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A letter.

Dear Laura,

Despite being heart broken and (let’s face it –lazy), I have left my apartment and walked in the wet December weather to a small espresso bar on the other side of town. I owe thanks to you for this, the impetus to quiet everything else for the sake of poetry. The air felt good, had its own magic like a spell against self-indulgence. As I walked, I thought about our first class together –the way that you asked so easily and in (what I might call) earnest: What is it that has made us do this for so long? This ancient art –just symbols on a page to signify …what? I don’t know if I answered you then, but I have been thinking about your question ever since.

Of course, there is no universal answer, no one thing that can make any heart beat faster (except danger I guess, so lets call this danger). I have been watching the other poets, their written work and gestures, the way they do or do not love a choice of word. It is not impossible for anyone to craft a perfect sentence with precision, to place a line break just so. But, is that all that we are after? A water-colorist rendering a peony with grace and just the right amount of shadow –of untouched white?

It seems to me this old alchemy, this art of incantation, can only work for those who know how dangerous a spell can be to the spell-maker and cast it anyway. One would in essence, risk something of themselves each time. Perhaps you are thinking, now, what about the small things, the poems that tear off and become mementos or wedding toasts? Well, what of them? They fit into the palm of your hand and slip easily through the fingers. Or, they help you tie your shoes and learn the alphabet. (Which are important skills, in context.)
What a poem needs is a hook, a dangerous one. I am thinking now of Atwood’s “You Fit Into Me”: You fit into me/ like a hook into an eye/ a fish hook/ an open eye. And also, with less literal hook, June Jordan’s “Poem Number Two on Bell’s Theorem, or the New Physicality of Long Distance Love”: There is no chance that we will fall apart/ There is no chance/ There are no parts. Such short poems, such large hooks. Hooks, bear with me, that point toward the reader and curve back sharply at the self.

Must a poem invoke love to have power? Must a spell come from suffering? Sadness? No. I’d like to believe magic is more flexible. That it does not only cling to the nights alone without stars. Words have greater power the truer they are, this I can say with certainty. Is there truth in beauty? Yes, but it is compromised, like love and faith and anything else one can bet their whole lives on. So it is the illumination of compromise that rings true, not the fact of beauty. These are the poems that make Poets.

Look again at Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” The minute detail of daily life which begs for reverence: “There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb./ He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,/ from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,/ the blade of which is almost worn away.” The repetition of a sentence and a mood, like mixing more of the perfect shade before returning: “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear.” Absolutely, Bishop does not fuck around. She wants to tell us something about Knowledge and she wants us to earn it. Holding our hands down in the icy water until they ache and then burn, she shows us what it means –this act of learning. Finally, the spell is cast and when she writes “If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,/ then briny, then surely burn your tongue,” we believe her. Worm-laden in the turbid water and waiting for our mouths, the hook: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, /drawn from the cold hard mouth.” How could the ocean not be dangerous? How could we have not known, before, what she makes so clear?

I mentioned I was heart-broken, well, what else is new? I’ve been reading the same Mary Oliver lines for years like I believe them. Any poet, no matter how strong, could turn away from the animal inside a poem in favor of the compromised. Poem animals have been alone too long and they are dangerous. Not like women who carry paring knives with mother-of-pearl handles in their clutches, but like women who know how to use their hands and have nothing else to lose. Those animals belong to another world; they know why we do this, they call to me.

See You in The Forest, Gala

On Being From Away

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Detroit At a coffee shop, someone leans over asks where I’m from. He needs to know, he’s got a nose for people who don’t belong.  Russia, New York, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, not everyone wants you to be specific. Russia sparks confusion, I pass too easily in a liberal setting: a curvy dyke with 70’s flair and without a trace of accent. I was five, I say, and the querent looks satisfied. New York raises an eyebrow –an episode of Friends or Gossip Girl is cued up. From Coney Island, an oh and a head tilted to the side: is it gone? I always meant to go (as if Coney Island isn’t a sticky, sweltering, amusement park with rickety log rides running on spit). They’ve really done up the place, I say, meaning some kids from Ohio with American Apparel shorts and straw hats came around and gussied up a wall or two (not that I’m complaining, go on and gussy). Brighton Beach, well, now it all comes together —a Jew, right? Of course.

Here is where things start to get tricky. On an easy day, I say Yea, a Jew in little Odessa by the Sea, it’s a memoir in three parts with a prelude. In the movie version, I have the signature scarf bundled around my snowy face as I eat semi sour pickles walking down the street. The pickle juice never drips down my hand. OR I am wearing an out of season Armani dress, my hair bleached blonde, dating a guy so he can give me rides to the nail salon in his Maserati. I’m modern, I carry a matroshka-printed purse with smaller matroshka purse inside.  There is nothing else inside each purse, I take my pleasures out on credit. Maybe this is getting too heady, maybe he already knows I am not one of those. Maybe he knows there’s a part of me that’s jealous of them. Bless those women who know how to play their part and bend easily into the long Russian braid. Bless me for resisting. With no surprise, a blessing can come easier than happiness for those of us who were trained to wear heels before we rode our first bike.

And belonging? Yes, something about place, about sitting in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor Michigan, talking to this man while a city opens and closes around me table to table. Another man three feet to the right of me periodically lapses into Russian on his cell phone. Where else would the world place him but by me to remind me of life’s patterns? As if to answer my spiritual concerns, a 20-something guy with frizzy blonde hair in a low ponytail plops down across from me in an arm-chair and props his sneakers on the coffee-table between us. The scuffed-up soles reach all the way across, almost level with my laptop. To my surprise, the mother in the mother-daughter tete-a-tete to my right takes his cue and raises her pristine tennis shoes to his level. Despite my years at university (library all-nighters, foam parties), despite train-hopping lovers who always smelled of musk and whiskey, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of disgust. I know who can and can’t take up this kind of space; my instinct is to move.

Truth is I never run out of ways to feel less American and I never have to tell him any of them. That’s the trick about passing; about wearing resale vintage and ergonomic sandals, about losing my accent because I went to school one hour and thirty minutes away from my community, about losing my community. We can walk down the street together and say: Isn’t that garden darling? Oh, look at those finials, what whimsy! I don’t have to tell him or anyone that a home like that is not in the cards for me, that I have spent my childhood afraid of homelessness. I don’t have to ask if he knows what it’s like to own nothing, to start the practice of leaving everything behind at the age of five, to never stop leaving.

Most importantly, if I tell him, if I tell you where I’m from, I still don’t have to say who I am. Where I’m from is a collapsed place. It’s a small boat built by my mother, who womaned the sails while my father minded me. Where I’m from, no one knew we left until we were gone. It’s a liminal space between languages, a place of absorption and muteness. It’s sleeping on the floor with the roaches roving over us. Where I’m from is ESL classes memorizing The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It’s learning to never cry out of fear of the invisible (lest there is worse, lest no one believes you). It was the addicts at my door because they had the wrong apartment. It was running past that door every night in case a bullet comes. It’s on a map of trauma ripped out of a prayer-book. Where I’m from, all the prayer books were burned and a candle was lit for every name. I am the product of that place. Aren’t those some good descriptions? Don’t you feel closer to me now?

Lost Friends, Letter 1 (Об-ла-ди об-ла-да, жизнь прекрасна!)

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Our mutual friend sent me his picture more than a year ago, a face that could be any man’s face. She said “recognize him?” and I couldn’t. “It’s Max, you remember Max?” All I could think of was you and him at twelve, grinding down staircases on skateboards, skipping school and getting high with a future spree killer. It took me a couple of days to reach you. You were busy, you hadn’t heard.

The girl Max loved found him hiding in her house, found him standing over her mother six hours dead. The knife was still in his hand, like she had come home too early for dinner. Was she dead the minute she walked in the door? Did she say his name Maksim slow and soft like a net underwater, trying to quiet him, to pull him in?  Did he say he loved her, in Russian, because they were alone? Did she pull him in, knife first? Eleven times.

Was it the drugs or madness?  Imagine his stepfather crumpled in, a bad tower. Once he pushed through the flesh and the bone, did life seem small? A windy day in February: the wind rolling over itself on Ocean Avenue, perpendicular to the parkways and drives that run out to the water. I know the taste of a day like that. It is grey cement and salt and wet bark. The chill of it on his face as he unlocked his stepfather’s Lexus, it felt right, accurate. Did he know all along where he was going? Whose bodies no longer mattered? Maybe it was a sacrifice: the woman he loved and the one who made her.

He had a shrine. A sunken track bed, a shack under the LIRR freight line off ave H. When you were kids, he used to take you and show you the ropes. They found needles, traces of angel dust, her name Yelena-– written in a golden-yellow, hot pink hearts. Max was sentimental, like you. Max cut a man’s hands for a green Pontiac, he struck two pedestrians down, only one made it. Police found the Pontiac running by the tracks, empty save for four knives. When I called you, you said “they’ll never find him now,” but they did. Another stabbing on the 3 line at Penn Station, another car at Lexington.

His lawyer said, “There was, at one time, a different Max Gelman.” His friends said he had come over from Ukraine and never found his way. Yelena’s boyfriend said Max was a nobody on angel dust. But you had loved him. Tonight, I am thinking of you, of the wild card in your heart that’s serving two hundred years. I am thinking about Max’s twelve year old face, his green hair. Remember how he teased me? How he thought I sang the Beatles in Russian at a 6th grade talent show with a sequenced shirt on? How Riny had a stupid crush on him? How you were the only one he trusted? Did you ever think about calling him, all those years in between? Do you hate yourself for not calling him? Were you waiting for the final sentence?

Refuge. That’s how Max’s family got into this country. It’s how I got in, it’s how you got in–from Ukraine–just like him. Almost a year now, I’ve lived without my father, almost a year without so much as a word from you. I never thought I could spare forgiveness, but I remember how you got quiet. When my father died, eight months after the first news break, you were the second person I called. You never came. Not the day of the funeral, not the day after. A whole week of sitting Shiva. Of day in and day out without socks, without clean clothes, without water on my face, without so much as a cheap cheese plate from you. You had known my father, you had stayed late evenings in our home, eating the food he made for us. You were the husband I was never going to have. Do you hate yourself for not calling me? If he was the wild card, what was I?

The Wild Aunt Who Lives Alone

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When I was eight, I asked for an easy-bake oven. My brother took me to a Real Toy Store (not a flea market or the back of my cousin’s “outgrown” pile) and I found it myself. The box was so large! I could hardly keep a grip on it. Its overwhelming size made me feel good, as if just by getting it to the cashier I was accomplishing something.

I bet my mother thought I was making a joke. Some kind of advanced humour had convinced me to play with cake while my mother baked it all day so that I could eat. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t starving. It was just nice to have something else on the table besides government cheese and what Russian people fondly refer to as “doctor’s meat.”

Even if I played with it no more than three times, even if the glowing yellow cake baked by an incandescent light bulb tasted just like America, I wanted it.  (How was I to know that in just three years, I would be rolling out dough right beside my mother while she recovered from chemo?) That easy-bake oven taught me a life lesson: having was never as good as wanting.

Wanting, if you know it, is a pleasurable state. It has so many different kinds of occupations; anything can make you end up in Wanting. You pack up your baggage, you bring enough food to survive, and offer yourself up at the boundary of its limits. It’s just that my mother and I had a silent understanding, I couldn’t ask her for what I knew she couldn’t give me. That’s how it all started.

I gave up the things that seemed improbable, the tree house, the expensive summer camps, a door that separated my sleeping space from that of others. But it didn’t seem enough, to give up things I never expected to have. So, out went the Batmitzvah, the Judo classes, the best friend who always smelled like the mall. It became a sort of game, wanting: a list of things inside a composition notebook that you’d claim if you could.

I had a girlfriend once who told me she planned on achieving selflessness, on being able to give unconditional love.  I cannot say she ever accomplished it. In my mind, selflessness is right up there with wanting, two towns next to each other. Incapable of reciprocity, they refuse trade and in that same vein, growth. Maybe that’s how most of my relationships ended, the common thing that pulled us apart.

I think I was a different woman then, a woman attracted to what could never be there. But I am tired of being the wild aunt who lives alone. The one who’s doomed to a studio apartment on a grey street, feeding the wild cats mewing there. My mother doesn’t remember the easy-bake oven. “As a child,” she recalls, “you never asked for anything.” I want to move towards claiming what I had once erased, to start asking. If there is a path, how can I know that I’m on it? What are the signs? (How much Ace of Base do I really need to listen to? Isn’t there a chance that something will “drag me up and get me into the life that I belong”) Maybe we are supposed to start over simply, like an eight-year-old with a wish list. You draw a line down the center, a boundary: you/ them. What you want and what you aren’t scared to have.

Root I

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Root

On command, when you are five and right before the belt can even touch you, you cry.

You cry and you say I won’t but you are five and you don’t mean it. Decades later,

 

your mother concludes that this must be your root and she’s not wrong.

 

Because that belt never touched you. Because belts are long strips of leather that cinch

and unravel, retract and lick, because a belt is easy to learn from you learn nothing.

 

Desire hangs on a hook by its own mouth and you buckle before it. You’d give your eyeteeth

for the word yes or for someone to have struck you just once.

 

Too bad, you were born with a face that inspires indecision, a hand that keeps reaching

for the wrong woman.

Glass

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My mother ate glass this morning. Mixed in with eggplant caviar, she thought it was migrant pieces of shell or whole spice. On the phone with me, she recounted the texture of it between her teeth, grainy at first, passable, and then smooth, without give.

I tried not to get too nervous. After all, circus performers eat glass on the regular. I imagined my 65-year-old mother wearing a black unitard, rhinestoned (which she may or may not have owned between the age of 48 and 56), crunching down on a bowl of glass like it was corn flakes.

My mother interrupted my fantasy with her own non-concern: “I had to throw it out, right?,” she said, “I mean, why take the risk?”

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The “waste not want not, eat everything in sight until it hurts” was a fundamental way of life inscribed unto my childhood. But no matter how gluttonous, how post-war hoardish, one thing my mother has never been is so careless.

It is a hard thing to learn, this aging thing. At a certain point our parents stop moving forward, stop pushing against whatever world they have claimed and instead, they settle in. For some daughters, this settling is a blessing, a mother with a dog, a garden. For others, it is something akin to watching an old stone wall erode. The rust gets brighter. The decorative work chips off and reveals something raw and unchanging underneath. The weeds burst through creating larger and larger cracks which threaten the foundation. What I mean is,  few of us spend twenty-eight years of marriage preparing to be alone, and my mother is no exception.

The body forgets how it’s done. The waking up to silence, the knowledge that you need your own voice to break it.

My mother gets up from the same couch she’s had for twenty years, which looks only five years old because she beats it with a wet rag every Sunday. It is the couch she sleeps on because her bed is too empty. She prepares breakfast, eggplant caviar made the night before, toast, some rosehip tea. When she recognizes the glass in her mouth, she stops chewing and looks down into the cracked bowl.  After a minute of reckoning she lifts the bowl and carries it over to the small trash can.

Standing in the kitchen she says “I should wash the dishes” and then washes them: cup, plate, knife, fork.

New Project.

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So, I’ve been working on a new poetry project. I get so nervous putting my poetry up here. I’m just not sure where it goes. But for the sake of community, here I am. For the past few weeks I’ve been calling this project “creepy girlhood.” People often seem pleased with that description.

In reality, or unreality for the matter, it is a convergence of memoir-style stories of gritty female adolescence and slavic folk tales centered on the character of Vasilyssa.

Here is a taste of my newest work on it here at the Vermont Studio Center:

Initiation

I have found the perfect branch to switch you with, raise your blood,

roll you naked in the snow.Why do good girls always come back to the woods?

What witches can we make of them?And isn’t this the part where you take your

mother, glass eye, apron, palm of sugar? Break the glass, the small thermometer,

mercury stained like your grandmother? What story is the one untold? Keep your

legs crossed, keep your mouth closed, crane your neck or break the sky with your

tall head. When a child is born unborn, warm the oven, imagine bread,

let the child rise instead.

________________________________________

Endurance

january 6

1,000 nuns fall asleep in the lord, Vasilyssa is their abbess,

their miracle, their martyr.

 

april 16th      

 

Vasilyssa was thrown into deep water

 

year 309

 

A nine year old is given to the wild beasts, covered in wounds and doused in

fire. She dies alone in a barren field, gives her soul to Christ in exchange for

endurance. All Vasilyssas endure.

 

Now Vasilyssa does not starve, she eats the witch’s bread, crust by crust,

separates the seeds and sweeps the dust, then waits until the witch is home.

 

Why should I tell you? Because you ask.