Category Archives: Issue 3.6 Fall 2014

Issue 3.6 Fall 2014 Themed Far From The Maddening Crowd

Rivka Basman Ben-Haim

Rivka Basman  was born in 1925 in Wilkomir, Lithuania. During World War II, she was first in the Vilna Ghetto, then in a forced labor camp for women. In 1947, she became a member of kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil, and she fought in Israel’s War of Independence. She graduated from the Teachers’ Seminary in Tel Aviv, and served as a teacher on kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil. Later she studied literature at Columbia University in New York. From 1963-1965, she worked as a teacher in the diplomatic corps of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, where her husband, the late Mula Ben-Haim, an artist, served as a cultural attaché. She was among the founders of “Yung Yisroel”, the Yiddish writers of the early State of Israel. She has won many prizes, among them, the prestigious Itsik Manger prize. Her poetry has been translated into Hebrew, English, French, Polish, Flemish, and German.

Zelda Kahan Newman (translator) was born and educated in New York. She received her BA in philosophy from Brooklyn College, and her MA and PhD in linguistics from the University of Michigan. She lived in Israel for thirty years where she helped found MASLAN, the Women’s Center for victims of violence in the Negev. She received certification as a(n) “halakhic advisor” from the Jerusalem Institute for Women’s Studies: Nishmat and she was elected to the Academy for Awarding Theater Prizes in Israel. While in Israel, she met and got to know Rivka Basman Ben-Haim. She feels honored to be able to find a wider audience for this fine poet. Now back in New York, she holds the post of Hebraic and Judaic Studies at Lehman College/CUNY. She is working on a biography of the prolific Yiddish writer, Kadya Molodowsky.

 

Doves Speak Yiddish

Doves speak Yiddish
I myself heard it.
Reflecting,
They send their words
To the earth
Looking for grain–
They coo– like poets– a Yiddish word
To a dawn somewhere.
I spoke with them
And with a Yiddish word
I stroked their flight into the air.

 

 

Ben-Haim Poem

Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman book coverThe Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as A White Anglo-Saxon Jew
by Sue William Silverman
Press: University of Nebraska Press
Date: March, 2014
Pages: 248
ISBN: 978-0-8032-6485-4
Reviewed by: Kelly O’Toole

 

Sue William Silverman’s The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew is a collection of thematically linked essays, mini-memoirs that retell myriad events in Silverman’s life that reflect her struggles with identity, primarily with being a Jewish female in White Anglo-Saxon, Christian America.

She opens with a letter to the reader, describing herself as a gefilte fish, “Swimming Upstream with Nary a Fin. . .a Sorrowful, Utterly Lost and Sad Little Gefilte, far from her Glass Jar.” She appeals to the reader directly, pleading, “Turn these Pages. Understand.” What follows is Silverman’s journey to “Knowledge, Identity, Enlightenment,” the stories of swimming upstream in the sea of American culture, trying to reach herself and trying to reach home.

The title essay describes how a teenage Sue studied with a magnifying glass a Life magazine photo of Pat Boone, his wife and their four daughters riding a tandem bicycle. “I fantasized living inside this black-and-white print, unreachable,” she writes. “This immaculate universe was safe, far away from my father’s all-too-real hands, hands that hurt me at night.”

Silverman has written about her father’s hands hurting her at night in her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. Now she confides how she found safety and refuge in Pat Boone’s WASP-y image, his “crisp, clean unchanging certainty.” By replacing her Jewish father in her mind with Pat Boone, she was saved.

Pat Boone isn’t her only refuge. In “The Wandering Jew,” Silverman describes her fascination with a local tramp while living on St. Thomas as a girl. She follows him to his shantytown, believing he is safe, while her father is not. When she watches Charlie Chaplin films in which his characters save young women, she wishes to be those women. She finds safety in objects: handkerchiefs, garnet rosary beads, marbles (“Concerning Cardboard Ghosts, Rosaries, and the Thingness of Things”)

The best memoirs map an author’s journey of self-discovery, making readers feel they are traveling alongside the author, exploring her psyche with her, witnessing her activities and emotions. By the end of the best memoirs, readers are transformed, having embarked on their own journeys to self-discovery. That is certainly true of The Pat Boone Fan Club. The more we learn about Silverman’s identity confusion, the more we question our own identities; the more we see her finding answers to those questions, the more we want to find answers to our own questions.

Many readers will relate to “The Endless Possibilities of Youth,” in which Silverman reflects on her feelings of alienation as a teenager. She fantasizes that if only she looked less Jewish, the boy she’s smitten with will reciprocate her feelings. And sadly, far too many people have felt betrayed by their very bodies and later, by the very physicians entrusted to treat their ailing bodies, as Silverman did when she felt abdominal pains that evolved into severe intestinal distress when treated with antibiotics (“See the Difference”).

The book’s cover image is a teal phonograph needle on a 45 RPM vinyl record. A fitting image, since The Pat Boone Fan Club reads very much like a great rock ‘n’ roll record. Our singer, Ms. Silverman, impresses with the range of her voice. Sometimes she writes in first person, sometimes second. She experiments with form, as with the mosaic of “Galveston Island Breakdown”, the screenplay of “I Was a Prisoner on the Satellite of Love” and the comic book-style narrative of “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Also like a great album, its various “tracks” connect thematically, but it never feels repetitious. Silverman varies the beat with metaphor, dark comedy, irony and other literary devices. Her choice of details brings her descriptions to life. And her poetic language gives her prose musicality.

The Pat Boone Fan Club is a rollicking road-trip of a book. It’s a trip worth taking, again and again.

 ––––––––

Kelly O’Toole is a Community Columnist for the Grand Haven Tribune in Grand Haven, Michigan. She is working on a memoir.

Therése Halscheid

Therése Halscheid’s poetry collection Frozen Latitudes has just been released by Press 53. Previous collections are Uncommon Geography, Without Home and Powertalk. She received a Greatest Hits chapbook award by Pudding House Publications. Her poetry and essays have appeared in such magazines as The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, Sou’wester, Natural Bridge. She is an itinerant writer by way of house-sitting. Her photography has appeared in juried shows and chronicles her nomadic lifestyle. She visits schools, and has taught in unusual locales such as an Eskimo village in northern Alaska, and the Ural Mountains of Russia.

                                                                                      

Into the Iceberg

Hemingway said writers could leave things out of their tales. He felt the part omitted goes under the surface, yet buoys what gets on the page. And that which is submerged is massive compared to what is actually written. Like an iceberg, he said, seven-eighths remains below the water. Hemingway gave his idea over to this particular image – that of a berg – and so it is by that word his theory is known.

What Hemingway said of the nature of stories is also true of a poem: its small body can hold an undisclosed tale and that this tale underneath can be much larger than the poem itself. I would even venture to say while readers navigate a poem’s message – as their eyes are working across, wrapping to the next line, continuing – they are also reading down into it sensing hidden material through their own invisible minds. More so with a poem than in stories, I would have said to Hemingway if I could have met him. Because, and this is my understanding, a poem relies upon its few words to mean much more than the words themselves.

And this talk of the poems made me question the under-stories in my own work. It had me hunt for one that held within its spare construct, something concealed. Say, an awful secret that I did not want to make obvious. And the search led to an early collection with a poem important to me, but also seemingly insignificant in that it looked so small on the page, stark there, against all the whiteness.

Still I revisited the piece, first reading the words that were buoyant like the tip of an iceberg, then the whole poem again just to delve. To call forth the larger story I did not dare write:

Magic Word

when
i was too thin
to ride my bicycle  

i repeated sounds
in my name

until each
spoke —

turned
as one moving wheel

Going then, down under its first few lines, I find that very girl who is too thin to ride. She is hiding there looking the same as she seems on the page. Even beneath the poem she is struggling with her bike. I know her as the tragic part of my past. Know too, the short poem is a long story – that grows always down never out in the open, like an ice mountain that must only exist under the cold swells of the sea. This too thin girl who, at age fifteen, is actually dying. The poem holds her life but lacks so many words of her. And she is so silenced she can only give her life to these little words, to hold.

I leave her for a moment. Lift my eyes, over to where they can cast themselves upon another word. I choose bicycle. Enter it – again seeking that very same girl. See that day in late May, when a soft wind touched the thin of her arms, her spindly legs – so that her limbs began to move with a certain ambition. Up, out of bed, walking about in the attic bedroom past the window where this wind blew through. She had been awfully cold until this warm-scented air made her think of wanting to ride, wanting to dress like everyone else, be out in the light of the lemon sun, its many rays. So that instead of layering clothes – thermal wear, thick sweaters, socks and woolen slacks – she dressed in a long-sleeve cotton shirt that fell loosely over a lighter pair of pants. And it was just like her to let the shirt hang like it was oversized, instead of tucking it in. For, in truth, she was hiding the pins that held up her pants. She hid a lot that year. It was strange, in fact, how many times she escaped eating or disguised she was pinning her clothes. I stare into her, as if going back to someone I want to avoid but also need to recover. I know her mind but do not get too far into her thoughts. I cannot see through just as she cannot think clearly. Just as she is thinning while still carrying an intense need to lose weight. Despite these visible signs – her clothes falling off, and the pins, the belt she keeps poking to make new holes, the lack of food – there is also the secret she has kept with death, to remove her life.

When
I was too thin
to ride…

On her face a look of sureness appears she has not worn in months. And I enter that certainty – into the next scene where she exits the door to the back of the house, to the shed for the bike she led to the street. And straddles the seat and ignores how it hurts. I watch that girl knowing she is my child-self. That I was once her when she was all bones: her bottom, her back, the shoulder blades that jut out like that of a caught bird’s, whose wings have been stripped of feathers, the entire body plucked and bound. The papery flesh down to one translucent layer.

How far I have gone inside the word bicycle to rediscover her. My eyes deeply searching, as if peering into one of Hemingway’s icebergs where her story is frozen, locked in its clearness, caught. As if that part of her life will stay always under water. But also to note in the scene what spring has thawed, the breeze which came, and how everything in this story in late May had grown increasingly warm, so that she is in the street tilting the bike, leaning forward, gripping the handle bars. Her feet ready to push off as if the wheels would soon turn her life alive.  

No. I did not put all these details of her on top of the paper, nor place them in any poem, nor have I ever mentioned this very moment out loud. Instead, I just allow the small poem I have written to wear its essence. I allow the reader to sense the fact that she did set off to peddle despite the odds, thinking she could do it, not questioning her health, nor fully realizing how frail, just wanting to go around the block. To let myself go, she thought, and have the bike take her away. To become separate from the cold and suddenly in sun. Except, it never happened. The bike toppled. She couldn’t hold on. And I had to go after her, plunge through the poem, frantically down through its lines – to where she had fallen in the street and lay flat and still. Like tracking an iceberg, I reach a depth where no rescue diver can stay long nor want to try. And she is there, ashamed in the street wearing embarrassment. I want to hold her, hold onto her. For I am that girl but also am no longer herself. I am there, to lift her up into actual life, float her to the surface and expose her whole story to you.

*****

Of the Iceberg Theory, he also said not to fudge. Hemingway, he said if you do not know something about your subject, don’t think you can simply omit that part. Likewise, do not try to speak of something you do not know. Because readers pick up on that too, he felt. They would know the writer was insincere on some level and it would show up as a hole in the story. Like a hole in the tip of a berg – a reader would see through the opening, an obvious sky.

And I looked once more at my poem and noticed I never used the word Anorexia. Thinking of holes in stories – other, various kinds – it would have destroyed the life my poem tried to capture had I taken a clinical approach. Even the sound of it strange, for the poem moves through the lyrical workings of the heart and not by way of a label. That word, Anorexia, it would have been my hole. And because I cannot allow myself to be used as a medical term, readers would sense the writer’s awkwardness. If used, they would intuit the language was forced on some level and the poem would start working against itself, forfeit its own truth that something was eating at her instead of her not eating. That too thin girl, she would be diagnosed. The reader would then focus upon her body much like the attention paid to a superficial wound. Or say, if the poem talked medically throughout, it would be riddled with holes by way of defining her as a condition. Expand her suffering into something narrowly construed – and I would have spent long hours trying to fit her into those words.

Just like all the fishing jargon that wasn’t necessary for The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway said it himself that his novelette could actually have been a full-blown novel if he had included all he knew of fishing, and then had the old man doing all those things. I believe he was attentive enough to his character to omit the very terminology that would have put holes in the boat, sunk the old man.

And outside the world of my poem or a Hemingway story, the same applies. To the girls, or any other body who has been stared at, mocked, and then called Anorexic, they should think beyond those hurtful influences. Those who have been joked about, who bear the words that weaken them more – they should turn their attention from this talk, and know the problem they have is more than their physical self. It is even true of icebergs that name-calling occurs by way of their visible tips: the rounded dome, the pinnacle, the wedge or dry-dock, the blocky – are shapes that shape our attention so that we seem always to know of a thing by the way it looks, the surface when, really, there is so much underneath that holds the real appearance.

No. Strange as it may seem Anorexia is not what I had. What I had was the loss of a father. That is it. My father, who had undergone heart surgery with the outcome – a damaged brain. Who returned home with behaviors so shocking, so strange, foreign to me that my own reasoning was soon gone and my body housed only his dementia, became so full of the father I could not ingest anything else. I could not eat because of the loss and not from a lack of food. Like an iceberg lurking beneath the water, overtaking an important area of sea, not once letting up or melting down; like a disguised danger capable of felling an unsinkable ship – was my father, his dementia immense, consuming me. To where I refused to eat and the end was sure. Yes. This is what I had.

*****

i repeated sounds
in my name

until each
spoke —

Concerning magic words, I think their magical properties arise in direct proportion to an opposite event. Just as some say we learn of light from knowing the dark. A statement Hemingway would agree with because at the core of his characters was this awareness, was nada, nothingness, as he said, which pushes life to the surface. He seemed to create scenes which held to this belief: the precarious position of the bullfighter standing before the bull for example, or characters on safari who wind up capturing their own fear of death. He invented people who were present to whatever challenges or feats he gave to them, characters who knew their own mortality, which propelled them to live fully in books. At the root of his theory it was death that determined the quality of their existence. And too, in many ways, Hemingway was like a poet. Like the poet, he sensed how to transfer the mystery of the extremes, say, of death aiding life, by using a style that was spare; crafting so that out of the simplistic came something profound. In this way he gained mastery over the complexities of the human condition, creating through fiction timeless accounts.

Looking back, to my young self again, that too thin girl – she was deep in her shadow, in a state of mind from which she could not rise. She was too thin to worry. A conflict Hemingway would not have used, but understood. A frail girl falling off her bike onto the asphalt and there death was, just waiting. Sly, like dark film finely spread over the street. Like warm tar that she would stick to when her face touched. And that was the main death really. Her very life was denied, the ride suddenly over with the same verve that whisked her outdoors in the first place. That May morning of sun and a breeze tempting her out to try something she used to easily do. It would have returned the dignity she lost had she been able to do this one thing and now this, not even possible. No. It was better to lie still, pull over her the feelings of cold. And not care if a car came or if her mother came softly asking her back to the house. She would just say no. If her mother found her there and began to coax her back in the best way she could, helping her up, please into the house to eat, to please sit with her food, into the kitchen please where her father was. If she did, she would have to remain with him in the kitchen, facing his strangeness. Again that distorted look of his far-away eyes. And that room was death, too. Of the two deaths at hand, there was only one girl to decide which one to take.

It could have been the meek heart that started it, or the hidden soul, or the invisible mind – but a feeling welled from within and one of the three gave voice to it. One of the three spoke a word in the hollow of her body and it moved through a sad labyrinth where sounds barely escape, yet did it travel up to the cold opening of her mouth – that small cave no sun could enter. One word, and it rose in a voice both remote and familiar. And the moment was life giving in this way, in the way a single word could persist. Enough to empower. Enough that it gave of its strength and was felt, that she might consider lifting the bike slowly off. When it spoke, the word became her. It became herself saying her given name – sound of the self that was her very own. As if its tone could speak her back into the world knowing there was a word for her; she was the definition. Word that meant something as it lifted out of her mouth, out of her silence and into the air. Like a mantra whose sound continues long after its utterance, whose vibration ripples outward and circles back to transform. One’s name and nothing more would be needed. Enough to free herself from the weight of the tires, push the front wheel off and watch it spin alive – like a planet that had cycled off course and was now in reentry, yes, revolving once more to encircle the lemon sun. And then it all began to move, the spokes turned as one moving wheel:

turned
as one moving wheel

And the girl began peeling the bike off while saying her name out loud. With all the sureness she could muster, her body lifting, rising. By the curb saying the sound of herself. Aloud to the air that transferred it back into her. Air that she breathed in and listened to, until she was upright looking around. As if everything she saw was a magic word…. Until this language of life came at her. It started to return.

Marlena Maduro Baraf

Marlena Maduro Baraf came to the United States from her native Panama and studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Parsons School of Design in New York. She is principal at a small interior design firm in New York. She also worked as Editor with the McGraw-Hill Book Company and has been an active member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute community. Her work has been published in the Westchester Review. La Misa is an excerpt from her memoir, working title, Mami. You can contact Marlena at https://twitter.com@MarlenaBaraf

 

La Misa

One by one, every girl in the queue to the chapel reaches into the basket by the open double doors and plucks a head covering, a round doily the size of a yarmulke pinched with a single bobby pin that does not discredit the sweetness of the tulle and the lace.  I attach mine, and I walk in.

We adjust our eyes to the softened light. Opposite the altar, at the foot of the room, is a stone bowl half-filled with holy water. Girls that remember dip their middle fingers into the liquid and touch their foreheads to begin the sign of the cross.  En el nombre del padre, at the forehead, del hijo, high on the chest, del espíritu santo, left shoulder, then right.  Nuns are singing Gregorian chants in the balcony. Voices of angels rain down on our heads. The procession continues down the center aisle. There is a single row of pews on the right and the same on the left.  The younger grades settle closest to the metal grille near the altar, the older, high school girls at the back.  We genuflect. We slide into each pew from the center axis towards the wall until every pew is filled.  Before the priest begins, we kneel onto the wood ledge that is attached to the seat in front, clutching the petite, shiny white misales with white-ribbon tails peering out from gold-edged pages.  After the right number of minutes we sit, and the mass begins.

Because the prayers are in Latin, the bells serve to alert us that it is time for communion.  Voicing rhythmic incantations, the priest lifts the round wafer above his forehead, consecrating it, pronouncing it the body of Christ. The altar boys agitate the bells.  Girls who have confessed earlier squeeze past the rest of us in the pew toward the center aisle. They line up quietly in dutiful intention. They approach the priest at the grille and kneel before him.

 *****

Panama, ninety-five percent Catholic, had been a crossroads for trade for hundreds of years, and panameños were accustomed to people of many sorts. But if someone asked, “¿eres judía?” you pulled in a short breath and gulped it down. The word for Jew in Spanish is harsh, the letter “j” sounding like an “h” in English, thrown from the throat across the upper palate.  Hebrea was a better, softer word, “h” in Spanish having no sound.  Los hebreos were the people of the book, children of Abraham and Moses, receivers of the Commandments

“¡Tú mataste a Jesús!” I was sitting in the back of the bus with no way to escape. I still remember the burning words. Eight-year-old Camila had twisted her head to face me. “You killed Jesus!  (Small flames circled my spongy heart.) The school bus fell silent.  We knew the damning fact. We had learned it in la clase de Religión: Judas the traitor turned in the son of God.  Judas the betrayer, un judío.

On any one year there were only three or four of us at Las Esclavas –always cousins. We were a tiny group of Jews in Panama and those of us niñas who attended Las Esclavas had to go to mass before classes like the other girls.  The Catholic orders had the only good schools in Panama then. Some of my tíos chose to send their children to public school in the Canal Zone where they would study in English, but had no religious instruction. Papi wanted us to be “panameñas primero.”     

Our adviser at school was madre Concepción, a massive woman covered completely except for the exposed shield of her face–and her hands.  She and the other nuns at school wore thick black robes in ample folds held at the waist by a band, reaching down to the tips of their shoes. I noticed the shoes. The squeaky, black-leather, laced shoes were radical. Our mamis wore pretty three-inch heels. The nuns sailed down the halls surrounding the courtyard, their dark headdress with a white band across the forehead making their skin very pink.  They were a different sort of creature. And they were kind.

We, the Spanish Jews, were an established community in Panama, older than the country. Almost rabiblancos, the “white-tailed” elite of Panama. Nevertheless I studied Catecismo and Religión and learned about Purgatory, where souls with venial sins could take up temporary residence.

“Madre, can Jews go to Purgatory?” I asked.

“Not unless they convert.”

“But if you are good and you die before you convert, what happens?  ¿Vas al infierno?”

“Sí,” replied my teacher.  “The rule is that if you have heard of Jesus and don’t convert, you cannot be saved.”

“What about Limbo? Can Jews go to Limbo?”

“If there was a baby not Catholic who died before he had ever heard the name of Jesus, he can go to Limbo.”

Where did I belong?  How could these madres who knew my family believe that we would skid down in a giant chute to burn forever with the Devil?

I became a pest at Catechism. Still, the story of Jesus and the tactile wisdom of the tradition were irresistible.  There was a glossy rosary bead for each prayer.  Our fingers touched the prayer when we recited each sonorous call and riposte. My sister Patricia and I succumbed. We snuck pink rosary beads into the house and said prayers at night under our bed sheets.  When Patricia worried about a boy, she prayed to the Virgin Mary.

“I want to convert,” I confessed to Madre Concepción. “I want to be a nun like you.” The madres held me back for a while then arranged a meeting with a priest in the front room where they welcomed parents.  I poured out my anguish, “Padre, me quiero convertir.  Me quiero convertir.”

“Niña,” he said, “espere un poco.  Wait until you are older. You have a fine tradition in your Judaísmo.¿Sábes?”

*****

A girl sticks out her fleshy tongue to receive the gift, a small piece of the unyeasted wafer; then she stands up with lowered eyes.  She brings her fingers together and drops her chin to contain the presence that is now inside of her and returns to us, walking slowly along a new tributary to the outer end of our pew.  The girl steps in, and the rest of us, subdued and empty, slide toward the center to give her space.

I listen for the angel voices.  The priest concludes the mass. “Ite. Missa est,” he declares, “the mass is ended,” and we file out to begin our day.

I long for communion.

*****

Because I didn’t grow up in her time, I never understood my grandmother’s disquiet.  At the end of a school day when I might come to visit, my doting abuelita would look up at me with her troubled-blue questioning eyes, “¿con quién andas?” Who are your friends?

She never spelled it out, but I knew that I was meant to unearth an ‘Arias,’ a ‘Vallarino,’ or another prominent name in Catholic society. I resisted revealing the names of my friends, friends that did match what my Amamá longed for. My friends were my friends, Anita, Marce, Ceci, mis amigas católicas who lived not too far from mi casa de piedra on Calle Uruguay.

Were Amamá’s worries miedos de un pasado antiguo? Were they lingering fears resulting from the Jews’ banishment from Spain centuries ago, fears that coursed in the family blood? Why was mi abuelita so bothered?

*****

At the close of Yom Kippur we gather at tía Connie and tío Stanley’s house to break the fast. As if we need reminding that we are a clan, all the tíos and primos come together. Even the Motta brothers who married Catholic women and raised their children Catholic come to break the fast. At my aunt’s white draped table we reach for the tall silver carafe–hot to the touch–steaming with coffee boiled in cinnamon water. A pretty, distended bowl holds a glossy mound of egg yolks and sugar that have been whipped to a frenzy.  We dip a large silver spoon into the white, and we wait while the thick cream drops into our coffee cups with a slow-moving plop. There are not many rules.  Ham but not pork.  We eat shellfish now. My country is the land of the shrimp. Distant from other Jewish groups, we are on our own.

Our sinagoga is a long rectangle with stucco walls and a turret in the middle.  On Avenida Cuba con Calle treinta y seis.  Tíos, it’s almost all tíos. There is a minyan every Friday night. The same ten or twelve alternate the roles of presidente, vicepresidente o tesorero. One De Castro, one Fidanque, one Motta, Cardoze, Maduro, Lindo or Toledano–reading at the podium in their guayaberas. In earlier decades it would have been different men with the same last names, a game of musical chairs. It would have been one or the next and then the same one again sitting on the red leather chairs facing the family in the pews, next to the Ark holding the Torá and the Panama flag on its slender pedestal.

An elder reads a prayer for the “Reader” and the group responds with their lines marked “Congregation” or “Chorus” from the blue books stored in slots behind the pew in front. They drone their rumble in English, skipping the prayers in Hebrew except for the Shema and the Kaddish (naturally using the Spanish inflections, Cheh-má and Kahdeesh).

I hear the soft thunder of the congregation in the double height above my head. The bells and tiny concave metal discs dance to their own music on the silver staff holding the scrolls of the Torá.

At the leftover end of the synagogue las tías organize a school on Saturday mornings, a one-room schoolhouse for primos.  It is a long and slender void dotted with square folding tables with tubular legs that keep pieces of your flesh when you click them in place. In this shiftable room the adults also meet after Friday night service for a glass of Manishevitz and little chunks of pound cake.  We sing from the red hymnal and act stories from the Bible. I win an award for learning Hebrew words that I do not understand.

During World War I a chaplain assigned to the Jewish enlisted men in the Canal Zone introduced the small Panama clan to the Union Prayerbook used by the Reform congregations in the United States. The group completed a synagogue in l935 and hired their first rabbi, a young graduate from the Hebrew Union College, still clinging to Spanish and Portuguese chants. The rabbi served for five years. There were others, but the community was not able to hold on to a rabbi for long.

I imagine that my tíos looked upon the new rabbi’s talit with long tendrils of fringe at the ends and felt connected to an ancient and venerable wisdom.  He made them think and called them to moral action.  I experienced an occasional visiting rabbi, and that’s how I saw it. I didn’t have many details.

We were a tiny minority living in a small nation with a capital city set next to the Pacific Ocean, warm and open, an expansive country. We had little reason to complain, and we were careful not to offend.

Tarfia Faizullah

Tarifa Faizullah book coverSeam
by Tarfia Faizullah
Press: Southern Illinois University Press
Pages: 65
Date: 2014
ISBN: 0-8093-3325-2
Reviewed by: Paul David Adkins

 

A Cleansing and Breaking Water: Tarfia Faizullah, Seam,
and the Genocide of Bangladesh

Water breaks, and so does the body. But while water reclaims and heals itself from its trauma, the human body remains torn, severed, polluted by the violence inflicted upon it. Tarfia Faizullah’s debut poetry volume Seam is not for those easily sickened by inhumanity and brutality, but rather is written for women and men galvanized by compassion and empathy to record outrages and genocide, continuing in the tradition of Never Forget. And like any responsible genocidal document, Faizullah’s writing is unsparing in detail, unrelenting in intensity, and breathtaking in scope and vision.

But so many of us have forgotten. It was 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s Liberation War: also the timeframe of Vietnam, Biafra, Attica. Who knew Pakistani military forces killed, murdered, and/or raped approximately 3.5 million Bengalis in less than twelve months? Who remembers this systematic attempt to completely annihilate a country, a culture, a people? I didn’t, until I picked up Seam, and then assumed, alongside the author, the staggering grief of a nation.

Water permeates Seam, making an appearance in 22 of the 33 poems. In Bangladesh, a land averaging seventeen feet above sea level, a land of frequent, disastrous cyclones, the idea of water is always near. Faizullah creates, however, a human geography effuse with water breaking in all its forms: ocean, river, pond, rain, and tide. It flows through the rape victims torrentially.

In Interview with a Birangona (#5) an attacker inquires ,: “Over milk tea and butter biscuits, the commander asks / what it feels like to have dirty blood running through our / veins.” (34)

Sometimes the water cleanses, for instance, just before the onslaught of rape begins, as in Interview with a Birangona (#1): “Gleaming water sweeps over / Mother’s feet.” (25) Other times it forms a weight: “Each week I pull hard / the water from the well.” (28). Regardless of its function, however, water assumes an omnipresent force in the lives of the victims, with its shifting shape, its deceptive gleam, its once cleansing, and then polluting properties.

In many ways, the Bengali rape victims assume the identity of Bangladesh. Officially recognized by the government for their sacrifices in 1972, authorities bequeathed a woman violated during the conflict with the honorary title of Birangona, or War Heroine.

In 1971, a victim literally dons her nation’s identity:

. . . don’t tell
her the country of her birth
became a veined geography inside

you, another body inside your own. (10)

The speaker then reinforces this possession, this ownership, in the first of three poems entitled Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh:

Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald

inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between

us still irrepressible. (14)

As the speaker records water’s breaking and the complex dynamics of human geography, she also pays close attention to the breaking of bodies, of the human spirit, of a culture exposed to such extreme trauma. In Elegy for Her Red-Tipped Fingers, the author notes, “Bangla: language I speak / now to your grieving daughter, this language / / the bodies of women were once broken / open for.” (19) Later, she incorporates this brokenness into the form of the poetry itself, presenting the reader with the disjointed lines of Interviewer’s Note IV:

Today there is no drinking
water today there is no
light today there is only
kerosene the hmm hmm hmm
of a generator pulsing deep (41)

Nothing seems to escape Faizullah’s eye.

Throughout the volume, a sense of disassociation weaves within the pieces. Seam takes a decided and necessary shift in voice as the speaker assumes the role of interviewer.

She begins to refer to herself in the second person in her Interview Note (I through V).” She observes in Part I: “You walk past white high rises / seamed with mold.” (27). Part V retains this dissociative state: “But wasn’t it the neat narrative / you wanted?” (46), she asks her disembodied self. This state of disassociation is a direct result of vicarious trauma the speaker experiences through reliving the victims’ stories. It is an involuntary self-defense mechanism creating space between herself and the Birangonas she questions. And while this distance is necessary to protect the speaker’s sanity, it also adds a compelling layer to the volume’s fundamental question, “How much can I possess, can I experience, of your traumatic story?” By assuming the second person in the Notes poems, Faizullah brilliantly navigates the horrors of systematic rape, while not intruding on the devastating details with her own opinions, reactions, and responses.

Faizullah’s speaker travels from the United States to Bangladesh to interview victims and explore her own history, while gaining an understanding of the underlying source of her mother’s trauma. Lorraine Healy, writing in her 2010 poetry volume The Habit of Buenos Aires about the Argentina Civil War, conveys a similar compulsion in her piece The Country I Flee From Daily:

Everything there needs me back:
the floods, the starving, the dark-souled.
To witness as the coffers
are covered in black velvet

and disappear.
To go behind the funeral procession
and wail. So many gone. (21)

What is so commendable about these personal journeys embarked upon by Healy’s and Faizullah’s speakers is the amount of personal courage it takes to initiate them. The risks they assume to relive these traumas is immense, and life-altering.

In 1971, the mother asks Faizullah’s speaker, “But tell me . . . / why couldn’t you research the war / from here?” (10) Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito provides the answer:

because I woke
alone in the myth of one life, I will
myself into another – how strange

to witness
nameless, the tangled shape
our blood makes across us,

 my open palm. (60)

Seam is devastating in its courage to fully examine a family’s history. The trauma Faizullah willingly confronts is deadening in range, yet she still decisively steps forward to meet it headlong.

In her closing poem, she sums up the uncertainty, yet eventual victory, of her journey: “The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed / lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my / face toward it.” (65) In the end, this is all we can hope for: a little light as we move forward, a touch of light which helps draw and focus the wandering of our vision.

 

As noted:
Healy, Lorraine. The Habit of Buenos Aires. Huntington Beach, CA: Tebot Back. 2010. Print.

  ––––––––

Paul David Adkins served in the US Army for 21 years. He earned degrees from Mercer University and Washington University, St. Louis. His chapbooks include The Upside Down House (Yellow Jacket Press), The Great Crochet Question (Kind of a Hurricane Press), and Stick Up (Blood Pudding Press).

Avrom Sutzkever

Avrom Sutzkever was the greatest Jewish poet of his time. He spent his childhood in Siberia and emerged as a writer in the youthful literary flowering of Jewish Vilna. As poet and Jew in the Vilna Ghetto, he was transformed into a living remnant of a people’s near death, writing immortal works and helping to conceal Jewish cultural treasures for later rescue. After the war, he became a prophetic symbol and a cultural-historical institution, founding Yiddish literature’s greatest journal in Israel. A committed Zionist, he earned his country’s highest literary honor even as its powerful never abandoned their suspicion of Yiddish literary creativity. He died in 2010.

 

Zackary Sholem Berger (translator) is a poet, short story writer and translator in Baltimore who works in Yiddish and English. His first Yiddish-English collection of poetry, Not in the Same Breath, was published in 2011, and his second, One Nation Taken Out of Another, is due to appear in 2014 from Apprentice House. He was a Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in 2013, and his translations of poetry by I.L. Peretz and C.N. Bialik were shown at the Kennedy Center to accompany recitations by the pianist Evgeny Kissin.

 

From Diary Poems

Of course, your ladder’s inside you. In-you is your ladder.
Not that ladder, anyhow, leaning out there on the attic.
The first climber is actually behind the second
Who is the first to the top – instead of the first.
A cloud darkens your pupils: a pointless reflection.
Words with six wings are ready for your rungs.
You wrestle with one, who touches your thigh.
You will always limp, climbing on the rungs.
Limp then. But don’t neglect completion’s line.
Your ladder won’t fall down from quaking earth.
At night there are no stars, just the burning leaves of books.
There is none other. You are second, and the third.
In you, a living breath in a valley of bones.
No one enlivens them except for your breath.
In you, the weeping storm, the air of sea
that comes after it. The fecund kernel.
The triumph of the tree that comes tomorrow.

Yves Bonnefoy

Translator’s Note on Yves Bonnefoy’s Work:

I began translating Yves Bonnefoy’s work when I was a teenager, so long ago that I no longer remember how I came across his poems or had the chutzpah to think I could do an adequate job of translating them into English. He was very patient with me, as I lived within his world for the time it took to translate Pierre écrite (Words in Stone) and L’Origine du langage (The Origin of Language). It is a very different world than my own. It’s not just the distance from Paris to the small college town where I was working, or from one language to another; he has a different vision, a different approach to language than my own, more focused on the essential than the particular. Different as it was and as it remains, his vision and his words have shaped me as a human being and as a poet, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to re-enter his poems after so many years. It is like an oasis, this border between the known and the unknown where so many of his poems pause and consider. This one in particular is moving to me, presenting the image of an artist reaching the end of his life’s work. Yves Bonnefoy was born in 1923. Of course, he is thinking about the end of his road, with the same clarity and grace that he has thought about every step along the way.

 

Photo credit to Mathilde Bonnefoy
Photo credit to Mathilde Bonnefoy

Yves Bonnefoy, born on June 24, 1923, is perhaps the most important French poet of the latter half of the 20th century. He has also been a respected critic, scholar, and translator, having translated works by Shakespeare, John Donne, and William Butler Yeats into French. After studying mathematics at the University of Poitiers, Bonnefoy moved to Paris where he came under the influence of the Surrealists. His first poetry collection, Du movement et de l’immobilité de Douve (1953; On the Motion and Immobiity of Douve), explored the relation of poetry to life, a theme that has continued through the 20 books of poetry published in succeeding decades. He explored the visual arts as well as literature in studies of Giacometti and Goya. In 2007 he was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize in recognition of his contributions to literature. 

 

Susanna Lang Susanna Lang’s (translator) most recent collection of poems, Tracing the Lines, was published in 2013 by the Brick Road Poetry Press. Her first collection, Even Now, was published in 2008 by The Backwaters Press, and a chapbook, Two by Two, was released in October 2011 from Finishing Line Press. She has published original poems and essays, and translations from the French, in such journals as Little Star, New Letters, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Green Mountains Review, The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, Southern Poetry Review, World Literature Today, Chicago Review, New Directions, and Jubilat. Book publications include translations of Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, both by Yves Bonnefoy. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.

 

He Is Leaving

In this wash drawing, sketch of a landscape,
You could see him leave. Hesitant at first,
Taking one road and then another,
And more, still more, till he reaches his night.                                   

Soon those who loved him
Could see only a clear remnant
Of his color, a red, beneath this sky
With its unknown waves along our shore.

Tall trees from over there, pathless, dense;
He goes forward, immobile, we do not know
If he wants to risk himself in their other world.

Or perhaps like the sun that has achieved its task,
He puts aside his brushes and lies down
In peace, on the flagstone of the evening sky.

 

Il s’éloigne

Dans ce lavis, ébauche d’un paysage,
On le vit s’éloigner. Hésitant, d’abord,
Puis prenant ce chemin après quoi cet autre
Et d’autres, d’autres encore, jusqu’à sa nuit.

Ceux qui l’aimaient
N’aperçurent bientôt qu’un reste clair
De sa couleur, un rouge, sous ce ciel
Qui ourle d’inconnu notre rivage.

Grands arbres de là-bas, serrés, impénétrables,
Il avance, immobile, nous ne savons
Sil veut s’aventurer dans leur autre monde.

Ou comme le soleil qui achève sa tâche
S’il pose ses pinceaux, et va s’étendre
En paix, sur la dalle de pierre du ciel du soir.

Lori Lamothe

Lori Lamothe had her first chapbook, Camera Obscura, published by Finishing Line Press. Diary in Irregular Ink, another chapbook, is forthcoming in 2014 from ELJ Press, and a third, Ouija in Suburbia, will be out late next year from Dancing Girl Press. Trace Elements is forthcoming from Kelsay Books. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming from 42opus, Cleaver Magazine, Linebreak, Nervous Breakdown, Spittoon, and other magazines.

 

Lori Lamothe_Poem1 - Copy

 

 

Lori Lamothe_Poem2 - Copy

Anne Liu Kellor

Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw Productions. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne’s memoir, Searching for the Heart Radical, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrated between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.     


Sky Burial

I met Zhang Jie at a noodle shop in Markam, Sichuan province, China. When she walked in wearing a dark blue sun hat, a yellow windbreaker, jeans, Reeboks, and a giant black camera bag across her shoulder, I could tell that she too was not from around here. To my surprise, she sat down next to me and introduced herself. Soon I learned that she was from the coastal city of Guangzhou, where she’d just finished studying at the university. Since Zhang Jie could speak a little English, we switched back and forth between languages. I told her I was from America and had just graduated from college myself. My mother was Chinese, and my father, American, I explained, so I grew up speaking some Chinese. Now, I was looking for a job in Chengdu, but had wanted to get away from the crowds for a few days. I’d also hoped to find the parents of a Tibetan friend I’d met in the States, but when I’d called the number I had, it hadn’t gone through.

As we introduced ourselves, a Tibetan monk came in the restaurant, begging, and I dug in my bag for small change. The Tibetan shopkeeper and Zhang Jie shot him scornful looks.

“Don’t give him money,” she whispered to me in English.

“Why not?” I asked.

“They don’t do anything. All they do is beg.”

I withdrew my hand from my purse and slurped my noodle soup.

“Are you going to Seda?” Zhang Jie asked.

“Where?”

“Seda,” she repeated, and told me of a monastery that was a day’s journey from Markam. Seda. I hadn’t planned on seeking out any remote Tibetan monasteries this weekend, but I was interested. In fact, part of the reason why Chengdu appealed to me as a place to teach and live was because of its proximity to these Tibetan regions. Ever since I’d traveled through these remote areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai province on my first trip to China, three years ago in 1996, I’d longed to return.

“I tried to go to Seda today,” Zhang Jie continued, “but there were no buses. There’s a bus tomorrow morning at six. I just sat in my room and watched TV all day– there’s nothing to see here. Why else would you come all this way?”

She seemed to be suggesting I come with her. I wasn’t sure we were the best match in traveling partners, but why not? I’d feel disappointed if I just turned around and headed back to Chengdu after a full day’s journey to get here.

“Okay,” I decided. “I’ll go.”

 *****

Early the next morning I boarded the mini-bus and took a window seat near the front behind Zhang Jie, where I knew I’d be less squished by those who would sit on stools or bags in the aisles. Soon the bus was full, and the passengers were mostly Khampas, Tibetans from the Kham, the southeastern region of Tibet, who are known for their fierce brazenness and horse-riding skills. I recognized them from the bright strands of red cloth they braided into their hair and then twisted atop their heads, men and women alike. They stared at me fearlessly with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.

I smiled when I caught their eyes, but with Zhang Jie near me I felt less outgoing than I might have been on my own. Instead, I stared out the window as our bus rattled over rocky dirt roads, winding higher across the plateau, passing empty grasslands devoid of human signs except for a lone white tent here and there, a tuft of smoke rising from within. Herds of yaks grazed and romped about, their thick bushy tails swishing from behind. The Tibetans in the back gave out a little cry each time we hurtled over a particularly large hole, which sent them bouncing up in their seats. All the Tibetans sat in the back of the bus… somehow this could not be a coincidence. I wanted the Tibetans to know that I was not like the Chinese, that I did not see them as barbaric or inferior as was so often the case, but I was not so eager to attempt to explain my views to Zhang Jie in my basic, broken Chinese.

The bus chortled on for hours, stopping only once at a little no-name shack in the middle of nowhere for lunch. Here, I sat at a table with a few Tibetan men, offering them some of my loose green tea as we each filled our thermoses with hot water. When Zhang Jie walked over, she looked at them uncomfortably and suggested we sit at an empty table. I obliged. After lunch, when I gave our remaining food to a Tibetan beggar, Zhang Jie looked at me strangely.

As the afternoon wore on, the bus grew silent and some passengers slept, while I stared out the dusty window at the miles of endless grasslands, framed by mountains on all sides. Finally, as the sun sank low into the sky, I saw my first sign of the monastery: a lone monk walked at the edge of the road in a long burgundy robe, glancing up to meet my eyes as we rattled past. Up ahead, I spotted a row of white chotens or stupas that marked the edge of a path that wound out of sight into a valley. Seda. Other passengers began to stir; we were here. The bus stopped and a few people got off, the driver helping them to retrieve their bags from the rooftop. Zhang Jie turned to me. “We’ll stay in the town tonight and go to the monastery in the morning.”

At the guesthouse, I let Zhang Jie do the talking. She gave the Chinese woman proprietor her shenfenzhen, the identity card all Chinese must show before registering.

“What about her shenfenzhen?” the stodgy woman gestured to me suspiciously.

“One shenfenzhen is enough, isn’t it? You don’t need both of ours,” Zhang Jie insisted.

The woman shook her head, “I need both of your shenfenzhens.”

Zhang Jie sighed as if this were an unusual request. “She’s a huaren,” she

explained. “She doesn’t have a shenfenzhen.” Huaren. Overseas Chinese. Zhang Jie hadn’t said meiguoren, American. This way there was a blood affinity established. She’s one of us.

The woman shook her head. “Must have shenfenzhen. Foreigners can’t stay here.”

Zhang Jie sighed again. “Come on,” she pleaded, “it’s only for a few nights. Anyway, her mother is Chinese.”

Suddenly grateful to be traveling with Zhang Jie, I admired her feisty, uneasily daunted character, and tried my best to appear pleasant and non-threatening.

Hao le, hao le. “Fine, fine, write down your name,” the woman thrust out a form, then took our money, grabbed a ring of keys from a nail near the door, and led us to our room.

Inside, an old rusty stove sat between two hard twin beds on a bare wooden floor. I wandered off to go find the toilets, and returned to find Zhang Jie talking with a tall, young Chinese man in wire-rimmed glasses and a sporty red and black jumpsuit. “This is Xiao Mao,” she said. He rose to shake my hand limply, meeting my eyes for a moment before quickly looking away. Zhang Jie explained that he was from Tianjin, a big city near Beijing. I sat down on my bed and listened as they talked, picking up bits and pieces of his story. Xiao Mao had first come to Seda two years ago and stayed for a whole year, building a little wooden cabin and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Last year, he’d gone home to save up more money, and now he was back for a short visit. He spoke quietly, his motions and expressions restrained. I’d never met a Chinese before who was studying Tibetan Buddhism. I wanted to ask Xiao Mao what had led him to Buddhism and to Seda, but I wasn’t even sure how to say Buddhism in Chinese. Zhang Jie seemed animated and engaged, speaking faster and with far more complicated words than she used with me.

After Xiao Mao left, Zhang Jie made a fire in our little wood stove, and we talked while huddling under our filthy bed quilts and layers of clothing. This was the first time that I’d shared a room with a Chinese traveler, since usually we were not allowed to stay with them in the dorm rooms at hotels. Zhang Jie was a business major, whereas I’d studied writing, art, and dance. I tried to explain how at my college we were also allowed to create independent contracts and travel or study subjects of our own choosing. “Did you do this?” she asked. “No,” I lied. How could I tell her about the peace march I went on for Tibet? I feared that without the vocabulary to get into my views in depth, telling her this would only prove to Zhang Jie that Americans are always chastising the Chinese. For now, it was easier just to let Zhang Jie believe that she had invited me to a place with which I had no prior connection.

 *****

The next morning we rose early and boarded a black jeep with Xiao Mao, a Tibetan monk, and the driver. The sky was clear and blue, the hills blanketed with fresh green. We rode back to the chotens we’d passed the day before, then turned to head up the bumpy dirt road to the monastery, thick plumes of dust rising behind us. Suddenly, as we turned a corner, the hillside was covered with small wooden structures: quarters of the monks and nuns. Long draping cloths with Tibetan symbols hung in place of doors in the cabins. Xiao Mao said there were one thousand monks and nuns studying here, an impressive number for a faith only cautiously tolerated in this country. I knew that there had been a resurgence of religious activity in the last ten or fifteen years, and the government was more relaxed in these Tibetan areas of China as opposed to in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” or what most people think of as the official Tibet, but still these numbers surprised me.

As we stepped out of the dusty jeep, a few monks stared at us curiously. Xiao Mao led us around a complex of temples, cabins, and shack-like wooden stores that sold pictures of the monastery’s lama, books of scriptures, bowls of instant noodles, snacks, and bottles of Pepsi. Many of the temples were newly built or being repaired by monks who busily hammered, sawed, and painted Tibetan symbols on wooden beams in bright red, yellow, green, blue, fuchsia, and white. At the top of a hill, a small group of pilgrims circled an unfinished temple, its roof partially covered with a shining plate of gold.

After touring the area, Xiao Mao led us into a dark, shack-like restaurant to eat some steamed meat dumplings, known as momos in Tibetan. We sat down on little stools before a low wooden table, and Zhang Jie began asking Xiao Mao more questions about the monastery. I couldn’t be sure I was understanding correctly, but I thought he said that the monastery had been bombed during the Cultural Revolution, which didn’t surprise me since most monasteries in Tibet had been destroyed in one way or another. Apparently the government was now allowing Seda’s recent growth to unfold with only a watchful eye.

“How many Han Chinese did you say are studying here?” I asked Xiao Mao.

“Over three-hundred maybe.”

“And it’s okay for them to come here?”

“Yes. There is a special temple for the Han students where the instructions are given in Mandarin.”

“So, the government allows this? They don’t care?”

“Yes, they know. Sometimes they come around and make them tear down some of the cabins. They say it’s for health reasons. But then they go away.”

“Health reasons?”

“Yes. The stream that comes from the mountains is becoming polluted.”

I nodded, thinking of the piles of plastic bags, bottles, and waste I’d seen.

Xiao Mao looked at me closely. “Why are you so interested? Are you Buddhist?”

“No,” I shook my head, my cheeks growing hot. “I’m just curious.” I still didn’t call myself a Buddhist, even though I identified strongly with Buddhist teachings.

“I can take you to visit the lama here if you’d like,” Xiao Mao said to us.

Zhang Jie quickly shook her head. I felt a tug of longing to meet the teacher and holy man that presided over Seda, but I too shook my head, not wanting to be an opportunistic Westerner of dubious faith, coveting an interesting encounter with a “real Tibetan lama.” But mostly, it was too hard to imagine trying to explain to Xiao Mao and Zhang Jie all my layers of belief and disbelief.

After we’d eaten our fill of hard stale dumplings, Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao about sky burials. He nodded. Yes. He had visited them before.

“Do you know what a sky burial is?” Zhang Jie turned to me.

Tian zhang? I wasn’t sure what this word was.

“You know, when Tibetans die and leave the bodies for the birds?”

“Oh, yes,” I nodded.

“Can you take us to one?” Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao.

He hesitated before nodding, “They have them every day. We can go later this afternoon if you’d like.”

Zhang Jie turned to me, “Do you want to go?”

“Are you sure it’s okay?” I glanced at Xiao Mao.

“It’s fine,” he said, staring down at his hands. “They don’t mind if people watch.”

*****

When we stepped out of the restaurant, a morning prayer session was coming to an end. Monks and nuns spilled out of a nearby temple’s doorway. Zhang Jie and I walked over to take a peek inside. All around an open courtyard, the railings of the wooden balcony above were wound with strands of pink, red, and yellow fake flowers. Chanting music played from a loudspeaker affixed to the banister above; a few older pilgrims grasping prayer wheels stood with their leathery faces upturned, listening. The courtyard buzzed with small clusters of monks with shorn heads—no, I soon realized, they were nuns.

Zhang Jie and I drifted apart taking photos, while the nuns chattered noisily and watched us as we approached. They nodded and gathered close together when I motioned to my camera and asked permission in Chinese. Zhao xiang? Some smiled shyly, others posed stiffly, and one nun stared brazenly, almost smirking, obviously entertained by our visit. I could tell that we were not the first tourists that had ever come through, and yet there probably hadn’t been many.

A small nun, maybe seven or eight years old, grabbed my hand and tugged. With one hand, I took a photo of her face staring up at me, her hand holding my hand, and my arm outstretched. Her dark brown eyes gazed unblinking into my camera. I glanced at Zhang Jie busy snapping away on the other side of the courtyard, then took out a photo of the Dalai Lama from my pocket and slipped it to the little nun. Snatching it, she ran off to show it to others. I couldn’t be sure, but I sensed she didn’t know who it was. No one mobbed me afterwards, begging for more. Could they have never seen the Dalai Lama’s image? I knew it was forbidden in the temples, although I thought most Tibetans would still have seen it before. But maybe not, especially in this part of Sichuan, in these Tibetan areas of China that had been long assimilated, more removed from the politicization of Lhasa. I walked around slowly, taking more photos and passing out a few pictures to a similar muted appreciation, and then it was time to go.

 *****

Xiao Mao led us away from the monastery to a path that traveled around a hillside to another valley on the other side. As we approached the sky burial site from afar, I could see a small gathering of Tibetans and a horse grazing at their side. A waft of smoke drifted in the air from somewhere near a small white choten with prayer flags draped around it. As we drew closer, I was hit by a thick, pungent slightly sweet smell—bodies and decay. Juniper. A few heads turned our way, but no one paid us much attention. I tried to take slow, careful steps, not wanting my presence to be more obtrusive than it was. Then I saw the vultures.

They were so huge I mistook them at first for goats. They waited on the hillside above. Zhang Jie, Xiao Mao and I sat near the base of the hill, keeping our distance from the family members and the sky burial site, yet still close enough that I could see clearly the two corpses that lay in a small crumpled heap on the ground. Their tufts of matted black hair, their ribs exposed: a young man and an old woman, their sex and age still roughly discernable. Tattered remnants of old clothes lay scattered nearby, their colors faded.

A Tibetan man in a monk’s robes moved back and forth casually between the bodies, carrying a leg here, an arm there, placing them on a flat rock and then hacking them into smaller pieces. The man moved slowly, nonchalantly, as if he were going about the actions of an ordinary day. Which he was. This was his job.

I stared. With the exception of seeing my uncle in a funeral casket when I was little, made-up and pasty in full-suit attire, this was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body. Zhang Jie and Xiao Mao moved in closer to stand near a small group of people up front, but I stayed back on the hillside, near the others, family members I assumed, who sat clustered in two small groups. I didn’t sense in them the same solemn nature that one would expect from a funeral service, but rather, their reclining relaxed postures made it feel like they could’ve been out on a picnic. Knees pulled up in front of me, I noticed the grass beneath me was dotted with delicate yellow and white flowers. When I looked closer, I saw it was also scattered with feathers and small shards of bone.

I covered my mouth and nose with my sleeve and watched as the burial man shuffled back and forth. My eyes insistently returned to rest on the corpses, as if trying to convince myself I was really staring at what had just a week ago been two live human beings. I didn’t know much about sky burials, only that it was a ritual as normal as cremation is to us in the West. Did the Tibetans see this ritual as an offering, I wondered, a continuation of the food chain, a relationship between the cycles of life and death? Did they believe the birds would carry the spirits of the dead to the heavens? Or had the spirits already departed in the days before? But Buddhism doesn’t even believe in a fixed, unchanging spirit or soul. The Buddha taught that what we refer to as our “selves” is a combination of physical and mental aggregates, something like energies that are constantly changing from one moment to the next. If there was never one fixed, unchanging self or soul to begin with, then there could be no fixed person or self to be reborn. Instead, life and death is a continuous unbroken series of change.

Buddhism, of course, had changed since it spread to Tibet from India around the year 800, morphing with the gods and rituals of Tibet’s native Bon religion. I had no idea what the Tibetans at Seda actually believed in or what they trusted would happen to their loved ones when they died. I also didn’t know then that sky burials were a ritual that had grown out of practical necessity: there is a high death rate in Tibet, little firewood for cremation, and scarce land suitable for burial in the ground. Sky burials were thus a logical solution, believed to have emerged sometime after Buddhism was introduced to Tibet.

At some point, the vultures began to stir. I hadn’t noticed the burial man give a definitive signal, but somehow, the birds knew he was ready. Before I knew what was happening, they began to rush down the hillside—half flying, half running and hopping—leaping with an ancient, pre-historic gait.

“My god!” I cried as I jumped to my feet, hurrying out of their way. Squawking and vying for position and space, they swooped in to pick and tear at scraps of flesh. Zhang Jie began taking pictures and I took out my camera as well. Some birds waited at the edge of the flock. Others dove right into the center, the greediest or hungriest of them all.

The burial man turned towards us and waved angrily. “No pictures,” Xiao Mao said quietly. Of course. I knew better and guiltily put my camera away.

After about five minutes of watching the bird’s frenzied feeding from the side, the burial man wandered back into their midst. They scattered, allowing him to retrieve some pieces of bone and smash them even more. Was the last thing he produced the head? He cracked something with his mallet that sounded like a skull, then threw it towards the birds who dove in with increased fervor. Zhang Jie took out her camera to sneak in a few more photos. I motioned to her, annoyed. Who cares, she shrugged. He’s not looking.

The whole ritual lasted about thirty minutes. Afterward, the birds began to fly into the sky, circling in wide arcs above the valley. Hundreds of them, circling. As the vultures flew off, the family members rose and began to disperse. A young couple approached us, leading a horse behind them. They nodded and gave us each a piece of hard candy. Another part of the ritual? Candy for the attendees. I took off the wrapper and sucked on the sweetness, the smell of death lingering all around.

As the three of us left, Zhang Jie lagged behind Xiao Mao and me, taking more pictures of the sky burial site and the valley. I felt a weight in my chest for my own photos, and Zhang Jie’s flippant shrug had rubbed in my shame all the more. What did she see in this ritual? Some savage act of uncivilized beasts? Something she could show her friends back home so they would be impressed by her bravery to have watched such a disgusting act of primitivism? But was I really that different? I knew I could not blame Zhang Jie for my desire to take my own photos. I resented her influence on me, and yet in many ways, we were the same—swooping in to ingest this world with our hungry eyes and questions, wanting to take a piece of it home so we could try to remember what we saw here and felt. A moment of reckoning: this is what will happen to us—whether we choose to face it or not.

I let myself drift away from Zhang Jie, not wanting to wait for her as she continued to take photos. Xiao Mao walked silently ahead. I wondered if he regretted taking us here, and our need to document and preserve, remaining one layer removed from direct experience.

“Look!” Zhang Jie called out as she ran to catch up with us, pointing up into the sky. I looked. The clouds had parted to shape the perfect arc of a bird with its wings outstretched. I couldn’t resist. One last shot.

But I should have known better. When I developed the pictures months later, the sky and the clouds hovered overhead, but the bird was nowhere to be found.

Issue 3.6 Fall 2014

Theme Issue: Far From The Maddening Crowd

Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read.

Schoolbus
“Schoolbus” Art by Holly Burnside

Seattle 2
“Seattle 2” Art by Angel Lacanfora

Cases
“Cases” Art by Angel Lacanfora

Nonfiction:

Marlena Maduro Baraf | La Misa
Therése Halscheid | Into the Iceberg
Anne Liu Kellor | Sky Burial
Linda Saslow | The Shiksa Sisterhood

Translations:

Rivka Basman Ben-Haim | Doves Speak Yiddish | **Zelda Kahan Newman
Yves Bonnefoy | He Is Leaving | **Susanna Lang
Hafez | Ghazal 6 | **Roger Sedarat
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi | Untitled | **Roger Sedarat
Avrom Sutzkever | From Diary Poems | **Zackary Sholem Berger
Carmen Vascones | How lonely love remains | **Alexis Levitin

Book Reviews:

Helène Aylon | Whatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist | review by Lenore Weiss
Tarfia Faizullah | Seam | Paul David Adkins
Sue William Silverman | The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as A White Anglo-Saxon Jew | review by Kelly O’Toole

**Indicates Translators

Donelle Dreese

Donelle DreeseDonelle Dreese is a professor in the English Department at Northern Kentucky University where she teaches Multicultural and Environmental Literatures, American Women Poets, and writing. Her books include the novel, Deep River Burning (WiDo Publishing), a YA vignette novella, Dragonflies in the Cowburbs (Anaphora Literary Press), and three poetry collections: A Wild Turn (Finishing Line), Looking for a Sunday Afternoon (Pudding House), and her most recent book, Sophrosyne (forthcoming from Aldrich Press). Her creative work has appeared in journals such as Quiddity International, Appalachian Heritage, Roanoke Review, Connotation Press, ISLE, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. You can learn more about Donelle at donelledreese.com, or follow Donelle on Twitter (@donelledreese).


Sophrosyne

You break bread into small pieces.
Sometimes the day is better
taken in low doses so you can see

how it breaks down in the body.
Morning, for example, can be digested
gradually, a whole grain meditation

that keeps the boat from sinking
before noon. You could wrap a morsel in cloth
and send it out into the world

to see if it will multiply. The day’s work
is a phone call to an emergency number
full of urgency and confusion

from smelling the smoke without
finding the fire. We can take it slowly.
Start with the crust and work our way

toward the center. A grain of wheat
grows in its own time, as the day opens
steady and parceled so we taste it all.

 

 

The Surrender Tree

A broken water oak lies exposed
in the clean balm of morning

blocking the only road home.
In the midst of movement is this calm

the blossoming bankruptcy of effort
peace sprouting from the roots

the tender mucosa of all living things
that stops us in our tracks.

We cannot go back.
What would we go back to?

A bouquet of apologies
pouting in a cloudy vase?

Believe me, it’s a blessing
to stop moving and breathe

to feel the arc of your biorhythm
and say, I am enough.

Hafez

Hafez, one of the classical masters of Persian poetry, was born in Shiraz, Iran, in the early 14th century. His ghazals excel both in musicality as well as in intricate wordplay. Because of both its incredible style as well as its deft philosophical treatment of such themes as death, love, and divine worship, his verse has had a lasting and pervasive influence on Persian language and culture. 

 

Roger Sedarat (translator) is the author of Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP’s Hollis Summers Open Book Competition, and Ghazal Games (Ohio UP, 2011). His translations of classical and modern Persian verse have appeared in World Literature Today, Drunken Boat, and Arroyo. His translated collection of the Iranian poet Nader Naderpour is forthcoming from Teneo Press. He teaches poetry and translation in the MFA Program at Queens College, City University of New York.

 

Ghazal 6

Who will recite this prayer to the sultan?
“Let love link the beggar to the sovereign.”

When demon eyes watch me in the dark woods,
Look, for light and shelter, to the sovereign.

Idol, be mindful of dark eyelashes.
Deceit doesn’t matter to the sovereign.

A loving expression consumes a world.
Your selfishness looks poor to the sovereign.

In restless nights, I pray the morning breeze
Will carry the lover to the sovereign.

Moon-strike them, beloved! Cypress-shake them.
Show the lovers’ nature to the sovereign.

For God’s sake, give Hafez a morning drink.
He’ll bless you in a prayer to the sovereign.

 

 

Hafez_Poem

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a 13th century Persian sufi mystic poet, was born on the eastern edge of the Persian empire and resettled with his family in early adulthood to Turkey. Descended from a long line of theologians and scholars, he absorbed the teachings of such masters as Attar from an early age, quickly becoming a spiritual leader. A friendship with his greatest teacher, Shams-y-Tabriz, and this man’s subsequent departure after a few years, greatly influenced the outpouring of Rumi’s verse of longing for the beloved. Rumi’s writing continues to make an integral impact upon literary traditions throughout the world.

 

Roger Sedarat is the author of Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP’s Hollis Summers Open Book Competition, and Ghazal Games (Ohio UP, 2011). His translations of classical and modern Persian verse have appeared in World Literature Today, Drunken Boat, and Arroyo.  His translated collection  of the Iranian poet Nader Naderpour is forthcoming from Teneo Press. He teaches poetry and translation in the MFA Program at Queens College, City University of New York.

 

I’ve lost it all my life all lost—
the sky the earth, dear moon, all lost.
Don’t hand me wine. Pour it in my mouth.
(I’ve even lost the way to my mouth). 

 

 

Rumi_Poem

Linda Saslow

Linda SaslowLinda Saslow is a 2013 graduate of the USC Master of Professional Writing Program where she focused on Creative Nonfiction. Linda works as an art teacher and freelance writer in Fullerton, California. Her essays have been published in The Cleveland Jewish News, Lost Coast Review, The Fullertonian, Shaker Life Magazine, and The Fullerton Observer. She is currently working on a screenplay on the fast-paced sport of Women’s Skeleton at the 2002 Winter Olympics titled “Speedsuits.”

 

The Shiksa Sisterhood

“So he’s bringing home his girlfriend tomorrow. Another shiksa,” Joan said, my raven-haired, born and bred Jewish friend who came into my life sometime in college, so long ago. “It’s always the blondes with him.”

“I have to object to the slur,” I said. “I’m a shiksa too.”

She stared blankly at her wine glass, unable to take back the insult. When I took the plunge into the ritual bath of a mikveh at age twenty-five and started calling myself a Jew, I innocently dreamed the religious and secular world would accept me unconditionally as a Jewish woman, wife, and especially as a mother. Now nearly two decades later, I’m reassessing what that all really means.

The definition of shiksa is: “A Gentile girl or woman, especially one who has attracted a Jewish man. The term derives from the Hebrew word “sheketz,” meaning the flesh of an animal deemed taboo by the Torah. Since a Jewish man marrying a non-Jewish woman is taboo, this word applies to her too.” (Urban Dictionary)

As Joan offered me a second glass of wine, she said, “People can’t actually ask you if you’ve converted. It’s forbidden to ask. How do they know?”

“You must live in a world where no one is rude. I don’t live in that world.”

It is easy to guess I’ve not been born and bred in a Jewish household. Among other tells, each and every year I forget tradition and light the Hanukkah menorah from left to right instead of right to left, mimicking the way the Hebrew language is read. And, I look positively Irish, red hair and freckles, sigh.

*****

On a warm California spring day in 1995, I, nude as the day I was born, took a prayerful plunge into the Los Angeles University of Judaism’s mikvah, an indoor ritual bath with cobalt-blue tiled steps that descended into warm chest-high spring water. Emerging back into the Earth’s atmosphere, I’d become Jewish. Like Charlotte in “Sex in the City,” I dunked in the mikvah to spiritually cleanse myself before marrying the man I love. The reality that my conversion only mattered to a small group of Jews in the Western world beyond the ritual bath’s walls was an insignificant detail to me at the instant I clicked the spiritual reset button.

My high dive off the religious plank of American Christianity was not only for love. I wanted to swim far away from the hypocritical Protestant family that raised me. My people espouse Christ’s forgiveness while finding themselves unable to turn the other cheek in their day-to-day lives. Also, they are betting on the rapture to see the divine, and I’m not so patient.

A few weeks before the mikvah, I had to face a beit din – or, rather, an evening quiz show of three jovial rabbis assembled in one of their living rooms drinking diet pop. I had to prove I had learned something in the University of Judaism’s semester-long class.

I answered the obvious question right: I would raise my children as Jews. As for the rest, I wavered. Regarding the kosher law against mixing meat and dairy, I defended turkey and Swiss, contending that poultry doesn’t lactate. They asked about my feelings about Israel, and I started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the stars and stripes. Still, I was good to go.

*****

What I did was not unique. Many Americans have entered into marriages and cultures not of their birth in recent years. According to the landmark October 2013 Survey of Jewish Americans, interfaith marriages make up fully 50 percent of unions among Reform Jews. As for millennial Jewish offspring, 48 percent of their parents are engaged in mixed marriages.

In the twentieth century, the snag that sent many shiksa fiancées, like me, off to a semester of conversion class followed by a dip in the spring water mikvah was the fact that a rabbi required a bride’s conversion to officiate on her wedding day. Back then, rabbis wanted to avoid an interfaith ceremony.

This mandate appears to be relaxing as the ethos of the new century emerges. Chelsea Clinton’s still a Methodist and the rumble from the Reform pulpit was overwhelmingly positive when she married Marc Mezvinsky under a chuppah canopy. Neither lightning bolts nor thunder ensued. I remember the day well; my youngest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was also on July 31, 2010. Chelsea’s ketubah, a written Jewish wedding contract, was celebrated, not cursed.

Likewise, Ashley Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden, married Jewish surgeon Howard Krein in a Roman Catholic Church on June 2, 2012, but the ceremony incorporated Jewish traditions. A rabbi officiated along with a priest. Marking the end of a wedding ceremony by the groom breaking a glass with his foot might just become more and more common, even under a crucifix, as Jewish intermarriage surges this century.

*****

Every temple I have joined in the past two decades has what is called a “Sisterhood,” a women’s group that comes together for socializing, entertainment, and nominal community service projects. In those same temples and Jewish parent groups across North America there’s another, unofficial “Shiksa Sisterhood” hovering below the radar. We shiksas understand each other’s sincerity, in spite of our faux pas. Each of us wants to raise our children with a Jewish identity. We wholeheartedly want our kids to be included in the Jewish club that their fathers hold dear, no questions asked. Having the kids learn a bit of Hebrew to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a good idea. A teen’s free trip to Israel can be the prize at the end of the carpools. (Spoiler: Your daughter might come home with an Israel Defense Forces sweatshirt.)

Whether in my native Southern California or back in Ohio, no matter what reform temple my family joins, in my experience, the shiksas manage to find each other. At my neighborhood shul in north Orange County, we shiksas could literally fill the temple’s social hall with a sorority as diverse as the chirping doll choir in Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” musical boat ride. Today, I’m friendly with many women and men who have opted not to take the plunge, but still drop their kids off every week to learn a bit of Torah.

Shiksas today are not just the cookie-cutter blonde, buxom Scandinavian starlets paraded on stage of pop culture and in the Jewish mother’s mind as a romantic threat to her hunky sons. (Think “Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom” in “The Producers.”) The big news in the new millennium is that a growing number of shiksas are not Caucasian, let alone blonde and buxom. At my most recent congregation, the shiksas are Asian, Native American, Latino, and there is one solitary African-American lesbian. For me, this diversity is very good news.

A temple potluck that includes Malaysian eggplant, potato curry, and Argentinian flan appeals far more to me than the perennial kugel cook-off in Middle America’s synagogues. No one feels compelled to ask these ladies of color if they were born Jewish, so all those supposedly forbidden questions are out the window. I bet life is easier without the charade. Recently, I had to bolt the social hall when faced with an ear-piercing Texan chanteuse singing a gospel spoof satirically titled “Amazing Schmaltz.” Please. Really? “Amazing Grace” is a powerful and cherished spiritual hymn. I sang that song in Protestant Sunday school as a child, and it was no joke.

 *****

Yet a shiksa aims to please. I cook my matzo balls to the exact specifications that my mother-in-law learned from her mother-in-law. My Latina shiksa friend Ann Marie performs this culinary magic too, even though she’s never converted. Far be it from her to stop making her own family’s pork tamales for Christmas Eve. Why would she? They are some of the most delicious creations I have ever tasted.

I worship the Passover main dish recipe from the Cleveland Heights kosher butcher, aptly named Mr. Brisket. My vegetarian tsimmes is divine. And, I’ve learned to make gefilte fish loaf so perfectly that it rivals a four-star French restaurant’s fish terrine. Never mind that my in-laws sit around lamenting that they like the jarred fish balls in jellied broth from the Kosher section of the supermarket equally well. I have no fond memories of hockey pucks in fishy slime served cold with beet-red horseradish, so I prefer something that tastes fresh and that my kids will consent to eat.

*****

What brings us shiksas together? What bonds us? Simply, at a basic level, we love a Jewish man or woman and most of us have married that person. Some, like myself, have converted. Others haven’t bothered to study up and are still dropping the kids off every Saturday. Even if our understanding is very rudimentary, we love the faith and the powerful family structure that Judaism promotes. The American Jewish world provides a great sense of pride and a warm nest of support for our children.

I don’t doubt that many brides’ conversions are of a spiritual nature rather than simply a way to check a box to assure the in-laws that Christmas trees and Santa Claus are off the December agenda. I’m a person who embraces the spiritual unknown, so my own conversion was not a simple dunk in the water to let me join a club.

I wanted my personal spirituality to be relevant. Judaism gave my husband’s family a foundation for living in the here and now. The Saslows aren’t waiting for salvation from a poorly lived life.

The deity I envision is amorphous and genderless. The Earth mother or Gaia, perhaps, but with powers reaching far beyond our own planet’s atmosphere, defying the physics of space and time. My new religious path offered me the liberty to shake the patriarchal Protestant shackle learned in Lutheran and Presbyterian Sunday school classes. Sure, Orthodox Judaism is still a male-dominated game, but Reform Judaism in North America, for the most part, is not chauvinistic these days. Female Rabbis and Cantors are everywhere you look in the Reform Jewish world. The Fullerton temple uses a gender-neutral prayer book and I wholeheartedly embrace this modern invention.

There are Jewish traditions that I find spiritually meaningful. I like to fast on Yom Kippur and do believe this small personal sacrifice helps me at least be mindful that I have erred in the past year. On Rosh Hashanah, I like to mark the Jewish New Year by performing tashlikh, a ritual where a prayer of repentance is recited while one casts one’s sins, symbolized by breadcrumbs, into a living body of water. I do a considerable amount of hands-on volunteer work as well as driving my children to get their own hands dirty for the benefit of others. I consider my unpaid toil to be my family’s own personal tikkun olam, or obligation to repair what is unjust the world. I may be new to the game, but I’m not half-assed about it. The majority of shiksas I know share a similar devotion.

*****

This is not a resignation; it is simply a rumination that a shiksa’s cultural DNA is not as easy to drop as her drawers before a ritual bath. While what my friend Joan had said stung, her sentiment reflected a deep insecurity on her own part, and her words didn’t matter when I gazed back at my own big picture. I had gladly crossed my name off the wait list for the rapture, but Judaism hasn’t swallowed me whole in return. The comfort of the spiritually off-center “Shiksa Sisterhood” will always draw me back. The shiksas get it when the other sisters don’t. We’re in on the joke together.

Helène Aylon

Helen Aylon book coverWhatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist
by Helène Aylon
Press: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Pages: 287
Date: May 2012
ISBN: 978-1558617681
Reviewed by: Lenore Weiss

 

I stumbled upon Aylon’s memoir in the Jewish Museum of San Francisco. I was on a Jewish reading jag, had just finished drunken angel by Alan Kaufman about his struggle with alcohol addiction and how he came to embrace his Jewish roots as the son of a Holocaust survivor. Essays by Abraham Joshua Herschel were stacked on my night table. However, Aylon’s book helped me name something I needed to understand. Hers is a beautiful work of art all by itself, illustrated throughout with art from different periods of her life.

The artist was born Helène Greenfield in Boro Park, Brooklyn the firstborn (although she explains that if the oldest child happens to be a girl she is never referred to as the firstborn, an honor reserved for male children), in an extended family of Orthodox Jews who were conversant with Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages. Her grandmother Baba, keeps a shisel of water under her bed  “…so when she awoke every morning she could immediately bend to dip her fingers into the dish to say the morning prayer…”

Aylon’s early life is marked by ritual: every Friday night, silver Shabbos candlesticks decorate her girlhood, followed by the fragrant spices of Havdalah boxes to usher in the new week. She receives an observant Jewish education at Shulamith School for Girls where she memorizes poetry by Hayyim Nahman Bialik, who came to be known as Israel’s national poet.  But throughout her early years, Aylon is troubled by how women don’t exist as equals in observant Jewish life, unclean when they are menstruating, also termed as nkava (hole).  Her questioning gathers in layers: a rapist may stay with his victim if he does not come near her for three days so as to become holy to his god; men recite a prayer every morning to thank god that they were not born a woman.

She marries a rabbi and becomes a rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife).  They move to Montreal and have two children.  But tragedy strikes. After five years of marriage and at age twenty-five, her husband Mandel dies of cancer. Aylon now begins to die to herself, sells her husband’s Yiddish books that allows her to purchase an encyclopedia set for her son. She anoints herself with a new last name. Instead of being Mrs. Fisch, she creates:

“…my new name would also be my old name: Helène Aylon.  Aylonna is Hebrew for Helène. I shortened it to Aylon.”

This is the author’s first step toward feminism and claiming her role as an artist. She also struggles with her dual role as mother and visionary, how do you find time to dedicate to each? Helped by the support of a growing women’s movement to reconcile these roles, she signs up for art classes at Brooklyn College where her teacher, Ad Reinhardt, an abstract expressionist, introduces her to Mark Rothko who invites her to his studio in Manhattan. They talk about the work of other Jewish artists like Barnett Newman, and the philosophy of Martin Buber. The accomplished artist and the young student discover a similar vocabulary based on a shared vision of Jewish spirituality. Three weeks after their discussion, Rothko committed suicide.

Aylon continues to form her vision.  Her first commission is to paint a mural for the Jewish chapel at JFK Airport. “I wanted to paint not blue and black and red but blueness, blackness, and redness.”

Her children grow up and she keeps working. Her relationship with her mother, Etta, remains at her directional center; she pushes art toward new boundaries.

Although she marks new feminist ground as a Jewish artist; it is Aylon’s roots and knowledge of Judaism that allows her to stretch the cord as far as it will go before breaking, which is what her early work explores—the place where things change and turn into something else. On a fluke, Aylon moves to Northern California and stays there for ten years where she explores materials like oil and tar –materials that change on canvas.

One of her influences is Georgia O’Keefe. In discussing her own process Aylon says, “The empty spaces in between the breaking are joined, one negative space is merging with another to create a new form.  These spaces are like the pockets of silence the Kabbalah speaks of.”

She collaborates with other women including the writer and poet Grace Paley on projects like Sand Gatherings, works with Palestinian and Israeli women to create stone sacs, and hangs pillowcases at army depots with anti-war activists. Her project, The Liberation of G-d where she redacts the Five Books of Moses to highlight words, sentences, and sections that she finds questionable in light of a more progressive ethical world-view, becomes part of a group show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco and travels to other areas, including Baltimore where in 1997 her work is viewed by Leah Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s widow.

Aylon’s final redaction is the hyphen in G-d’s name that Orthodox Judaism requires to be written as such because the maker’s name is not to be uttered or spelled out.  She allows light to pass threw the hyphen which is covered with a pink filter and comments:

“This delicate pink dash sums up my striving for the inclusion of women. It is what has been missing since Abraham discovered monotheism. I had inserted a feminine presence into the Godhead. If I had to summarize the essence of my twenty-year endeavor to liberate G-d, I could point to that one small dash.”

 ––––––––

Lenore Weiss serves as copy editor for the Blue Lyra Review. Lenore has published two books of poetry: “Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island” (West End Press, 2012) and “Two Places” (Kelsay Books, 2014). Her blog resides at www.lenoreweiss.com.

Carmen Vascones

Translator’s Note on Carmen Vascones’ Work:

This translation was quite straight-forward. I felt it essential to keep the language clean, direct, unadorned. The repetitions of the original had to be respected, since they contributed powerfully to the general sense of loneliness and emptiness that both precedes and follows the moment of love. The only real liberty I took was with the word “rent.” In the original, the image “lechos marcados” could be translated as “marked beds.” I toyed with the idea of carving the pain deeper with “scarred beds.” However, since in the original “lechos” echoes “hechos “ in the previous line, I felt that I had to strive for a similar internal rhyme. So I settled on “beds rent,” as a slant rhyme to echo “ending.” I felt that the violence implicit in my original choice of “scarred beds” was maintained, if not intensified, by “beds rent.”

 

Carmen Vascones (author) is a psychologist working with abused children and their mothers. Her most recent collection of poetry, Oasis of Voices, published by the Casa de la Cultura in Ecuador, draws on her work from the last twenty years. Here in the USA she has appeared in eleven magazines, including Bitter Oleander, International Poetry Review, Mandorla, Metamorphoses, Mid-American Review, Moon City Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Osiris, and Per Contra.

 

Alexis Levitin (translator) has translated thirty-four books to date, the most recent being Salgado Maranhão’s Blood of the Sun (Milkweed Editions, 2012), Eugenio de Andrade’s Art of Patience (Red Dragonfly Press, 2013) and Ana Minga’s Tobacco Dogs (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2013). His work has appeared in well over two hundred magazines, including Kenyon Review, APR, New England Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, and Grand Street. Two of his translations appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Volume I.

 

How lonely love remains

How lonely love remains after love is gone
how lonely love before it arrives
how lonely we before and after love

Desires ending up in absences
beds rent
kisses killing other kisses

And you?
And me?

What sculpture will our death become?

 

Que solo queda el amor después del amor                

Que solo queda el amor después del amor
que solo está el amor antes del amor
que solos estamos antes y después de él

Deseos hechos ausencias
lechos marcados
besos matando otros besos

¿Que de ti?
¿Que de mí?

¿Qué escultura será nuestra muerte?

Paul David Adkins

Paul David Adkins lives in New York and works as a counselor.

 

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan Experience a Night Thunderstorm while Stranded on Nikumaroro Island

We hadn’t had water for days.
It must have hit
one hundred degrees
that afternoon.

Night lightning revealed land crabs
parrying
at the clearing’s edge,

betting on whether
me or Amelia
would die of thirst first.

As the storm broke,
we upturned cans
to catch the runnels of rain
funneling off our hammock.

We sprinted to the beach,
upturned our mouths
like tulips to the downpour.

The storm signaled its departure
in an hour,
its strobes diminishing,
deluge dying to a mist.

We laughed
as we returned
to the camp.

By then it was dawning.
We knew the fire
would be snuffed
as a candle,
crabs crowding the puddles for a drink.

I picked them up
one by one
and pinched their claws off.

Those detached V’s
flexing by the dozen
at my feet.

Amelia ripped
them from their turrets,
tossed the writhing meat
to shrieking terns.

She gathered the empty shells
in the folds of her skirt,

returned to the beach
to wade knee deep
in the waves,

then dumped them clattering
hollow amid the surf’s
persistent thunder.

Sandra Marchetti

Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications. Eating Dog Press also published an illustrated edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape, and her first volume, The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center’s Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Sandy won Second Prize in Prick of the Spindle’s 2014 Poetry Open and her work appears in The Journal, Subtropics, The Hollins Critic, Sugar House Review, Mid-American Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review, Phoebe, Southwest Review, and elsewhere.


Swing

Trace a line, fine,
around the valley’s run,

your hand rigid upon
the canopy’s brown wool, spun.

Ridges—at length—are cardboard or lakes
hung high as mirrors.

Your heels click ahead
bound after a zephyr.

Ride your eye along the bank,
slide down the forested sky

to hear through songbirds’ skittering
a coyote’s chattered cry.


 

The Language of Ice

Crowns of birds emerge and sink,
skid to the river in blinking beats.
Jagged as glass, ice flashes match
memories of church windows, a glacial past.
Lines of a pencil afloat mark a bobbing post,
bags beneath drift, seek their currents like fish.

Twist, the tree calls us to see roots straight to meet
concrete then broke above like floes pulled up;
a stretching shrine, bark chases the water’s
spine, a blind grasp toward glinting.

Branches reach behind their back,
trill the stream to sing
a glad racket of sounds that smack
of crowning winter’s gleam.

Susan Cohen

Susan Cohen is the author of Throat Singing and recent poems and reviews in Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Sou’wester, and Tar River Poetry, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley and has an MFA from Pacific University.

 

We Bones That Are Here

Chapel of Bones. Evora, Portugal.16th c.

We bones that are here,
for your bones we wait.

We bones still walking
consult our tourist guides.
Monks unearthed your skeletons
to make room in the graveyard,

piled death upon death
into this brickwork meant
to trouble us with what comes
after the body’s shed,

what rises from each gurney
of bone. Nothing tells us who
you were. Did they murmur prayers
or their apologies as they worked

your femurs into walls? Would you
have forgiven this transgression?
Corpse, leathering in chains. Infant,
exposed for our illumination.

We stare into your black orbits,
as if they’re telescopes, to clarify
the universe once bright
within each startled skull.

 

 

Reading Fernando Pessoa in Portugal

And as they read my poems, I hope
They think I’m something natural –
That old tree, for instance

That flamboyant date palm
in the wind, perhaps,
fronds scratching
at the scorching air.
That hillside of dusty heather
sweating small shadows.
A squalling Golden Oriole,
its song suddenly sweetened
by a glut of green figs.
The Cork Oak teaching imagination
to a farmer who must wait
a quarter century to strip its bark
while he plans for his harvest
of grandchildren.

That courtyard tree, for instance,
whose thousand-year-old trunk
hollows and fades
gray as a corpse,
but whose twiggy branches
keep offering olives.
That granite: cobbling
precipitous village streets,
walling impossibly terraced plots,
holding up the futile towers.
That Cattle Egret on the plains
who travels in a bull’s footsteps,
parsing the up-stirred dust
to live on.

Michael Spring

Michael Spring is the author of three poetry collections and five chapbooks. His latest book, Root of Lightning, was awarded an honorable mention for the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award. His latest chapbook, Blue Wolf, won the 2013 Turtle Island Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Atlanta Review, DMQ Review, Flyway, Gargoyle, Innisfree, The Midwest Quarterly, NEO, and West Wind Review. Michael lives in O’Brien, Oregon. He is a natural builder, martial art instructor, and a poetry editor for The Pedestal Magazine. 

 

Ghazel for Music

my sister is at her desk reading a score sheet of music
she claims she’s going to dedicate her life to music

this time it’s Mozart who opens the door for me
I didn’t expect to walk into the imaginal world of music

yesterday a man entered the square with a gourd
he said it saved his life because it’s filled with music

I’m not sure how to approach my grandmother on her deathbed
she is talking to the TV saying that it’s lost all sense of music

look at you, Mister Spring, climbing to the top of that tree
yes, we’ve heard your banter about trees making music

 

Bear Totem

when you need me
I’ll rush toward you
the way a mountain would
all grace in tumble, rumbling
like a newly formed planet
my head made up
of a thousand other heads
my eyes filled
with the light of star (a star made up
of a thousand other stars)

my body will surge forward
all earth-tones roiling towards black
and void
and fringed with sylvan light
I’ll leap from constellation into you
I’ll take you into the heart
of the heart of the mountain

Tom Holmes

Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose and the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently The Cave, which won The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013 and will be released in 2014. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break: http://thelinebreak.wordpress.com/.

 

At L’Estaque

A child ascends
from his orange shadow
and grows.

Trees drop
brown shadows
along dunes.

His mother counts
steps from her son
and hastens digging.

Soon the tide arrives.

Maranda Stewart

Maranda Stewart has her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in poetry from Rosemont College. Her voice varies from piece to piece from snarky, to narrative, to melodramatic. Her poems stand out thanks to often strange and juxtaposing images that often give the poems a feeling of surrealism. Maranda has been a reader for Matter Press Literary Journal and Philadelphia Stories, and her work has appeared in the Barefoot Review and Red River Review. She is currently working to finish her first book-length manuscript and lives in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania.

 

For Birds

I can see hopping birds from my
front porch steady in quiet mornings
horrible nights, sudden afternoons.
Grass clippings hang from the edges reminding
me of tomorrow when I should be absorbing
the freshly cut grass. My husband and I sit and try
not to think about the slate inching slowly
off the roof, letting bats crowd the upstairs.

We can only think of the front porch, filled with peanut shells,
cigarettes, shoe laces, sometimes cob webs which
we quickly sweep up even if we don’t know why.
Sometimes there are people, sometimes there aren’t
sometimes pumpkins, sometimes eggs, strawberries
upside down in dollar store topsy-turveys.

The rose bush is coming over the side, so close
it is touching the lawn chair, and sweeping against
our folding table where we sometimes sit
and drink coffee to the cabbage growing in our garden.

One day my husband pointed to a bird, which I could not see,
he stood up and fell head first off of the edge,
taking the grass clippings with him,
I picked him out and suddenly he was old,
the time had swept through, the porch a wind
tunnel for it, we had not known that years had
gone by, we had not known that our knees began
to mimic the sound of the wood on the porch
having been coated and revealed from seasons on end.

We had not known that our backs could no longer
hold us upright, or that our eyes couldn’t read the paper.
Now we sit on the porch watching
the sun slowly set, reaching out to capture it
realizing that if we didn’t we might not see it again,
I mostly try to papier-mâché my life
into hot air balloons for the grandkids, and he shows
me birds that are not there.

Kathryn Gessner

Kathryn Gessner teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Shasta College, where she is tenured in the English Department. Scrub Jays in Lavender is available now from Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared many places, including the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project site, and also recently in Natural Bridge, Louisiana Literature, the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop Anthology, Red Rock Review, New Millenium Writings, and in The Illuminations Book. Her childhood landscape in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, along the Delaware River, informs her work, as does the Sacramento River Valley and surrounding mountains she now calls home in Shasta County of Northern California. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas, and she taught writing in Delaware, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Missouri before teaching in California.

 

Cargo

Two-tone corduroy and a John Deere tractor,
a house on five acres with a pond, stocked:
largemouth bass, channel catfish, perch.
A window you can fire a gun out of.

Muskrat bones and snapping turtle shells,
composted. The vigilant white tail deer
with late fawns. Coming down the bank to drink.

It had been a drought year.
The man-made landscape, a charisma
that’s not easy to forget.

My father carried a case of Scotch
in the belly of his plane a cache
of Librium, an FAA diagnosis,
and dumb luck.

For us, the children, there was one last
afternoon at Ma Dee’s Chatshop
when we told him that we worried
when he said he would try to set things right
when we thought he really might.

Karen George

Karen George is author of Into the Heartland (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Inner Passage (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014) and forthcoming The Seed of Me (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in Memoir, Louisville Review, Border Crossing, Permafrost, and Cortland Review. She has been awarded grants from The Kentucky Foundation for Women and The Kentucky Arts Council. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, and reviews poetry at Poetry Matters:  http://readwritepoetry.blogspot.com/.

 

Alaskan Cruise Haibun

They opened the grand dining room doors to unveil the midnight buffet, and passengers poured through the cloud of disinfectant like flies zooming. Nauseated, I leaned to inhale the scent of ginger tablets you chewed for motion sickness. We moved with the mass, past banquet tables glutted. Jockeyed for photos of Neptune and Venus chiseled from ice. Radish roses. Doves coddled from carrots, raw potatoes and turnips dyed and cut into cockatoos and bald eagles. Watermelon birds of paradise, honeydew hummingbirds, cantaloupe parrots, peacocks with fantails of fruit shish-kabobs. An octopus of icing beneath dark chocolate palm trees. Butter sculpted into whales, sea lions, pirates and mermaids. Liver pate molded into fat-bellied spiders. When my mind veered to the wet pulp of a spider flattened on hardwood, I fought the gag reflex, forced a smile to match everyone’s wonder. But the cocoon of oohs and aahs could not protect me from the memory of all the food you failed to keep down–only one way chemo defiled you. We reached the end. Thin-sliced meats (already turning) cascaded like ocean waves.  

With a champagne toast
we pushed through the dark waters,
the Inner Passage.

Jean Nordhaus

Jean Nordhaus is the author of Innocence and The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, and four other volumes of poetry. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, the New Republic, Poetry, and many other journals and anthologies. She lives in Washington, DC.


A Jew Returns to Cairo

Today you travel the globe in a business suit,
with a gold ring, a briefcase of leather.
You have mastered the formal and intimate you
in five languages, can order a cab in Japan,
know when the market will open in Athens,

but when you were eight and fled this land
you had only the scarred leather shins
of your long boy’s legs and a shoebox
containing your childhood. Your mother
today is a stout woman playing cards in Paris.

What is she doing here, slim again, hair wrapped
in a white cloth, shaking a rag at the sky?
And that chained house behind the synagogue
hides what lost quarrels inside? The thirsty plants
along the path still question your passage.

They scatter seeds of longing on your trousers,
arrows launched for some future arrival.
At your old school on the desert’s edge
you suffer the unbroken silence of plaster,
corridors smelling of clay. Names of children

gather into syllables: Yussef, in his cap
of light, Mohammed, moving his lips
across a text of water. Sparrows in the schoolyard
sink to feed, then start and flare away, fragments
of a blown calligraphy. You open your shoebox,
take out your soldiers, arrange them for war.

Francesca Bell

Francesca Bell’s poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals including Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, Flycatcher, Zone 3, River Styx, and burntdistrict. She has been nominated six times for the Pushcart Prize and won the 2014 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor from Rattle.

 

Burdens

Already my daughter’s looks
are something to bear.
Gold hair heavy
on her small shoulders.
Eyes big as burdens.

She can’t escape
people looking at her,
so lets bangs grow
over her face
like thick curtains
almost closed.

Once, on the street,
a man touched
the glowing tip
of his cigarette
right to the center
of her forehead.

A crazy man, you say.
But I know
it was beauty
leaving its hot kiss.

Anthony Frame

Anthony Frame is an exterminator who lives in Toledo, Ohio with his wife. He is the author of one book, A Generation of Insomniacs (Main Street Rag Press, 2014) and two chapbooks, Paper Guillotines (Imaginary Friend Press, 2010) and Everything I Know … (ELJ Publications, forthcoming). A third chapbook, To Gain the Day, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has been awarded an Individual Excellence Grant from the Ohio Arts Council and recent poems have been published in or are forthcoming from Harpur Palate, Third Coast, The North American Review, Redactions, The Dirty Napkin, Gulf Stream and diode among others. Learn more at http://www.anthony-frame.com/.

 

When Rain isn’t Rain

Sometimes, it’s air, sticky but still breathable, it needs no clouds,
as if it comes up from the soil, heavy but too heavy to be held

by gravity. And people walk through it, unaware. The day won’t stop
so we ignore it, pretend all oxygen is dry, even though, near the river,

we can see it hovering, we can hold it, we can touch it if we
hold out our hands. Like the girl in the picture on the lamppost,

did you see her? Try and you might taste her purple lollipop.
She used to walk through this neighborhood, here where the police

don’t come, where there are cameras on every corner. Sometimes,
rain seems to have a color, even on a day like today, dry as dirt.

It means the swamp is trying to come back, that damp barely hidden
beneath our concrete. It means you can’t tell your skin from the wind,

the air from sweat. It means we can ignore anything, if we want,
dry rain, damp air, rainbows like halos above the river, children stolen

beneath the sun, within the shadows of cameras. The third girl this month.
Sometimes, the rain is invisible. Sometimes, it’s just waiting to be seen.

Aaron Bauer

Aaron Bauer lives in Northern Colorado and received his MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His work has appeared in Prism Review, Spillway, Superstition Review, Inkscape and many other journals. Also, he has served as Editor for Permafrost and is a Contributing-Editor for PoemoftheWeek.org.

 

Unnamed Woman—State Hospital, Michigan

Exhibit: an assembly of objects rests
behind glass (fountain pen, tooth brush, clothes
pin, pencil, butter knife, teaspoon, array of bottle caps,
crochet hook, forceps, fork…) which together compose

what—in the State Hospital, an asylum—
a woman swallowed over her decade stay.
An explanatory note: “She would consume
any items she could when she or those nearby

failed to perform” (Tea’s at two, not two-oh-
five. The dark-skinned nurse brought my foodcould she
have touched it? My urine today was too yellow.)

“buying her a month in a new retreat.”

New cow-eyed staff, new bed, more brick walls
where an endless slough of paint chips falls.

There is little in the right name to wild flowers
to suggest their place in a field. How hyacinths
always makes her cry. How wild thyme

made her feel inadequate. There is
little in the right name to a condition
to suggest an impact. How one in twenty

women crave to ingest soil while pregnant. (Pica,
an appetite for non-food substances,
derived from the Latin word for magpie.) How a lick

at the nipple might itself spur lactation. There is little
in a woman’s name to suggest how the curls of her bangs
might frame her face, how that frame might mirror

the bars on her windows, how those bars might mirror
the slender birches outside and how leaves on those birches
might block the sun so daylight in her room always has

a green tint that makes her nauseous. There is little
in the answer to the question “What’s the matter?” to give
any comfort to a woman who has denied herself comfort.

Her doll, towheaded, hair missing on left side—
dress, covers to upper-thighs, rose imprint.

Her Bible, annotations only at the start of Genesis,
and first Timothy (her initials penned on inside cover).

Her abdomen, scarred before her husband admitted
her, saying no, no, too much, no more little deaths,

she’s as good to me as a lifeless rib, and, God,
I could lose one more to be rid of her.

Item five:
Ivory-handled knife.
Ingested, June 7, 1948.
Removed, June 9, 1948.
Method:
Surgery.

Item seventeen:
Bed knob.
Ingested, January 27, 1950.
Removed, January 28, 1950.
Method:
None (sutures to repair tearing).

Item twenty-one:
Letter opener.
Ingested, December 23, 1952.
Removed, December 23, 1952.
Method:
Surgery.

Item twenty-three:
Pumice stone.
Ingested, July 8, 1956.
Retrieved, July 11, 1956.
Method:
Laxative.

She tells the staff
she needs their touch,
their things.

And she’s very clever
you know at getting what
she wants.

We’ve told everyone to stop
but she is good at creating
a need

then before you know it
she’s charmed the pen
from your pocket.

Katherine Bell

Katherine Bell is a writer and Communications and Marketing Coordinator from Frederick, Maryland. Katherine has been published in the East Coast Literary Review and she has short stories forthcoming from Connotation Press and Welter. With her boyfriend, she writes and publishes a blog called We Write Together.

 

The Sulphur Sink

Every night, we boil our tap water so it’s hot for baths. The water goes into the cheap aluminum pots I bought at a yard sale, and we watch as it rolls and bubbles on the stove. We put oven mitts on our hands and slowly carry the pots up the stairs one-by-one from the kitchen to the bathroom, where we pour the water into the tub and watch it steam into a big cloud as it meets the air. Then we do it again.

My daughters don’t complain, but sometimes I wish they did. I know they want to be normal and have a mom who doesn’t wake them up in the middle of the night with her screams. They’d rather have a mother who doesn’t forget what time they need to be picked up after school or which of them is the one who likes to go to the library every weekend. But they don’t complain about me. They don’t complain about anything.

Two weeks after we bought the house, the hot water heater stopped working and I couldn’t afford to buy another one. One week later, it rained. That was when we learned that the roof had holes no one told us about. There was one that would push rain through like a funnel, tiny pinprick holes made a mist and turned our upstairs bedroom into a rainforest. In September, the first frost of the year cracked our siding and we could feel the wind on the inside whenever it would blow on the outside.

*****

One day in November, my youngest, Denise, brought home The Little House on the Prairie. I was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for the oven to warm so I could put in the store-bought pizza. Denise dropped the book in my lap. “I’m just like Laura,” she said.

I reached for the book, thumbed through its pages. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like living in the old days,” she said. She was smiling so proudly. “Laura didn’t even have running water.”

She twisted her brunette curls around her finger. Her pink shirt was just barely too small for her, and her jeans were ripping apart at the knees. “Oh,” I said. Her smile faded away and I couldn’t look at her anymore. She left me sitting at the table alone with her book in my hand.

*****

The wind was fiercest in January and the four of us had to snuggle in my bed to stay warm. It reminded me of Fort Jackson, the nights the unit would stay up too late seeing who could do the most shots without throwing up and falling asleep wherever we passed out, all despite our 04:30 First Call. My daughters will never know about that part of me.

I would wake them up every morning with a new round of screams. Jenny, my oldest, shook me awake each morning. I would come to in her arms with the last scream on my breath and freeze, paralyzed from the mix of the dream-world and reality colliding and coagulating in my brain. One night I dreamed she was alongside me in the Humvee wearing a flak jacket and kevlar helmet. When the IED exploded, like it does every night in my sleep, I lost my grip on her wrist and she started sliding away from me, dead or dying.

When Jenny woke me up, I didn’t know where I was, and I couldn’t stop screaming. When I finally realized I was in bed and she was safe, I hugged her so tight I thought her internal organs might implode. She didn’t push me away. She hugged me back and stroked my hair. “It’ll be okay, Mom. You’ll be just fine.” The rest of that night I hid away in the living room enveloped in blankets reading the Little House on the Prairie to keep myself awake.

***** 

When I was deployed for fifteen months, they lived with their father. Living with that man for over a year was enough for them to be happier with me in the cold and the filth of a broken-down house. I can’t ask my daughters what happened while I was gone. The bits and pieces they’ve shared have made me uneasy and I imagine that they were fighting a war with their father while I was fighting a war in a foreign country. Still, they had hot water. They had salads and cookies and pocket change to buy candy and magazines. They had Internet, Wi-Fi, and cable. Jenny saved up for a few pedicures. Denise could purchase her own books, rather than be a slave to the library. Lucy bought a leotard and ballet slippers. It’s more than I can do for them.

I once suggested they move back in with him. I was instantly silence by three pleading looks around the dinner table. “No,” Denise said. She left her seat, pried open my arms and forced herself between them. As I brushed her hair out of her eyes, I knew she would never tolerate such a suggestion again. Jenny and Lucy stood and joined the bear hug. Together we all felt whole. The kitchen around us was so silent I could almost hear their thoughts. We were different members of the same team. Team Harrison. I stifled the urge to shout “Hooah!,” at the dinner table.

*****

Valentine’s Day marked the date of my divorce, a yearly reminder of the two soldiers in my unit that we lost that day. Throughout the day I vacillated between sleep and distraction, between pillows and On the Banks of Plum Creek. I had trouble staying focused on the pages, and whenever I would close my eyes, I would hear the roar of the IED as it tore through the convoy and upended our Humvee.

I’d see the way my best friend Maria’s face changed in seconds from laughter to seriousness to pain. When I looked down and there was a crimson mess where her left leg had been, I remember that I gaped at it before taking action. It felt like I was in some movie where the camera was zooming in and out and going from slow to fast motion without stopping. I couldn’t even tell who else was alive.

I counted the hours I had left until my daughters would come home from school. Finally they did, Jenny with a bouquet of roses, Lucy with a box of chocolate, and Denise with a bag full of cards and candy.

Lucy handed me the box, a medium-sized red heart. “This is for you, Mom.” She set it in my lap. I brushed my hand over the embossed packaging and tore the plastic away.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I had a piece of chocolate?”

The girls nodded. “Since you bought the house.”

“What are you going to try first?” Lucy’s voice brought me back to myself. I glanced from her to the box and removed the lid.

“Which one would you recommend?”

Without hesitation, Denise stepped forward and pointed to a round light-colored truffle. So I picked it up and popped it in my mouth. I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time, something hard to describe, but the closest I could come would be happiness. It was fleeting, but it felt real. That feeling might never show up again.

I handed the girls the box, and they chose their morsels with consideration and thoughtfulness. They weighed their options and chose strategically, trying to maximize the flavors of chocolate that each person could taste. I watched as Denise took control, speaking to the principles of division and reason. “If there are twenty candies total and there are four of us, then we each get five. Mom and I don’t like white chocolate, so by default, Jenny and Lucy each get one of the white ones. That leaves nine milk and nine dark. But, Lucy, you don’t like dark, so the rest of your four are milk. There are five milk left and three people. Who likes milk just a little more than dark?”

As she talked, she lit up. Math was easy. She could use facts to reach a decision. She was the youngest, but she was masterful in her decision-making. The older girls deferred to Denise and chose their chocolates. Jenny ate hers slowly. She was always careful and delicate, like when she helped me write out lists, sitting next to me in bed. She pasted them up so that I could see them and remember things.

Lucy grabbed at the chocolates, stowing hers away. She had such drive and motivation. She wants to be a dancer and, tries to learn on her own—watching lessons on YouTube in the library after school, taking notes, and practicing on the makeshift barre she’d built out of aluminum cans and duct tape in the basement. My girls were so different from one another, but so familiar to me.

*****

Jenny called me on my cell phone during my VA appointment. I could hear her sigh. “There’s a problem at home,” she said.

As I pulled the phone from my ear, I heard her add: “I love you.” I would have said it back, but it was too late, I was already pushing the button to end the call.

I drove up and down the mountain roads, through the budding oak, red maple, and cherry trees until I made it back home as the sun set. Our twisted gravel-paved driveway, sinister as the shadows fell, led to the house, which looked clean and stately on the outside, disguising the problems on the inside. I killed the engine and sat in the driver’s seat. “Come on, soldier. You can do this. You’ve been through so much, one more little thing won’t kill you. Let’s go, soldier! Hooah!” I was my own drill sergeant.

Before I got out of my car, I took one deep breath and let it out slowly. All of the lights downstairs shone brightly, but those upstairs were dark. Through the illuminated hallway and into the kitchen, I crept, listening for my daughters’ hushed whispers that quieted as I approached.  

They all sat around the kitchen table. Denise looked from Lucy to Jenny as though she was the mastermind behind whatever plan they’d concocted. Lucy’s hands were folded in her lap, but I could hear her picking at her fingernails. Jenny wouldn’t look at me, her hands crossed over her chest.

“What is it?” I looked from daughter to daughter.

“See for yourself.” Jenny stood. She walked past me to the sink and turned it on.

Something yellowish sprayed everywhere, like an invisible thumb was pressing up against the spigot. It reached the ceiling, dripped over our cabinets, and the floor.

It hit me. The rotten egg sulfur stench. It came in through my nostrils and burned my eyes. Immediately, I was in Iraq, trying to push Maria’s patella back into her leg. Her skin turned white as each drop of blood hit the sand. That stench hit me, the chemicals in the IED smelled like gut rot and I teared up for the wrong reason. Maria cried. She babbled incoherently until I placed a finger across her lips. Then she cried and I just cradled her head and cried with her, shaky, ugly and harsh.

Then I was standing in the kitchen with the smell lingering in my nose and tears streaming down my face. My girls stared at me, frozen in time. They didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know what to do next. The sobs came fast, faster than I was expecting and I sank to the floor. I didn’t have anyone to pray to, but the girls joined me on the floor. Denise grabbed my right arm; Lucy grabbed my left. Jenny came over. She sat down right in front of me and crossed her legs. She took each of her sister’s hands, forming a circle.

“Mom,” she said. Her voice was even and calming.

I nodded and wiped the tears from my cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

They knew they deserved more, but loved me anyway. Lucy rested her head on my shoulder. Then, for what felt like hours, we sat together like that, in a circle on the kitchen floor and making plans for the future.

Kevin Finnerty

Kevin Finnerty received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago.  His fiction has appeared in Parting Gifts, Milk Sugar, Mobius and other publications. He lives in Minneapolis.

 

Rachelle Hates Wearing Clothes

Rachelle hates wearing clothes. She’s not what you would call a nudist. She doesn’t parade around naked in public. And, as far as I know, she’s never attended one of those camps where everyone sheds their clothes and lives in harmony for a week or longer. Rachelle simply removes her clothes most days as soon as she returns to our apartment.

Rachelle’s my friend and roommate, not my girlfriend. That’s her choice. I’d like us to be a couple. We’ve made out on a number of occasions. I’ve even touched her entire body from head to toe, though only on the outside. She’s never let me put anything inside of her. We’ve never even French kissed. But I should stay focused; this is Rachelle’s story.

I always know when Rachelle’s had a tough day. She’ll rid herself of her clothes immediately upon entering our apartment without even waiting to go to her bedroom. Sometimes she starts undressing in the hallway while simultaneously inserting her key into our lock.

Rachelle works as a hostess at one of the fancier restaurants in our city. She’s exceptionally pretty but not intimidatingly beautiful. Rachelle stands 5’7” with shoulder-length brown hair with red highlights. At work, she tends to wear skirts cut an inch or two above the knee and black hose. She leaves the top two buttons of her blouses undone. Restaurant patrons would never guess that she hates wearing the clothes that seem so right on her.

The restaurant’s owners pay Rachelle well to smile a lot while being helpful and pleasant. They recognize it’s not as easy as it might seem to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable.

Rachelle started working at the restaurant two years ago, right after she graduated from college and we moved in together. We met four years earlier when she was a freshman and I was a senior and the T.A. for her spring introductory history class. We chatted a few times before I learned of her hatred of wearing clothes mid-semester.

She told me she couldn’t live in the dorms for another year. I suppose she expected I would have known why. It’s a little surprising that I didn’t. Hers wasn’t the sort of story not to spread, even in a large university like ours, where obscurity is still possible.

Maybe I was too focused on my studies then. Or too into what I was into in those days to the exclusion of everything else. I’m not that way anymore, but this isn’t my story.

It was hard for a while not to picture Rachelle naked after she told me. Most people, we know as only clothed, even though they all spend a considerable amount of time naked. They just don’t bring it to our attention.

Back then, Rachelle’s hair reached the top of her behind, and she rarely wore makeup. But what I remember most was she had the habit of opening her eyes and mouth wide—without ever saying anything—whenever anyone did something she couldn’t believe, such as propositioning her upon meeting her or telling her of their random, drunken sex experiences.

Rachelle was more innocent than good at the time, which is to say she was both, but her goodness appeared to be the product of her innocence. It never occurred to her to be bad, or to believe that others might want to do what she considered sinful, until she lived with and around those who thought nothing of fulfilling their needs and desires by exploiting others. Now she’s simply a good person.

Rachelle fought to conform during her year in the dorm. Aside from always sleeping naked, she only removed her clothes a few times a month, and only when she believed she had her room to herself. But college dormitories are no place for secrets. Too much activity 24/7. Someone eventually learned Rachelle’s habit, exposed her, and nothing was ever the same.

I’m quite sure Rachelle was still a virgin (in the sense of never allowing penetration) when she arrived on campus, but her dorm-mates soon labeled her a skank, a whore, puta. Just because she hated wearing clothes.

I felt sorry for Rachelle before I understood her. She wanted her own place so she wouldn’t have to live her life in a manner inconsistent with who she was, so I helped her move into my apartment at the end of May when I moved out. I hadn’t expected to need it any longer as I’d always intended to enroll in graduate school in another state in the fall, but life doesn’t always proceed according to plan. I ended up remaining in the area.

But this is Rachelle’s story, not mine.

*****

I ran into her about six months later. Actually, Rachelle ran into me.

I had just left a meeting with the chair of the history department in which we’d discussed the possibility of my enrolling in graduate school the following fall when Rachelle zipped around a corner and plowed into me.

I didn’t recognize her at first. She wore a big down jacket, wool hat, scarf and ear muffs. She looked nothing like a person who hates wearing clothes, though she appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

“Sorry,” she said.

“What’s the rush?”

“Got to get home. Didn’t know you were still here.”

“Rachelle?”

“It’s me underneath all this.”

She was practically bouncing. I presumed she was cold.

“What’s waiting for you at home?”

“Comfort.”

She looked at me through the small slit between her scarf and hat as if she expected me to remember. It took me a few seconds but I eventually did.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Can I walk you there?”

“You can jog along if you want.”

We practically ran through the ice and snow until we reached her place, which had once been mine. The back of my throat burned from the cold air hitting it. I tried to think of how I could ask Rachelle if I could come inside without it sounding creepy.

Eventually, she grew impatient and kissed me on the cheek. “I got to go. Let’s get together some time.”

*****

Over the course of many months, Rachelle and I met for coffee, then at campus events, then for drinks, and finally dinner. Well, pizza.

Our get-togethers always ended with our hugging and her giving me a peck on the cheek until the night when we shared pizza. As we stood outside the restaurant, she maintained a greater distance between the two of us than normal.

“If I asked you something would you not take it the wrong way?”

“What do you mean?”

“If I asked you to come over to my place?”

“Yeah, I know we’re friends.”

“And you know me.”

“Right.”

“So you’d be okay even if I ….”

Sometimes, a lot of times actually, when we were apart, I thought of Rachelle naked and took care of things. But by this point in time, when we were together, I didn’t. I saw her as her. Not naked Rachelle, nor clothed Rachelle. Just Rachelle. So her words took a few seconds to register.

“Oh no, no problem.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, you want me to…?”

“Keep your clothes on.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

***** 

I always kept my clothes on. For the next two years anyway. When Rachelle and I were really good friends but not roommates. Just as well anyway. In those days if I spent time with Rachelle at her place or mine and she was naked, it was impossible for me not to become excited. She probably could tell anyway, but it wasn’t as nearly as obvious as it would have been had I not been wearing pants.

We didn’t fool around back then. Rachelle seemed to be in a hurry to find a partner for life, so she dated a lot, though few of her coeds became boyfriends.

Many of the guys failed to recognize that her habit was not a sexual invitation. Some managed to control themselves when they first saw her naked but could not help but brag to their bros about the free-spirited girl they were dating. Others lasted longer but ended the relationship once they realized Rachelle’s nakedness was not the average woman’s nakedness: it was not only for them.

When Rachelle and I weren’t living together, the guy didn’t see it right away. But there always came the day when he’d come over to her place wearing a smile on his face until he saw Rachelle and I sitting together on the couch, me fully clothed and she buck naked. She’d get up and run over to him to give him a kiss but he’d stare directly at me like I should be ashamed of myself.

Rachelle told me she wanted us to live together after she graduated because her parents would no longer pay for her room and board. She claimed she needed a roommate and no one else would accept her. That may or may not have ben true, but Rachelle had to realize the effect her decision would have on her chance for other relationships.

The only guy she’s been close to since we’ve lived together ended it the first morning he emerged from the bathroom and saw Rachelle and I—me in boxers and she in the buff—at the kitchen table sipping coffee. He rubbed his eyes hard, certain they had to be deceiving him, but once he realized they were not, he gathered his clothes and left, never speaking another word to Rachelle.

I’m sure all of Rachelle’s guys imagined the worst happened when they weren’t around, when she and I were alone. But Rachelle’s never cheated on anyone. That’s not her. The times we’ve been physical we’ve both been single. And lonely, I suppose.

Maybe I should take Rachelle at her word and presume it was a pure economic decision to become roommates. Of course, I’d told Rachelle my story long before we moved in together. I had to. I told her shortly after she exposed herself completely to me in her apartment that first time. It only seemed appropriate to reciprocate.

I told her what had happened, why I hadn’t moved away after senior year as planned. Rachelle appeared stunned, and we went a little longer that usual without seeing one another afterwards. But once we did, she never mentioned it again, and I’m not going to now. Remember, this is Rachelle’s story.

*****

Our two years together have gone by fast. Things happen when people live together. You see so much of one another, you can’t help but show your true self. No one can be false all the time. You either accept and deal, or you don’t and move on.

After we shared our place for about two months, Rachelle asked if I ever considered being naked at home.

“I don’t hate wearing clothes,” I told her.

“Try it.”

I did and what I expected occurred. She pretended not to notice, and eventually things changed so I wasn’t aroused all the time.

Once that was the case, Rachelle suggested we kiss, touch and caress each other on occasion. For the most part, whenever she suggested it, we were very loving. When I did, the whole thing seemed more sexual. I’m not sure why except that I lack Rachelle’s purity. Sometimes I felt she took care of me out of pity. But maybe it was really just due to her goodness.

Last night was good. Great, actually. Rachelle came into my room when I was asleep and got into bed with me. When I awoke, I asked if something was wrong but through the darkness she put her finger on my lips.

We kissed and petted not unlike we had done in the past, and even though there still wasn’t any insertion or penetration, our acts seemed to be filled with greater passion. We grabbed each other and pulled one another closer, tighter. Then, for the first time, she slid down my chest and kissed, licked and flicked until I came.

I wanted to go down on her not just to reciprocate but to make her feel as fantastic as I felt, but she pulled me up and placed my hand on her sex instead. She guided it to show I was only to rub the outside. I did as instructed with as much love and affection as I was capable.

I’d heard Rachelle cum before. Behind closed doors. Both when alone and with someone. But it was different hearing her do so beside me, because of me.

We spent the night in each other’s arms.

***** 

She was already awake by the time I opened my eyes. We smiled at one another. Hers appeared a little forced. Or maybe she simply wasn’t beaming as I was.

I kissed her softly on the lips. She accepted it, waited a few seconds, then kissed me on the lips before getting out of bed.

I sat up, confused, and went to her room. She had put on sweat pants and was in the process of throwing an old tee shirt over her head.

I stood before her naked.

“What’s this?”

“I’m cold.”

“Do we need to talk about last night?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“But I’m not ready for more. Not with you. Not yet. I’m sorry, I thought I was.”

“Why not?”

I imagined it was because I wasn’t as tall or as built as her Ex-es. I feared it had to do with the size of my equipment. But I knew she only dated nice guys. Well-groomed, well-manned, decent young men.

Rachelle opened her eyes and mouth in the way I hadn’t seen in years. She softly placed her hand on my cheek. “You know why.”

“I don’t.”

“I feel bad.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ve always accepted me the way I am. Nobody else has. Not my parents, my sister, my friends, my Ex-es. Only you.”

I pulled her into an embrace and attempted to lift her shirt. She resisted for a second then allowed me to remove it. She got rid of the sweats herself.

I cupped one of her breasts with one hand and placed the other on her behind. She rolled her head into my chest. I felt tears sliding onto me.

She took me in her hand. More in a loving way than a sexual one. I began to grow.

“I want to be more like you. You’re better than me. I wish I could take in all of you the way you do me.”

I knew then. I’d known all along. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it.

I’d scared her with my story more than I’d realized. I don’t know if I can ever fully recover in her eyes. If I do, that will be my story. This one’s hers.

My friend Rachelle hates wearing clothes.