After returning with her young family from Israel in 1969, where she and her husband had worked, Elaine Starkman’s family settled in northern California. She completed an M.A. in writing at San Francisco State, and taught English at Diablo Valley College. In 1999, she and Marsha Lee Berkman won a PEN West Award for co-editing Here I Am: Contemporary Jewish Stories from Around the World. Her most recent work, Hearing Beyond Sound, is available on Amazon.
At a Russian Circus,
Sochi, on the Black Sea, 1990
I want to be an aerialist, not a ballerina with the Bolshoi
or the Kirov or a small two-bit troupe dancing for
tourists, she thought, as she sat in the Russian Circus
in a small town on the Black Sea;
I’ll hang by my teeth from a rope, wear a gaudy costume,
every muscle of my body, taut, every nerve controlled.
I’ll twirl and spring into the handsome hairy arms of Mitya—
half Georgian, half Jew, each half still hating the other—
I’ll escape to the West—now that it’s made easy—
Paris, New York! I want to feel air rush under
my armpits and between my legs as I listen to our
pretty children below,
girls with chiffon bows, boys with short tight pants,
dripping maroshenoye in their fleshy hands.
I’ll fly higher than Chagall rooftops, pinwheel above
holes of toilets where a woman can’t pee—she can’t
wear slacks, she must bring her own napkins—
twirl above birch and chestnut of every rotten palace
and museum, above all war monuments,
above embalmed czars, black catacombs, white nights
that never end. I’ll know the name of Peter the Wise,
it’s second nature for me to know Peter the Great, Ivan
the Terrible, and the mass murderers of the Ukraine.
I’ll know every river, metro stop, every block of concrete
twist of history in our vast miserable Motherland.
I’ll know Gorbachev and the rest of our phony leaders,
may they be blotted from memory!
I want decent meals without waiting hours to buy
food. I want comfort clothes, like that English
teacher with her thin-framed glasses sitting down
there in safety, looking at me up here.
I’ll run around with a fast Russian crowd, drink
kvass and vodka, eat kasha and caviar, know how to say
more than up/down, in/out, close/open in other tongues.
I’ll feed tigers from my purse full of meat and
wrap the baby around my shoulders like a coat.
I’ll wear two-colored hair, a hard face of rouge
and live in a room so small that it makes me swing,
swing high as the sky and dangle
my ankles in air. I’ll tickle new millionaires
under their fat chins, know where this country’s going,
where I’m going, forget history, I live it; let it be
known in the west; that’s where I’m headed—
the West, the West! That’s what keeps my act alive.
At three in the morning, I’ll fall into bed with Mitya.
ignoring his snoring My dreams sound like
Babushka’s sweet songs until Mitya sneaks out
to black market—better than ever…. When
I wake he’s gone. I’ll put on thin-framed glasses,
dress myself in a dress of good western cut and file
out the front door of this ransacked hotel where
the English teacher from America thinks
it’s art that makes me dive and leap.
For Sarah Simmons, 1921-2013
This morning at nine we heard you were killed
when a truck crashed into your car. I ask over and over again
if your body is gone, is your soul with us, gentle
long-lived friend, teacher/student
with a young mind.
You handled life’s pain but couldn’t overcome its reckless
modes of driving when you were killed two day ago.
The local papers call you “an elderly woman.”
They don’t know who you are and who you were,
only an anonymous “elderly woman.”
You left your home years ago and slowly made your way here.
Nasser had given your family five days to leave Egypt
with all its Middle-East mania, hints of Nazism,
its wars, hatred of Jews and the west.
Yes, your memory is alive inside of us.
You never spoke about what happened during
those terrible years; you never questioned, you knew
why you had to flee to a new life in France
with its pleasures of its language and culture,
and your teaching on the continent. Yet even France
grew too uncertain of its own politics. At last
you came to America where the rest of your family lived.
You survived, always grateful, never talking
about your past. Although you already knew
English, had many degrees and spoke three tongues,
your favorite, French.
It took time for you to create in our tongue, but slowly
it happened: poems and stories slowly came, never on the trauma
you faced; but tales of childhood, of making dresses
from bed sheets with your sister so you both might
attend a school dance. Later, you wrote on nature,
finally poems of love for your late husband and
stories of your grown children when they were young.
Dear Sarah, there is a particle of you that lives in us.
Day of Atonement, for Leon
“On this day it is written
who shall live and who shall die…”
You stand in the doorway
dogged, tired from fasting,
tired from prayer.
I’ve been home alone
for hours, thinking
of what I’d say
at your eulogy—if you
should go first, but
if I go before you,
I won’t have to worry
about details, won’t
be the unruly one
who stayed home today,
the one who I tame to tunes
of your goodness.
Yes, my love, I still struggle
with your virtues
as I did when we were young,
and after all these years
I’m still struggling
at the Closing of the Gates.