were playing Scrabble

eating peanut brittle and listening to Joni Mitchell.

I used all my letters

w-h-i-s-t-l-e-s

and I saw a side of God

I’d never seen before.

First he insisted that whistles has no ‘h’

which is utter bullshit.

Then he started to pout

complaining all his letters were vowels.

And in a flurry of frustrated gestures

He “accidentally” knocked the board over

with such force that tiles flew

to the four corners of the room.

 

“Oh please” I said. “It’s just a game of Scrabble.”

And that’s when I saw his eyes fill.

“What is it, God? Why are you upset?”

 

“I’m losing my ability to spell,” he said.

“The letters are confusing and I’m not even sure

what some of them are.”

 

I went limp. If God couldn’t recognize letters

what else was out of his grasp.

 

And then God asked me to shepherd him down the stairs.

 

“But you are supposed to guide me,” I said.

“Things change,” he sighed.

 

Poetry editor Alicia Ostriker comments:

This is almost two poems in one. At first it seems to belong to a common genre of Jewish writing where we playfully (or not so playfully) question God. Jews have been doing this since the Book of Job. Gradually we realize that the “God” here is probably the speaker’s father or grandfather—a figure both of authority and comfort, who now is, in the popular phrase, “losing it”—Losing not only at Scrabble, but becoming mentally and physically frail. How do we cope when this happens to those we love? And can we cope if the Jewish God, too, is losing his grasp—his grasp even of his own scripture? Suddenly a domestic anecdote becomes metaphysical, and a game is more than a game.

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May 12, 2020 by

Poetry: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Life Before The Virus

I.

I remember shaking hands:

damp sweaty hands and dry scratchy hands,

bone-crushing handshakes and dead-fish handshakes,

two-handed handshakes, my hand sandwiched 

between a pair of big beefy palms.

I remember hairy hands and freckled hands,

young smooth hands and old wrinkled hands,

red-polished fingernails and bitten-jagged fingernails,

stained hands of hairdressers who had spent all day dyeing,

dirty hands of gardeners who dug down deep into the good earth.

 

II.

Thousands of years ago, a man stuck out his right hand

to show a stranger he had no weapon.

The stranger took his hand and shook it

to make sure he had nothing up his sleeve.

And that is how it began.

 

III

I remember sharing a bucket

of greasy popcorn with a boy

at the movies

(though I no longer remember

the boy or the movie)

the thrill of our hands

accidentally on purpose

brushing each other in the dark.

 

IV

I remember my best girlfriend 

and me facing each other to play

a hand-clapping game, shrieking

“Miss Mar…Mack! Mack! Mack!”

and the loud satisfying smack!

as our four palms slapped. 

 

V.

I remember high fives

and how we’d laugh when we missed

and then do a do-over.

 

VI.

I remember the elegant turn

of shiny brass doorknobs

cool to the touch.

 

VII.

I remember my mother’s hands

tied to the railings of her hospital bed

and how I untied them

when the nurse wasn’t looking

and held them in my lap.

 

VIII.

I remember holding my father’s hand

how the big college ring he wore

rubbed against my birthstone ring

and irritated my fourth finger

but I never pulled away.

 

IX.

I remember the joy of offering

my index finger to a new baby

who wrapped it in her fist

as we gazed at each other in wonder. 

 

X.

I remember tapping a stranger

on the shoulder and saying,

“Your tag is showing.

Do you mind if I tuck it in?”

She didn’t mind. I tucked it in.

 

XI.

I remember salad bars and hot bars.

I remember saying, “Want a bite?”

and offering a forkful

of food from my plate.

I remember asking, “Can I have a sip?”

and placing my lips

on the edge of your cold frosty glass.

 

XII. 

I remember passing around the kiddush cup,

each of us taking a small sip of wine.

I remember passing around the challah,

each of us ripping off a big yeasty hunk.

I remember picking up a serving spoon

someone had just put down

without giving it a second thought.

XIII.

I remember sitting with a mourner

at a funeral, not saying a word,

simply taking her hand.

 

–Lesléa Newman

Copyright © 2020 by Lesléa Newman. First appeared in New Verse News. Used by permission of the author.

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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.

 

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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.

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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 reassess 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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