Courtyard with Statue of Maimonides

I’m sitting at the cafe listening to Joanna Newsom’s Ys (which I’ve heartily recommended on here before, and do so happily again), drinking an iced honey-nut latte as I wait for the place to close and the expected severe thunderstorms roll in, with a fresh new poem draft hot out of the oven for consumption by any who are interested in that sort of thing (as well as interested in the prompt by Miz Quickly to do a “postcard poem”) on an evening — like any other evening — that needs a reminder of how we’ve come from righteous, charitable places in our history, and there is hope for us yet.

Sorry, I just wanted to write a 100-word sentence. Anyway, this might be a bit long for a postcard poem, but I write small anyway. I took this photo in Córdoba:


That’s Maimonides, celebrated medieval Jewish philosopher and physician. I remember exploring the city and being surprised, but happy, to come across it. Andalucía is one of my favorite places in the world; it’s on the shortlist of “Places To Which I’d Happily Retire, Or At Least Live Awhile”, along with Barcelona, Paris, the Berkshires, Montreal, and Buenos Aires. (Maybe not such a shortlist.) And I love elements of the history, with a level of religious and intellectual enlightenment that, although spotty, was still probably more agreeable than anywhere else in the medieval era. Maimonides himself had some pretty cool ideas about the balance between science and faith, respect between mutual faiths, and compassion in law. I wish more people had those ideas.

There might be more going on in this poem under the surface. I’m not really sure.

Courtyard with Statue of Maimonides

who considers forever before he speaks,
(bronze lips pursed, bronze brow furrowed)
here where he sprouted
like the almond shoot shouldering up
between mud bricks, in that far-off century
where everyone thanks god
for the blessing of each other in the street
no matter the name, strolling along
the nearby Guadalquivir who,
if you face upstream, back to the wind,
seems just as content to flow backwards
as it is to go down to that equitable sea
where all things, anyway, end.

A Reunion

I’m really dissatisfied with this one. It’s for Donna’s prompt of taking a Biblical/mythological figure and recounting their tale focusing on a specific detail, and/or to use the poem to show contrasts, after a poem by Rachel Bunting. Ended up doing an Isaac/Ishmael thing, thinking about how terrifying the incident Isaac is perhaps most famous for must have been, from his point of view. (And moreover, what must he have thought of his brother? And how would Abraham have seemed to a modern-day social worker?) But… meh. I’m just not feeling it. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to pick, maybe I just don’t have it grasped well enough here, or maybe I’m just exhausted from a long week of work. Better than nothing, though, I suppose…

A Reunion

Our father taught you how to shoot out back
while I was still crawling on the ground: he held you
around the shoulders, crowed victory with you when
when the deer jerked and fell. I remember
its neck crooked backwards, split down one side:
maybe the first thing I can pin down in time is this,
the image of you standing over it as its eyes went
white, your mouth set in a thin, mysterious line.

And later, among the scattered rocks and dry grass
I used to sit, wondering, where has my brother fled?
We didn’t talk about you, we just sat stone-faced
eating bread flecked with seeds, telling tales of
single sons around the fire. But it’s useless to try
erasing something from the mind of a child. I could
see you forever poised on that barren field
behind the house, taking aim, grim as a young lion.

Our father tucked his reasons under his tongue
in a hard, bitter knot. He had ideas in his head;
he’d rave about his great plans for me; he muttered
fearfully at night. Once, we set out for firewood, and
when we were alone, I begged him to find you.
But he just gripped his hatchet, weeping, coming
towards me with murder in his eyes. Then I feared
you were gone forever, somewhere under my feet.

But now you’ve arrived, too late for apologies,
a haggard ghost with the beginnings of grey. They say
he loved me best: but he never did hold a blade up
to your throat. That memory stands almost as tall as
your arms braced against the recoil, towering above
my admiring child’s eyes. My firstborn brother, come
bury him with me. We’ll plant seeds on his grave
and pray for some understanding to bloom in the spring.

Daughter of Levi

The prompt at Poetic Asides today is ekphrastic in nature, which is an exercise I don’t take on enough. I love painting-inspired poems (and pieces of music, too, but I’m no composer), even though they feel a bit derivative to write. Out of the four that were offered, I chose the one I hadn’t seen before, Frida Kahlo’s “Moses”:

That is some damn painting, yeah? There is so much going on in this that it’s hard to look at anything but its central figure (which I guess was the point). Images that span the gamut of world historical and religious figures; all kinds of symbolism (third eyes, milk/rain, the Masonic eye-pyramid thing) and dichotomies (male/female, old/new, mono/polytheism); and of course, Kahlo’s usual complement of just interesting images (cell division casually tossed in there) and quirky interpretations (rays of sunlight as hands, the copulating shells). And presenting an anatomically-correct Moses fetus at the center of it all. So with all that confluence of history and culture and religion, what was the first thing I thought to do?

De-contextualize it and change character focus. Womp womp!

Daughter of Levi
(after Frida Kahlo’s “Moses”)

Like an arachnid of fire, the sun dangles from the sky
reaching open palms to press against her belly: the baby
kicks. Standing on the bank, knee-deep, fingers
moving through the tickling bulrushes,
she feels it. Might as well have been her own leg,
flexing and unflexing. What is a child, she thinks,

but an organ that is swollen out of ourselves,
broken off, a mitotic soap bubble whistled into the world?
One with a name and a voice, though
she hasn’t picked one out yet. She feels the current
curl around her shins. History is a river and a sea
that we float upon for a while until someone

sweeps us up: we are all bobbing in the same
turbulence of gathered rain, each descendant a cataract
squeezing the narrative close, and then apart.
Braided stream, dendritic, infinite in length:
that is what she sees, looking into the middle distance,
heat haze like a jewel on her brow. She wonders,

does a child know its inheritance, its future,
pairs of Old World and New World faces marching by?
How many hands reach out to touch any given person
nestled in its womb? It could be so many: like a wall
of water on the left, the right. The baby kicks.
It echoes in her like the sea in a swooping shell.

A Mitzvah

The prompt for One Single Impression was “blowing the curve”, by Mojo, but I have to admit, I never use that expression and wasn’t even really sure what it meant. (My understanding is that it refers to a grade curve, and that one ruins it by scoring really high or low in relation to everyone else?) Instead, I decided to take it in a more literal (but no less obfuscated!) direction, in honor of Tu Bishvat. One of the most touching religious experiences of my life was a Tu Bishvat seder in college; I had not before, and have not since, eaten a persimmon, meaning that the two are inextricably entwined in my memory.

In other news: my chapbook submission has been shortlisted for the contest at Poetic Asides! This is a big honor… there’s only 21 people on the list out of 150+. The final results are on Tuesday, but you know what, if I don’t receive it, I have a clear sense now that the collection was good. So if it’s not taken on by Poetic Asides, I’ll be putting it together myself. :)

A Mitzvah

Not that I was a faithful child,
but it was always important to try:

and when they carried out the shofar
golden-white with age, whorled and grooved,
a twist of fate involving its center,
we squeezed each other’s coatsleeved hands

(and the sound of it is not heard,
it is felt)

recheat of the memory, loosening of
bolts in the soul, one piercing blast that says
so much at once: this is
the sound of sacrifice and this is divinity, harmonized

the right to hear it granted only now and then
for so much meaning can be summed up
in that astonished note: such notes
brought down Jericho

(such notes will wake your dead coatsleeved hand
return it to me)

so I will continue
to pause with respect for your synonym,
even if I’m pressing my ear to the outside wall
even if I don’t feel the magnificent vibration

Gimel, He, Nun

This is my second for the RWP mini-challenge… we used to go over our family friends’ house for Hanukkah (and other occasions), and it was a really cool time. (They would, in turn, come over and help decorate our Christmas tree; let’s hear it for mutual interfaith understanding!) Except, as the years have gone on, we’ve seen them less and less, and I don’t think we’ve had any contact in at least three years. It’s a damn shame, too. Their daughter was almost exactly my age, and probably my first friend in the world; we never talk anymore, and I miss her. I miss latkes, too.

Gimel, He, Nun

It was a reason to visit their house,
snow-covered and mysterious and filled with yellow light.
We’d been going there as long as I could remember,
for latkes and chocolate, for slow prayers,
candlelight spells in mysterious tongues.
Living room floor became a gold-foiled casino,
spinning dreidels over piles of gelt and stuffing winnings
in our mouths when parental backs were turned,
flipping the purple plastic to make it
twirl on its one slender leg.
So many things were slender, after all: the menorah’s
bronze arms, so wizened and caked with
wax from a hundred tapers.
The sound of cat feet padding across the rug.
The bonds of friendship that are full and even one year,
half-dissipated the next, without explanations.
Maybe it was in the growing and the greying
that the coins lost their meaning, or other changes of state.
Softly we’d sing zum gali gali and watch the lights
burn down while the silences in the room grew longer.
And then there was the year we didn’t go at all:
phones were silent. We went there from time to time,
but never again when the snow lay in blankets.
It could be that faith is blind once only,
or that we all grow apart, eventually; or something simple as
even when you can make that puddle of oil last
seven nights longer than it should,
all those guiding lights still,
someday, go out.

Sonnet for Zachary

This is the other one that I didn’t submit to Qarrtsiluni… I do feel as though this and “Walking Meditation” were the weaker two of the five, and I’m thinking that the others I actually did submit, I might try to send elsewhere. This one’s take on “health” is… well, I don’t know. Mental? Emotional? The problem with sonnets, secret or otherwise, is that they’re only 140 syllables long, and it’s difficult to get really involved in that span of words.

Two more days of the November challenge after this as well. Oh my goodness.

Sonnet for Zachary

They wouldn’t let him say the Kaddish,
Gentile as he was. Their muffled weeping echoed
through the room. He saw the small corrections
they had made, as though
they could pretend their prince’s lesions weren’t there,
his wasted body an illusion. Afterward, the parents
headed home without a word to the
impostor lover, he who tasted their son’s skin
before it turned to ash. But he is sitting shiva:
he is covering the mirrors, closing windows,
goy performing rites and
trying not to gnash his teeth.
He’ll be all right, he thinks. In love, is strength.
He lights a candle for the boy.