From THE GLAD HAND OF GOD POINTS BACKWARDS
By Rachel Mennies:
HOW GRANDMOTHER PAID HER PASSAGE TO NEW YORK
One by one her mother sold her silver spoons
and heirloom bracelets; goodbye, porcelain bear,
silk blouses, patent-leather Mary Janes, the scarves
and stud earrings for newly pierced ears, the red wool coat
spotted walking on another tiny body’s shoulders
down Wittenbergplatz. Goodbye, books bound
in leather, bone china, even the hangers, the goblets
and cabinets; goodbye to the Torah buried in the backyard,
the neighbors, the schoolmates, the mothers dressed so well
at services, the men with businesses who stayed behind
one week, two weeks more. What stylish
objects they became: the coins from fillings
and wedding rings, the soap, the wigs, lamp
after lamp to light a thousand decorated homes.
The old sisters spoke with the wild gestures of trapped birds, snared or
cooped, their wings working toward an impossible escape. They stood
on street corners in Germantown and gesticulated the full span of their
arms. They argued over coffee, over books, over the dinner table, food
chilled to the temperature of the air. They hewed their beliefs for the
sake of debate. Soft-handed and pale-skinned, they lived mostly inside.
They took the trolley to Center City when they were in their twenties,
living in Logan with the rest of the refugee Jews. They told wild stories
of their childhoods, never explored or questioned. They worked as
bookkeepers, secretaries. They went to Girls’ High School, classrooms
filled with young women speaking foreign tongues, caught and released,
caught and released each day, back when men and women were kept
separately until marriage, fine china and daily dishware.
The oldest of the three married a soldier (never explored) who loved her
dearly (never questioned). When he died his mouth made words that
opened her chest like shrapnel. Tell them whatever you want, he said,
but I need you to know. I need you to know. Her hands stayed slack at her
side. Her name was. It was. She left his bedside and paced a block of Old
York Road, north and south, east and west, as if a cage around her kept
Here the eye of God opens, unblinking,
at the throats of our grandmothers. The small pale
candle flickers on the windowsill, making
constellations of all our deaths.
How long a wick, how short a year. And here,
the family site, the only real estate
that’s mine—how clever, the way earth
makes us into mud—how heavy
the feet of our commemorators, how white
the knuckles that clasp their books of prayer.
Today’s poems are from The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, published by Texas Tech University Press, copyright © 2014 by Rachel Mennies, and appear here today with permission from the poet.
The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards: In her first poetry collection, Rachel Mennies chronicles a young woman’s relationship with a complicated God, crafting a nuanced world that reckons with its past as much as it yearns for a new and different future. These poems celebrate ritual, love, and female sexuality; they bear witness to a dark history, and introduce us to “our God, the / collector of stories / and bodies,” a force somehow responsible for both death and liberation. Here, Mennies examines survival, assimilation, and intermarriage, subjects bound together by complex, if sometimes compromised, ties to the speaker’s Judaism. Through wit and careful prosody, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards lays bare the struggles and triumphs experienced through a teenage girl’s coming of age, showing the reader what it means to become—and remain—a Jewish woman in America. —TTUP
Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry (Texas Tech University Press, 2014), and the chapbook No Silence in the Fields (Blue Hour Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, The Journal, and elsewhere, and have been reprinted at Poetry Daily. She teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University.
Editor’s Note: The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards is an absolutely stunning collection. It is that rare breed of poetry book that you cannot help but read cover to cover, knowing all the while that you will return to it again and again. There is magic in this work. Ritual. Tradition. Its stories rise from the page in painstaking detail—vivid, emotive, and all too real. History is both honored and excavated; bones and memories are buried in the backyard. Time is not linear, but fifth dimensional; the past, present, and future unfold more like a snowflake than a line. The soundscape is rich and evocative, the themes resonant and deeply lyric, the entirety layered and striking.
And then there are these moments. These perfect, brilliant, heartbreaking moments. Reveals like the volta in “How Grandmother Paid Her Passage to New York,” when we discover what became of “the men with businesses who stayed behind / one week, two weeks more.” Lines like “When he died his mouth made words that / opened her chest like shrapnel.” Like every freakin’ moment of “Yahrzeit.”
Easy to invest in, the rewards of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards are “as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.”
Want to see more from Rachel Mennies?
Rachel Mennies – Official Website
Buy The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards from Texas Tech University Press
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