Tag Archives: Elaine Starkman

Elaine M. Starkman

Hearing Beyond Sound Elaine Starkman coverHearing Beyond Sound: New and Collected Poems
by Elaine M. Starkman

San Ramon, CA: DVS Publishing, 2013
Paper, 72 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9883006-2-0
Reviewed by Zara Raab 



Light Travel, Sound Travel 

Fog is universal, but nowhere does it have quite the presence that it has in the San Francisco Bay area, where Elaine Starkman has lived most of her adult life. Starkman’s new book opens with the characteristically unpretentious language of “Alive, Winter, 2008,” in which imagery of pear juice, goblets, and fog establishes a tone and mood that pervades many of her poems: 

My view
illumined by

phantom orchards.

“Sandy’s Gone, January 2011” captures in title alone her simple, understated language, evoking the temperament of a diarist who keeps a journal, or a faithful correspondent, each letter dated, sent from ports in her travels through life. Reflections on death and solitude intermingle in “Sooner or Later, 2000”: All this will end//[. . .] Loving and not loving knowing/sooner than later we’ll part//Then what we think/ will not matter//Then we’ll wonder/what silences we’ll take//with us/ to our graves.” This poem reads like a letter to a spouse of many years. Many of Starkman’s poems have much of the simplicity and intimacy of personal correspondence. This isn’t to say Starkman’s descriptions aren’t lovely. In “June, 1999,” the line breaks have the purposeful presence of suggesting a necklace of the pearls featured as an image in the poem: 

chips of pearl
fading toward

 “Stillness, February, 2006,” set in Green Gulch at Muir Beach, epitomizes this poet’s reflective cast of mind:

I didn’t think
this calmness
could happen,

this sweet
immeasurable stillness

By following the contours and normative turns of her syntax, and breaking predictably, Starkman’s lines mirror her zen approach to life, one of whose tenets might be paraphrased as “the way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” Starkman rarely offers rhythmic surprise, or breaks the poetic line to amplify or qualify meaning – to strive for more than is natural. Although Starkman has chosen to keep her poems free from the strictures of meter and rhyme, she has not then taken on the difficulties inherent in rhythmic surprise, enjambment or complex meaning. Starkman is never overly ambitious in her use of the freedom of free verse. This has a calming effect, slowing down the progress of the poem and perhaps facilitating connection with the reader. It is rather like some of William Carlos Williams’ early poems, before he mastered his brilliant rhythmic patterns in what James Longenbach has called the “annotating line.”

One of my favorite poems, in the section of “History Lessons” drawn from Jewish and her own history, is “Peaches, Netanya, Near the Sea,” an homage to Avram, an “old immigrant/from Eastern Europe” who sells peaches from a cart with his helper, young Yosef, “the singing Yemenite;/ his dark sandaled feet” dangling “over the cart pulled by a donkey,” while their dog Cush runs alongside. The poet recalls Yosef teaching her how to say the Hebrew word for peach, “Ahfarsek,” and giving her a taste. She concludes:

Oh, fruit of the land
Oh, milk and honey.
Where are you now,
Singing Yosef,
Silent Avram,
Lost Cush

“Every Single Day, a Ray of Light” evokes the Jewish Kabbalah, and “Kaddish for the Columbia” discusses “the sketch/ by a boy in Auschwitz” carried into outer space by the space shuttle Columbia, without echoing any of the rich, wrought cadences of the Hebrew bible. Ancient Jewish traditions pervade these poems, while the sparse style remains firmly planted in the twenty-first century. “In the Kibbutz Laundry, 1969,” one of a series of poems set in Israel, is dedicated to Rivka Cooper, whose arm is tattooed with a concentration camp number:

 In the kibbutz laundry
 Her hands move in an act of love.

“[E]ngraved on her arm/ Lives a page of history/ That all the soap/ And all the rubbing/Can never wash away.”

Family bonds are a rich source of reflection. In “Apricots for Isaac,” the poet savors an afternoon of walking with her grandson in an abandoned orchard; he climbs an apricot tree whose fruit is beginning to ripen. In “Patterns,” she reflects on the links between the generations, the patterns tying her to her mother, and from her mother through her, to her children:

How is it that I’ve become my mother
Stand at the sink   wash her hair

The way she once washed mine
How is it that I carry everything

Unnamed between us
Onto my own children

And call it love

“Re-reading Poems of Anne Sexton, 1984” makes evident Sexton’s influence: “The fearless courage of your writing/ nourished my own.” Preoccupation with childhood motivates poems like “Three A.M., November 2011,” recording a dream of a “blue eyed/dark haired brother and sister//I knew long ago,” or the poem “Chicago: Garfield Park Conservatory, September, 2004,” conjuring a neighborhood where the poet “trudged with [her] father through winter snow, spring rains, and summer swelter more than /half a century ago.”

Although Starkman begins her poems with a personal perspective, she is by no means a Confessional poet, and she writes of male literary influences, capturing in brief stanzas the essences of Hemingway, Einstein, and Gandhi, each of whom “lets me know that my life/ is in my own hands” (“Traveling Among Men, June, 2012”).

Never inflated, didactic, or politically correct, Starkman isn’t generally interested in news headlines but in the slow news of family life, as in the charming “In Praise of Old Man’s Pee,” dedicated to her father, whom she visits in the hospital near the end of his life. Starkman celebrates the “men we don’t hear or/read about who give/us their manly gifts//who love us gently/with compassion.” An overarching theme of Hearing Beyond Sound is the need for an inner voice.

No, I don’t want
To know who’s
Making money
Losing it
Who’s having affairs
Who’s winning
[. . .]
More news  more websites
More blogs  more spam
More more more—

There’s lively detail in Starkman’s portrait of the well-dressed man in a wheelchair selling soap on the street corner in “Lost Words, 2009,” and humor in the poet’s recognition that, caught up in the petty trials of her own life, she does not really see him. Starkman is most exuberant in her friendships with women. “Cabana Carioca, New York City,” dedicated to the poet Florence Miller, describes a New York City outing:

We abandon ourselves
To every pan-handler
[. . .]
We swoon at the stocky waiters
In Cabana Carioca on 45th Street.
[. . .]
we samba up the line in step
to the last of the Portuguese buffets
where we pay the counter price
for paella and flan at this lunch of love.

At times, Hearing Beyond Words reads like a travel letter from Israel, Europe, and Asia, and occasionally the line between poetry and good prose is sustained only by the thin thread of the line break. Yet without straining for heightened literary effect, the poet connects with both the people in her stories and her readers beyond the page. Even in sleep, she is traveling, with the notion of some ultimate journey beyond life hovering like a shadow. In “Traveling Toward Dawn, September, 2005,” she writes, “Soon I’ll lie down to sleep/wrap myself in night/ fold its coverlet above me.” Travel is evoked even by this tender collection’s elusive title, referring to the “celestial sound” of the highway, the “angelic humming//from the car tires/ as we pass sandy dunes,” on their way somewhere. As reader, I welcome these missives from other lands. I travel with her.


Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of California in 19th  and early 20th Century. Her poems appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast Review. Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.

Elaine Starkman

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.