David Caplan: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems

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David Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Chair in English at Ohio Wesleyan University and the author of four books of poetry criticism and poetry, most recently, Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford University  Press, 2014) and In the World He Created According to His Will (University of Georgia Press, 2010). His sequence, “Observances” won the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry.  A French-language edition of his monograph, Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form (Oxford University Press, 2005), is forthcoming from the University of Liège Press (Presses Universitaires de Liège).

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Okla Elliott: You work as both a scholar and a poet. How do these two endeavors interact or inform each other?

caplan-041411David Caplan: In my criticism, I try to figure out what other poets are doing. In my poetry I try to figure out what is happening to me. That is not to say that my poetry is necessarily autobiographical. The poems you reprint depict a fictional student studying in a Chassidic yeshiva I have visited. He is not me, but imagining another life allows me to think about mine.

My research often starts with questions that bother me and that I cannot answer. My first book, Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form, began as my dissertation. When I was a graduate student, I wondered why contemporary poets favored certain forms—for example, sestinas and ghazals–and not others—for example, the heroic couplet. As I read, wrote, and revised, I tried to develop persuasive explanations.

My recent book, Rhyme’s Challenge: Contemporary Poetry, Hip Hop, and Rhyming Culture considers why hip-hop artists dominate the contemporary art of rhyme. My poetry is not influenced by hip hop; I admire its artistry and wanted to clarify its achievement (both to myself and to others).

Okla Elliott: Would you talk a bit about form and formalism in poetry? You write bothcaplan_1720509 formalist poems and free verse, but as is often said, free verse isn’t entirely free. What is your interest in formalism, and how do you conceptualize form within free verse?

David Caplan: I am in interested in poetic form because I am interested in reading and writing well-made poems. “Well-made” of course can describe otherwise very different kinds of poems. For instance, Harryette Mullen and Derek Walcott are two of my favorite contemporary poets. Their poems hardly resemble each other’s. Both, though, write what I would call “well-made poems.” Whether in meter or free verse, a poem is well made when its formal elements instruct and delight.

Okla Elliott: The poems reprinted below owe much of their content to Jewish cultural and historical traditions. Would you discuss how you have incorporated these materials? I am particularly interested in how utterly contemporary the poems feel while still linking into millennia-old traditions.

David Caplan: All of our lives mix the old and the new. In this respect, the lives of Orthodox Jews are no different. When learning Talmud, they might look up an unfamiliar Aramaic word on their smartphones (as I mention in one poem). I try not to present such moments as quaint. Instead, they are meant to suggest how we live.

There is a tendency in much Jewish-American poetry to approach traditional Jewish texts primarily as folklore. When contemporary authors draw from these texts, they often try to capture a certain otherworldly quality.

I read the same texts differently. My poems respond to certain Chassidic texts—namely The Tanya and other teachings by the leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—because they offer powerfully challenging insights into human existence.

***

Into My Garden

As if New Jersey were Babylon, an Argentine
and an Israeli argue in Aramaic, Styrofoam cups
of instant coffee warm in their hands,

Other boys return to last night’s commentary:
I have come into My garden,
back and forth they sing like an invitation.

What did I learn in school? Whenever
the philosopher lectured on the death of metaphysics,
pollen found an open window, pistil

and stamen crazed with each other.
Yellow, the serpentine walls and columns.
Yellow, the library where a church belonged.

Some nights his best student recited
the lecture like a pledge, but nothing changed
not the pitcher between us, the glass

slick with our fingerprints, the envy I felt.
Boys dressed like men race the stairwell as if to the singing,
as if to hear what My garden means:

seven generations caused God to withdraw,
seven generations drew him back.
All those years of talking–what did I learn?

All arguments end with a shrug.

***

Only the Hebrew

The sudden quiet of a room emptied of noise.
Only the Hebrew, a stone on his tongue.

The boy who carried his suitcase up the stairs
swayed as if into a thought.

What is holy? No walls of Jerusalem stone,
no microphone discreetly clipped across a lapel

to announce when to stand. The more
you need them, the more words demand.

Windowsills honored with books,
pictures of the righteous, watching:

this is how we learn to walk,
a father stepping back, just out of reach.

***

Chassidus by Telephone

On the train home, a Bluetooth in his ear,
he listens to a lecture on fear and love,
the four kinds, lower and higher.

To get religious—what does that mean?
Sometimes it all feels like an improvisation:
the snow lifting from the tracks,

a hardboiled egg wrapped in foil, an extra
sandwich in case he meets someone who needs it.
He has no wonder story to tell, no moment

where a miracle resolved all doubt,
only a classroom after the term’s last class,
mango liquorish saved for the occasion,

blessings in the forms of toasts.
Love and fear: a wordless tune
sung faster and louder,

as if that were the reason
the soul descended into this world,
to link arms with friends and sing.

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: RICHARD D’ABATE

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By Richard D’Abate:


THE SADNESS OF YOUNG MOTHERS

Because we’re at the beach today our sadness
knows itself,

Between the sinking sand and slowly measured
falling waves.

Not long ago time was arrow-tipped and
ravenous.

It found its mark before the god of love had
even stirred.

It filled our bones to bursting, era of the second
self begun.

Now every gesture mirrors gestures of a
smaller one.

They raise their arms, we raise our arms, they wobble
toward the sea

Like turtle hatchlings, thoughtless prey, and
so do we.

We match the steps of half-formed beings—
tender, new—

Ourselves, our future selves, alive but always
cut in two.

We are afraid. The burning sun devours
little bones.

Their little mouths will gulp the tangled weed, the
sliding foam.

We run, we start to run, but time has a thickness
all its own,

And half of half of half is motion’s rule or
none at all,

As when the cresting tops of glittering breakers
do not fall,

Or when in dreams we hear, but do not hear, our
children call.



Today’s poem was originally published by AGNI and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Richard D’Abate is the author of a poetry collection, To Keep the House From Falling In (Ithaca House Press), as well as stories and poems in Epoch, Apple and other magazines. His most recent work appears in Agni Online. A native of New York City, his professional life has been focused in Maine: as a professor of English literature, an advocate for the public humanities, and director of the Maine Historical Society, a statewide cultural agency and research center. His scholarly essays have appeared in various publications, including American Beginnings (University of Nebraska Press), on New World exploration, encounter, and cartography. He now lives and writes in Wells, Maine.

Editor’s Note: As a reader and a card-carrying feminist, I was as taken aback by today’s poem for its stunning lyric as I was by the (male) poet’s ability to capture the way mothers worry for their children. (Fathers do as well, of course, but today’s poem is about the experience of young mothers, specifically.) How audacious to take on this persona! And how effortlessly and accurately the poet has captured this unique viewpoint that is not his own. Haters gonna hate, and there are those who feel that a male writing from a female perspective is a patriarchal act of establishing dominion over a realm that is not theirs to control. But the other half of that debate is that of being empathetic, of trying to understand the other from within the other’s shoes, of being sensitive to those from outside our own gender, and Richard D’Abate has done this with today’s honest and heartbreaking work.

The poet has given breathtaking form to the parental experience, naming it the “era of the second self,” calling children “our future selves,” who, through a mother’s eyes, are “alive but always / cut in two.” Even more palpable is the mother’s fear for her children: “they wobble / toward the sea // Like turtle hatchlings, thoughtless prey, and / so do we,” “We are afraid. The burning sun devours / little bones. // Their little mouths will gulp the tangled weed, the / sliding foam. // We run, we start to run, but time has a thickness / all its own … [as] when in dreams we hear, but do not hear, our / children call.” By the skilled hand of the poet the fear and helplessness mothers feel for their children is brought to life through a vivid imagery and lyric beauty so chilling we feel it as if it were our own.

Want more from Richard D’Abate?
Buy To Keep the House from Falling In on Amazon
The Richard D’Abate Lectures: Conversations About History, Art, and Literature
Maine Historical Society: Richard D’Abate Endowment Fund for Scholarship & Special Programs

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What Happens When a Famous Rapper Falls in Love with Your Quote

Mik Everett Writer Never Die

What Happens When a Famous Rapper Falls in Love with Your Quote

By Mik Everett

Last Monday, I woke up to something weirder than I could possibly imagine. I woke up to find that Drake had posted a quote by me on Instagram. And that he’d credited the quote to another author.

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There is no Thought Catalogue article entitled “What To Do If A Famous Rapper Steals Your Quote.” There is no Buzzfeed article on how to cope with the rabid fans of a rockstar insisting that you’ve stolen from him. To the best of my knowledge, this isn’t a very common problem to have. Sure, I’ve heard of academic and artistic plagiarism before, usually involving two high-profile, Entertainment News celebrities. But I’m not a celebrity. I’ve sold, like, two hundred copies of each of my books. I live well below the poverty line. I’m a regular person who said something kinda catchy once on the internet, and lots of people liked it. And Drake liked it. I am so disconnected from that quote and the people who use it; I am simultaneously on the outside looking in on the very idea of fame, and in the very middle of it.

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To be clear here, nobody broke any laws. Drake did not take credit for the quote. He attempted to cite the quote, like we all learned how to do in middle school. He just cited the wrong poet; The Instagram post Drake screen-capped had presented the quote without credit, so Drake probably assumed it belonged to the man behind the Instagram account where Drake found the quote. That poet (he goes by Mustafa) did give me appropriate credit for the quote, eventually. After Drake had re-posted the quote and attributed it to Mustafa Ahmed, I think it kinda blew up in Mustafa’s face and people started hounding him to give me credit. And he did add my name in, briefly. Then he deleted the whole post. But on the internet, that doesn’t matter. Everyone else is still attributing the quote to Mustafa. And there’s no way to fix it. Just try messaging Drake on Instagram.

On one hand, it’s not that big of a deal. The quote has been used several million times on the internet, and is rarely credited to me. On the other hand… I would really, really, really like to make a living as an author. And in our day and age, there are no more camera-shy Thomas Pynchons. To be a financially successful author is inextricable from being a famous author.

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In the winter of 2011, I sat down at my laptop, got on Tumblr, and wrote out a quick exercise I’d had in my mind for a while. You can find the original text here. I entitled it “What Happens When You Fall in Love with a Writer,” because that was the sort of thing that seemed like it might explode on Tumblr. It did, by moderate measures (it currently clocks in at 35,647 notes, though that is most likely inaccurate. I’ve seen it approach 50,000 several times, only to fall back again, like unpredictable gas prices). But the final line of the essay– “If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die”– was extracted by another blogger, without credit, and it soon topped 200,000 notes. A friend in India messaged me to tell me that his co-worker had my quote pinned up on her bulletin board in their office building in Dubai. Again, modestly impressive for a nobody blogger– only I wasn’t credited. Thinking I could pick up on the sudden fame of my words, I made a Zazzle store, hoping to sell iPod cases and mugs emblazoned with the quote. A screenshot of one such product is the image that Drake, and several others, have posted on Instagram. I never made more than about $10 from product sales.

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It’s not about money, and it is. Drake isn’t making money off my quote, but again, in an artist’s world, income is inextricable from fame. And I’ve somehow found myself in the position of having a quote that is a million times more famous than I am. Could it generate income for me, if that quote was tied less tenuously to my identity as an author? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I wager a yes. Many of my readers found me by searching for the author of their beloved quote on Google.

Which brings me to the next weird thing that happened. A fan messaged me on Goodreads:

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Wait, what?

Sure enough, it was apparently “news” that Drake “wants to date a writer.” Not that he used the quote of a largely unknown struggling author, mind you. That’s not news. Just the part where Drake posted something on Instagram. And it was tagged, “Almost as exciting as Amtrak’s author residency program.” (Update: A second article has since been brought to my attention. This article also attributes the quote to Mustafa Ahmed.)

On one hand: Honor. Never in a billion years did I think something I would say would be ranked on the same list as Amtrak’s writer residency program (which, admittedly, was a thing I got more excited about than I’ve been in years). On the other hand: No honor. No mention of me. The quote was referred to a a ‘popular Tumblr platitude.’ I might as well not even exist. Despite the fact that by Googling the quote, as the reader Jackie Cooper obviously did, it’s very easy to find that I am the sole author. Apparently journalism school just isn’t what it used to be.

ifawriter

My dad used to end every story by saying, “and the moral of this story is…” and supplying us with a lesson, whether one existed or not. Here’s one of my favorite stories: There was a famous athlete at University of Kansas when my dad attended school there. The athlete’s name was Neugent, and he was a swimmer. He had fans, and they would all carve “Neugent Bites” into the wooden desks of the lecture halls at KU. You could walk into a lecture hall with a thousand seats, and every single seat would have “Neugent Bites” etched into the desk. You could always tell the posers because they didn’t spell Neugent right.

One night, the swimmer was in a sorority house after hours. The story goes that he was in a room with several nude girls, but that’s always how stories go. They were tipped off that the house matron was on her way up the stairs, and Neugent, likely inebriated, did a toad-dive out the third-story window of the sorority house and broke his leg. My dad had a 9 a.m. lecture the next morning, and when he walked into class, every single desk was etched with “Neugent Jumps.”

My dad took a semester off to work in the salt mines (back when you could do that to pay your tuition), and when he returned, the desks had all been replaced. He never saw “Neugent Bites” on another desk again. The moral of the story is that fame is fleeting. Mr Neugent was my special-ed math teacher in high school, and his brother was my sister’s orthodontist.

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I’ve learned my own lesson, inflicted Greek-gods style. Rather than turning me into a flower to stare at my own reflection forever, I’ve watched my few, trite words achieve fame and immortality, while I remain unknown, along with my numerous works on homelessness, social issues, and literature. Any number of meaningful quotes from me are largely unknown. No one talks about my poems on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or gender identity. No one cares. That is, probably, the best karmic retribution for making trite statements about immortality for immortality’s sake. I may remain unknown, but it’s clear to me that this quote will never die.

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This piece was originally posted at mikeverett.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Mik Everett is a transrealist author and poet with American Regionalist tendencies who hails from Wichita, Kansas. As an author, Everett is concerned with social activism and progressive change. She hopes that her non-fiction Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner, currently available from Unknown Press, and her upcoming novel Land of Plenty can help to galvanize that change. Everett is actively engaged in homelessness outreach and is involved in a number of other social issues, including promotion of independent literature.

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: ELANA BELL

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By Elana Bell:


ELEGY FOR A MOTHER, STILL LIVING

         The Lord gives everything and charges by taking it back. —Jack Gilbert

I was formed inside the body
of a woman who wanted me
as she wanted her own life,
allowed to drink the milk
made only for me.
I was given mother-love,
its bounty and its cocoon
of those first years without language.
It is right to mourn the rocky hills
of Crete where we walked, my small
hand in hers for hours. The hidden
beach where we swam naked
then baked on the fine sand. Lazy
afternoons in her lap, thick
hand stroking my curls.
Her fingers have stiffened.
In her eyes, the eyes of an animal in pain.
I hold the memory of my mother
against the woman she is.


Today’s poem was originally published by AGNI and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012) was selected by Fanny Howe as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Her work has recently appeared in AGNI, Harvard Review, and the Massachusetts Review. Elana leads creative writing workshops for women in prison, for educators, for high school students in Israel-Palestine and throughout the five boroughs of New York City, as well as for the pioneering peace building and leadership organization, Seeds of Peace. She was a recent finalist for Split This Rock’s inaugural Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, an award which recognizes and honors a poet who is doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. Elana also teaches literature and creative writing at CUNY College of Staten Island and curates public art installations with Poets in Unexpected Places.

Editor’s Note: If I have learned anything from reading Li-Young Lee and Ocean Vuong, it is that great poetry changes the reader. Whenever I read Elana Bell, I am deeply moved in the moment. Many poems do this, and many make it into the pages of this series. But today’s poet has always moved me far beyond the moment of reading. Her words stay with me. Weeks, months, years later, her poems are still a part of me, as if they are my own memories. Once I have read an Elana Bell poem, I have been forever changed.

I first heard the poet read “Elegy for a Mother, Still Living” at NYC’s Bluestockings nearly four years ago, and the poem has never left me. A year later, I wrote “Elegy for the Still Living: Father Cannot Stand Still”, a mourning poem for my father’s illness, named in homage to today’s poem. Years have passed. My father has passed. No elegy I write for him will ever again be “for the still living.” But “Elegy for a Mother, Still Living” remains with me, a memory of a different time, a different kind of mourning.

When I came across today’s poem in AGNI, it was like coming across an old photograph. A commemoration of my own past. A memory like an artifact, layer upon layer of personal significance buried between the lines of someone else’s words, someone else’s experience, someone else’s life. And yet, by the gifted hand of the poet, someone else’s experience has become my own. I am reminded of a line from the musical Wicked: “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? (I do believe I have been changed for the better.) But, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Want more from Elana Bell?
Elana Bells’ Official Website
Academy of American Poets
P.O.P. (Poets on Poetry) Shot and edited by poet and photographer Rachel Eliza Griffiths, P.O.P is a video series featuring contemporary American poets who read both an original poem and a poem by another poet, after which they reflect on their choice.
Poets in Unexpected Places
Buy Eyes, Stones
Reading on PBS

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: STACEY ZISOOK ROBINSON

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By Stacey Zisook Robinson:


THE BOOK OF ESTHER

That blush on my cheek?
It’s paint,
And I have glittered my eyes
And robed myself in the finery
of silk and gossamer,
lapis and gold–
And whored myself for your salvation.

You asked for no thoughts.
You merely offered my body
to the king–
My life forfeit
If my beauty failed.

You asked for no ideas
And I gave you none,
Though I had a thousand,
And ten thousand more.

Diplomacy was played on the field of my body,
The battle won in the curve of my hip
And the satin of my skin,
Fevered dreams of lust
And redemption.

That blush on my cheeks?
It is the stain of victory
And of my shame.


Today’s poem was originally published on Stumbling Towards Meaning and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Stacey Zisook Robinson is a single mom. She sings whenever she can. She writes, even when she can’t. She worked in Corporate America for a long time. Now she works at her writing and looks for God and grace, meaning, connection, and a perfect cup of coffee, not necessarily in that order. Stacey has been published in the Summer 2013 issue of Lilith Magazine and in several anthologies including The Hope (Menachem Creditor, ed) and In Transit (BorderTown Press, Daniel MacFadyen, ed). Watch for her book, Dancing in the Palm of God’s Hand, forthcoming from Hadasah Word Press. Stacey has recently launched a Poet in Residence program designed to work with both adults and kids in a Jewish setting to explore the connection between poetry and prayer as a way to build a bridge to a deepened Jewish identity and faith.

Editor’s Note: This week we celebrated Purim, a Jewish holiday that commemorates Queen Esther (5th c. B.C.E.) saving Persian Jews from genocide. Esther’s rise to power, however, was problematic. Her predecessor, Queen Vashti, was summoned to appear in her crown, ordered to display her beauty before the king and his nobles. The implication, according to many scholars, is that Queen Vashti was ordered to appear wearing only her crown. She refused, and it was suggested that she should be de-throned and replaced by a “worthier woman” so that “all wives [would] henceforth bow to the authority of their husbands, high and low alike” (Esther 1:19-20).

And there’s your daily dose of female oppression, Bible style.

"Vashti Refuses the King's Summons" by Edwin Long (1879). Public Domain image.

“Vashti Refuses the King’s Summons” by Edwin Long (1879). Public Domain image.















A search began for beautiful young virgins. Those who made the cut were subjected to twelve months of beauty treatments before the king would even deign to lay eyes on them. The hopefuls then appeared before the king, who did not see any of them ever again “unless he was particularly pleased by her” (Esther 2:12-14). King Xerxes liked Esther best of all the young virgins displayed before him, and crowned her queen in Vashti’s stead. Plot twist: the king did not know that Esther was Jewish, for she had deliberately kept that fact from him. In the end Esther was able to use her beauty to bend the king to her will, and when one of his henchmen sought to have all the Jews in the kingdom annihilated, Esther stood up for her people and they were spared.

While it is this end-result that is remembered and celebrated each year at Purim, it is Esther’s degrading rise to the throne—and what it cost her to to save her people—that is the subject of today’s poem.

To come to power, Esther had to take the rightful queen’s place and become the poster child for the idea that “all wives [should] bow to the authority of their husbands.” To catch the king’s eye she had to strip away her personhood until nothing was left but her physical beauty. “That blush on my cheek? / It’s paint, / And I have glittered my eyes / And robed myself in the finery / of silk and gossamer, / lapis and gold.” It was not her devotion to her people that allowed her to save them, but that she “whored [her]self for [their] salvation.” Nor did her people care who she was beneath her beauty, or whether she survived her attempt to save them: “You asked for no thoughts. / You merely offered my body / to the king– / My life forfeit / If my beauty failed.”

"Queen Esther" by Edwin Long (1878). Public Domain image.

“Queen Esther” by Edwin Long (1878). Public Domain image.

















Queen Esther was a pawn in men’s games, as women of history have too often been. “Diplomacy was played on the field of my body, / The battle won in the curve of my hip.” She used her beauty and her sexual allure because, as a woman of her time and place, they were the only instruments of power available to her. But if she were given a voice, she might speak of inner conflict. She might tell us what it feels like to lack the ability to either refuse or consent. Queen Esther was a hero, but what did it cost her to package and sell herself in the name of the greater good? “That blush on my cheeks? / It is the stain of victory / And of my shame.”

Today’s poem does what all great feminist biblical interpretation and midrashot do: it examines, deconstructs, and reconstructs androcentric assumptions, biases, and perspectives in biblical literature, placing women, gender, and sexuality at the center of reinterpretation.

In a time when the Bible is still being used to justify the oppression of women, we need much more of the important work Stacey Zisook Robinson is doing with “The Book of Esther.”

Want more from Stacey Zisook Robinson?
Stacey Zisook Robinson’s Blog
Stacey Zisook Robinson’s Official Website
Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces on iPinion
ReformJudaism.org

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: LI-YOUNG LEE

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By Li-Young Lee:


from ALWAYS A ROSE

Not for the golden pears, rotten on the ground—
their sweetness their secret—not for the scent
of their dying did I go back to my father’s house. Not for the grass
grown wild as his beard in his lasts months,
nor for the hard, little apples that littered the yard,
and vines, rampant on the porch, tying the door shut,
did I stand there, late, rain arriving.
The rain came. And where there is rain
there is time, and memory, and sometimes sweetness.
Where there is a son there is a father.
And if there is love there is
no forgetting, but regret rending
two shaggy hearts.
I said good-bye to the forsythia, flowerless for years.
I turned from the hive-laden pine.
Then, I saw it—you, actually.
Past the choked rhododendrons,
behind the perishing gladiolas, there
in the far corner of the yard, you, my rose,
lovely for nothing, lonely for no one,
stunning the afternoon
with your single flower ablaze.
I left that place, I let the rain
mediate on the brilliance of one blossom
quivering in the beginning downpour.


VISIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS

Because this graveyard is a hill,
I must climb up to see my dead,
stopping once midway to rest
beside this tree.

It was here, between the anticipation
of exhaustion, and exhaustion,
between vale and peak,
my father came down to me

and we climbed arm in arm to the top.
He cradled the bouquet I’d brought,
and I, a good son, never mentioned his grave,
erect like a door behind him.

And it was here, one summer day, I sat down
to read an old book. When I looked up
from the noon-lit page, I saw a vision
of a world about to come, and a world about to go.

Truth is, I’ve not seen my father
since he died, and, no, the dead
do not walk arm in arm with me.

If I carry flowers to them, I do so without their help,
the blossoms not always bright, torch-like,
but often heavy as sodden newspaper.

Truth is, I came here with my son one day,
and we rested against this tree,
and I fell asleep, and dreamed

a dream which, upon my boy waking me, I told.
Neither of us understood.
Then we went up.

Even this is not accurate.
Let me begin again:

Between two griefs, a tree.
Between my hands, white chrysanthemums, yellow
      chrysanthemums.

The old book I finished reading
I’ve since read again and again.

And what was far grows near,
and what is near grows more dear,

and all of my visions and interpretations
depend on what I see,

and between my eyes is always
the rain, the migrant rain.


Today’s poems were published in Rose (BOA Editions, 1986) and appear here with permission from the poet.


Li-Young Lee is the author of four books of poetry, including, most recently, Behind My Eyes. His earlier collections are Book of My Nights; Rose, winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award; The City in Which I Love You, the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and a memoir entitled The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and will be reissued by BOA Editions in 2012. Lee’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Lannan Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Editor’s Note: Because it has been three years since my father died. Because three years ago, Li-Young Lee’s Rose was the labyrinth I walked to access my grief. Because “Truth is, I’ve not seen my father / since he died.” And while rereading this collection forces me to confront this reality, it also reminds me that “if there is love there is / no forgetting.”

Want more from Li-Young Lee?
Blue Flower Arts
The Poetry Foundation
Academy of American Poets

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: KAREN ALKALAY-GUT

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By Karen Alkalay-Gut:


HER STORY

I have never been able to tell her story
Sometimes it escapes me, sometimes I am not sure
It could really have happened, sometimes I read
Different accounts of her demise, or a paragraph
From some testimony jogs my memory and the terrible days
When I first heard what happened to her return.

This much is in my blood:
I was conceived on the day she died.
This much is in my blood.
She blew up trains.
The courage came from her uplifted chin
And the two infants she watched
Dashed against the wall of their home.
Avram twelve months old and Masha two years.
My first cousins.
They too – in my blood – all that is left.

If I can write of these babies,
I can manage the rest –
Following her path as she escaped
The prison camp with her husband
And joined the Otrianski Otriade
Lenin Brigade, Lipinskana Forest.

I can feel her mouth, her narrow lips clamped
As she bends over the delicate mines,
Solemn as in the photo when as a child
She sat for with the rest of the choir
Unsmiling amid the festive singers
Unwilling perhaps to feel poetic joy
Perhaps destined for so much more.

There are at least three accounts of her death:
The partisan Abba Kovner told me she was caught
In a mission and hung. He looked away when he spoke,
Not piercing me as always with his tragic eyes,
And I knew there was more he would not say.

Another book says she lagged behind the platoon
Escaping an attack, perhaps pregnant,
And was imprisoned in Zhedtl.
The jail was ignited, perhaps by accident,
And she was just one of the victims.

When mother first told me the story
She had just heard at the hairdresser’s,
I must have been fifteen, and outraged
That she was weeping, tears
Rolling down her face. She knew
All I cared for was my own life,
And her latest discovery
Of the fate of her youngest sister
A disruption.
But who else could she tell?

The loft in the barn, she said,
They were hiding there – three women,
Her husband and her. They came
And set the barn afire. He helped
The women first, and his wife came last
But didn’t come, was burnt alive.

Malcah Malcah who saved all our lives
Malcah who was waiting for them
When the ship brought them back to Danzig
After they were barred from the Holy Land,
Who found them the agricultural visas to England
And saw them off the night that Hitler invaded.
But there is no real story.
All that remains is a faded snapshot
A few sentences in unread memorial tomes,
And me, who cannot tell any story for sure.


Today’s poem was originally published in Prairie Schooner and appears here with permission from the poet.


Karen Alkalay-Gut is now easing out of a fifty-year academic career at Tel Aviv University and beginning to concentrate on writing. Born in London during World War II, she was raised in Rochester, New York and moved to Israel in 1972. She has published almost 30 books in English, and Hebrew, Spanish, and Italian translation, and has collaborated on half a dozen music CDs.

Editor’s Note: Is it possible to read today’s poem without being moved to tears? To wax poetic (this is the place for that, after all), when I read today’s poem the first words that come to mind are “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” No, really. Let me.

1) Parallelism, as both an incantatory device and as a conversation between the poem and biblical poetry. “This much is in my blood: / I was conceived on the day she died. / This much is in my blood.” “Malcah Malcah who saved all our lives / Malcah who was waiting for them.” This parallelism is working on more levels than we might imagine. To echo the Bible in this way is a tradition that dates back to the earliest World War II and Holocaust poetry. But, in fact, it dates back to long before the Holocaust, finding rich roots among the varied history of all Jews in exile, and particularly those in Spain’s Golden Age and the time of the expulsion.

2) Vivid imagery that does not let us forget the many tragedies of “her story.” “[T]he two infants she watched / Dashed against the wall of their home,” “I can feel her mouth, her narrow lips clamped / As she bends over the delicate mines,” “He helped / The women first, and his wife came last / But didn’t come, was burnt alive.” This poem is rife with what Aristotle termed Pathos, the emotional connection to the audience. This is not a poem that you can read without feeling, deeply.

3) The poet herself shines through as a character, real and flawed and human. We know her struggles and her failings, and we experience them with her. “If I can write of these babies, / I can manage the rest,” “When mother first told me the story… I must have been fifteen, and outraged / That she was weeping… She knew / All I cared for was my own life, / And her latest discovery / Of the fate of her youngest sister / A disruption.”

4) Malcah, on the other hand, is made a hero through raw nostalgia. Malcah means “queen,” and while the poet did not invent her lost aunt’s name, bringing her name into the poem elevates the heroine to near-godly proportions. “She blew up trains. / The courage came from her uplifted chin,” “Malcah who saved all our lives / Malcah who was waiting for them / When the ship brought them back to Danzig / After they were barred from the Holy Land, / Who found them the agricultural visas to England / And saw them off the night that Hitler invaded.” Malcah the martyr, who did not die before first ensuring that the poet and her family would live.

5) “Her Story.” It is no secret that I am a big fan of herstory. I created a project to revive and celebrate it. But herstory, as today’s poem makes clear, is multi-faceted. It is women’s history, it is one woman’s history, it is women’s stories, and it is one woman’s story. But in today’s poem it is also the admission that there is no one story. (An idea I am incredibly interested in, as I spent the fall of 2013 researching my own family’s history through the lens of varying versions of the same story, much as today’s poem does.) In today’s poem we are given every known version of Malcah’s story, but the poet twins the telling of “her story” with the idea that “there is no real story” to tell. This is as true to an accurate historical retelling as anyone can come.

Want more from Karen Alkalay-Gut?
Karen Alkalay-Gut’s Official Website
Interview in The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism
Tel Aviv Radio
Buy The Encantadas: Evolution and Emotion from Amazon
The Bridge at Raqqa (eBook)
Youtube

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