Jewish American Women Poets
For this PLUME feature, I chose four Jewish American women poets, Jennifer Barber, Jessica Greenbaum, Judy Katz and Nomi Stone. I asked them each to think about how Judaism enters their work.
My mom was Protestant and my dad was Jewish. We were raised with a little of my mother’s Christianity, but I did not even know I was half Jewish until a classmate told me so in eighth grade. My father died when I was nine, so I never had a chance to ask him why he had not told us about his family’s religious background. Though he prepared for and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, he spent his adult years as an avowed agnostic. Maybe he was in part rebelling from his upbringing. I do remember hearing him say he felt that religion divided people.
When I started to read the Torah as a teen, I was drawn to the complexity of the stories, the questions, the dialectic, the tension. The Old Testament stories felt more nuanced and true to life than the few Christian teachings I was offered as a young child. I am not a practicing anything now as an adult but am drawn to Judaism.
What I admire in all four of these poets’ work is that the Jewish themes seem to enlarge the scope of their poems, enhance whatever the subject matter is at hand in a very organic fashion.
Two of these poets were comfortable with the traditional question and answer format. Two of them chose to consider the questions I sent and integrate them into the whole of their commentary. I am very grateful to each one of them for their generosity with their time and their work.
Jennifer Barber’s collection The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made is forthcoming from The Word Works in 2022. Her book Works on Paper, recipient of the 2015 Tenth Gate, was published by The Word Works in 2016, and her two previous collections, both from Kore Press, are Given Away and Rigging the Wind. Her poems have appeared recently in the Paris Review, Ruminate, Broadsided, Dogwood, and the North American Review, and she is the current poet laureate of Brookline, MA. She served as founding editor and editor in chief of the literary journal Salamander from 1992 to 2018.
Only sparrows in the oak
and a hooded crow, exotic to me,
a two-toned back, gray over black.
The undersides of leaves
“A couple of weeks or months,”
his doctor predicted in July.
“Sometimes we’re wrong.”
A week ago, Outside
was still part of him,
around the building and back
with one of us or more.
Today, in the window,
in the trees,
of light and dark
impossible to divide,
the addictive, flickering
play of the leaves’ shadows
over the ground.
He calls the Oxycodone
Ativan is Atta Boy.
How does it go, the verse about
the sun not striking us
by day, nor the moon by night?
On Morphine, His Last Words
I have to be there by noon
Here is my forehead,
here is my jaw
Thanks for the visitation, kids
Are these my eyes
under my hand?
“L.B.”: first published in Poetry Kanto; appeared subsequently in Works on Paper (The Word Works, 2016).
I am interested in poems that begin in a secular world and bring in a religious referent either directly or obliquely that deepens the poem. Can you talk about that as being or not being true to your process for your poem, “L.B”?
Thanks for framing this idea. “L.B.” is a poem that I wrote in response to the last two months of my father’s dying. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma in March 2014 and he died in October of that year.
Although both of my parents were Jewish by birth, I was raised in a secular household, without religious instruction or even the most basic familiarity with Jewish customs and rituals.
I had questions and thoughts about Judaism and the history of the Jews all along, but I was in my middle years before I really began exploring my background, and it happened through words, after I went to a funeral for my aunt. Like my parents, she was secular, but her son had hired a rabbi to officiate at her funeral. The rabbi quoted, among other things, the lines from Ecclesiastes 1 that say, “The eye never has enough of seeing,/Nor the ear enough of hearing.” I wasn’t familiar with these lines before, and they leapt out at me in the context of the grief I felt for the loss of my aunt, with their implication that right up until death, we are still seeking more to see, more to hear, and that after death, the sensory world is sealed off to us. I felt ignorant about the Hebrew Bible, especially its poetry, and I decided that I would get to know more of it. So I did, over many years, starting with a Bible-as-literature class. The class, which first convened in 2002, is ongoing. Part of our study has included returning frequently to the psalms.
In the 3rd section of “L.B.,” the poem’s speaker is trying to recall a moment in Psalm 121. Maybe my attempt to reach back for the words of a psalm in a poem about my father has something to do with discovering, also in my middle years, that my father would have wanted his three children to have some familiarity with Judaism while we were growing up. My parents didn’t see eye to eye on this. Later in life, remarried, my father took some Hebrew classes. Learning more about the tradition became something we had in common. He understood my curiosity. After his death, I found a slip of paper on which he had written the transliterated words of the Kaddish, in order to memorize them.
In “L.B.” you say, “in the trees/ soundless collisions/ of light and dark/ impossible to divide.” There is something that rings of pre-Genesis time in all this for me as the first act of God is to divide the day and night. This seems particularly powerful since you are chronicling your father’s dying. Was that at all intentional or am I totally off the mark here?
I did intend a pre-Genesis feel in these lines, before God separated light and dark, the day and the night. The phrase “impossible to divide” also refers to the fact that there was a long span of beautiful weather during the summer of my father’s dying. The air was warm but not hot; sunny day followed sunny day, the leaves sparking in the light. I couldn’t help appreciating the gorgeousness of the light but I was sharply aware that these were among my father’s last days.
In the Hebrew Primer
A man. A woman. A road.
Nouns like mountain and gate,
water and famine,
wind and wilderness
arrange themselves in two
columns on the page.
The verbs are
remember and guard;
the verbs are
give birth to and glean.
The eye picks its way
through letters like
torches and doors, like scythes.
The harvest, the dust.
The day calls, the night sings
from the threshing floor.
A woman, a man:
I was, you were, we were.
“In the Hebrew Primer”: first published in the New Yorker; appeared subsequently in Given Away (Kore Press, 2012).
I started learning to read biblical Hebrew about twelve years ago, in a once-a-week-class at my temple. I’ve always liked collecting words in other languages, and I’ve enjoyed reading in French and Spanish over the years, but I’ll admit that studying a language with a different alphabet threw me for a loop. Deciphering the letters initially felt painstaking, even disorienting. (Even now, the amount of time it takes me to absorb the letters in an unfamiliar Hebrew word and bring them to my tongue feels pretty slow.) We used as our textbook The First Hebrew Primer. The book has big pages and a clear, spacious layout. In Chapter 10, the Primer introduces a “guided reading” taken from the Book of Ruth. The editors say,
Congratulations! You have learned enough Hebrew to begin reading the Bible. We have
chosen Ruth because it is short, simple, and beautiful. In the beginning, the Hebrew text
will be simplified, but as we progress, the text will approach the original. Before we
finish the Book of Ruth, you will be reading the actual biblical text.
In my poem, I refer to the fact that the vocabulary words in the Primer feel elemental—words such as man, woman, road, and Jerusalem are basic but freighted with meaning.
The poem’s fourth stanza describes the difficulty of decoding– the path the eye takes as it grasps the shape of the Hebrew letters. Those shapes in my mind were like torches (the letter vav, for example) and doors (the letter het, for example) and scythes (the letter lamed).
The penultimate stanza draws from the Book of Ruth, when Ruth, a young widow without means or stability, follows her mother-in-law Naomi’s advice and approaches Naomi’s land-owning relative Boaz in the night, after a day of harvesting. She sleeps with him on the threshing floor, and the outcome is that he will marry her and they will have a child together. The poem’s last stanza combines verb conjugation and a facet of the story, Ruth and Boaz connecting as a woman and a man.
Does the slowing of time in learning Hebrew and the “disorienting effect” of this slowing have any effect that you notice upon the poems that you write?
My mind races a lot. Learning Hebrew has helped me to slow down while working on poems. I’ve developed more patience. In fact, one of the things I treasure both about learning Hebrew and writing poems is that very slowness.
When you say that you love collecting words in other languages and that the words in the Hebrew textbook feel elemental, is there anything that you feel results from joining these elemental words from different languages? Any spiritual shift or something?
Certain words from other languages take on a kind of extra resonance for me, so that the words generate ideas for poems. I feel this way about the Spanish word “vendaval,” which means windstorm—my first chapbook collection used this word as its title, and by windstorm I intended a constellation of meanings—the name of a specific strong rainy wind on the coast of Galicia, but also a distressed state of the psyche.
Another example: I have a poem that is based on the Hebrew word “nefesh,” with its various meanings and connotations: neck, throat, vital spirit, anima, aspects of sentience. The contemplation of individual words from other languages helps me enter realms that I had not found access to before.
A poet, teacher, and social worker living in NYC, Jessica Greenbaum is the author of three volumes of poems.
A recipient of awards from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Society of America, she teaches inside and outside academia including for communities who may have experienced trauma, and in synagogues around the relationship of Jewish text to contemporary poems. She co-edited Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah (2021), the first ever poetry Haggadah, which proudly includes poems by Jennifer Barber, Sally Bliumis-Dunn and Judy Katz. https://poemsincommunity.org/
A Poem for S.
Because you used to leaf through the dictionary,
Casually, as someone might in a barber shop, and
Devotedly, as someone might in a sanctuary,
Each letter would still have your attention if not
For the responsibilities life has tightly fit, like
Gears around the cog of you, like so many petals
Hinged on a daisy. That’s why I’ll just use your
Initial. Do you know that in one treasured story, a
Jewish ancestor, horseback in the woods at Yom
Kippur, and stranded without a prayer book,
Looked into the darkness and realized he had
Merely to name the alphabet to ask forgiveness—
No congregation of figures needed, he could speak
One letter at a time because al of creation
Proceeded from those. He fed his horse, and then
Quietly, because it was from his heart, he
Recited them slowly, from aleph to tav. Within those
Sounds, all others were born, all manner of
Trials, actions, emotions, everything needed to
Understand who he was, had been, how flaws
Venerate the human being, how aspirations return
Without spite. Now for you, may your wife’s
X-ray return with good news, may we raise our
Zarfs to both your names in the Great Book of Life.
Poetry (July/August 2012)
“Why I Started Writing a Novel”
Earlier today I started writing a novel out of the simple
desire for a story in which nothing bad happens to a girl
or woman. I wanted to imagine being in the normality
of that. Like just because you visit a national park
where the flies draw blood and the heat is abominable
doesn’t mean what’s normal for that park is less comfortable—
but that that national park is, wholly, abnormally uncomfortable.
So why visit? I just want to see Zion in the spring again
and, relatedly, I often think of an article by Kathryn Joyce
called “Out Here No One Can Hear You Scream”
reporting that certain male park rangers had dominated
the most sought out parks and rivers of the Grand Canyon
by threatening and harassing new female rangers stationed there—
for years, continually absolved by the National Park Service’s
male administration. These guys actually felt entitled to
bully women out of natural, national beauty! But the piece
burned its way from The Huffington Post into a Best American
anthology and their little boat finally got tipped over
plus the administration was booted (sometimes good things happen)
so I wanted to write my own story without them ever existing
because as it is, no sooner do I start reading a well-regarded
American novel when some husband tells his wife “Shut up!” (p.4)
or some boy got a girl to think her life depended on
letting him fuck her—meaning he comes inside her
then treats her like toilet paper stuck on his shoe—and after
by-accident reading that, like by-accident ingesting the
sour milk just as you suspect it’s gone sour, I have to skip
to where the girl arrives safely at
her favorite aunt’s house. I try not to sit through brutality.
(Which I think is normal.) But then two chapters on, some
loser guy grabs a woman’s arm and tells her what she has to do
according to him. Whaaa? Frying pan, fire; frying pan, fire . . .
and even though the author surrounds these characters
with the well-meaning William Saroyan-type folk and
things-mostly-works-out-plot, it’s like I pay for a whole meal
but have to eat around the peas and then around the
hundred carrots. I just wanted to read a whole story.
Maybe sitting in Zion, in the spring. In that story, a woman
fears something—like failure, the flu, or maybe a very
high wave—but there wouldn’t be a page where a
young girl and an older man exist in the same room and you
have to worry. The drama will need to come from somewhere
else. I’ve worried enough about that girl to last a lifetime.
Plume: Issue #111 November 2020
Jess chose to think about all of the questions that I asked her about “Poem for S.” and “Why I Started Writing a Novel” and roll all of them into her commentary.
Sally, you very generously asked me about the influence of Judaism in my poems, and I think one response to your consideration is that . . . I’ve only got one switchboard! My secular world is one with my Jewish world. I frame life through a scrim of casually understood Jewish values, and whether I follow or digress from those values I am still seeing life in response to them and in response to my experience of Jewish culture and mythology. Really, I’m just an egg steeping in ancestral dye and the longer I live, the deeper the hue. But a while back I sensed an organic, overt relationship between poetry and Judaism and began teaching around Jewish text. For instance, in Genesis, the world is born through acts of separation—the division of chaos into land and sky, etc.–and time, too, is separated, between Shabbat and the other six days, to distinguish the holy from the daily. And in poetry, we have–which no other genre does!–the miracle of the line break which makes the line and its last word distinct, and the stanza break which allows a little leap of consciousness. A huge part of poetry’s sense comes to us through separation. Also in Judaism, the naming of parts–and the alphabet needed to make those names in Genesis–that’s how life itself comes to life, and how it shows itself to us. “No ideas but in things,” says W.C.Williams, and all those things need names.
In the abecedarian “A Poem for S.” my friend’s actual habit of reading the dictionary, his particular difficult circumstances at the time, and my wish for them to resolve well, brought to mind a tale I read in Days of Awe, by Nobelist S. Y. Agnon. In this 1948 compilation (“Culled from 300 Volumes, Ancient and New”) Agnon records Jewish traditions, legends and commentaries about the High Holy Days from over the centuries and around the globe. In the 1904 tale titled “Combining Letters” a traveler, heartbroken at being lost in the forest without a prayer book as Yom Kippur arrives says, “I shall recite the alphabet and you, O Master of the universe, must combine the letters into syllables and words.” So there is heartbreak at being lost and there is an attempt to locate (and renew) the self through the alphabet in collaboration with a higher spirit. Very little for me to do there . . . Related, for me, is Ashrei, the abecedarian praise poem read on Shabbat– and up to three times a day (!) in certain quarters. In that prayer the form is used to say, although I cannot mention everything in the world there is to praise, I will praise it from soup to nuts, from A – Z (or aleph to taf) to represent everything. Also, that way, I can know when to stop! The Ashrei, for esoteric reasons, leaves out one Hebrew letter, and in “A Poem for S.” I was on a roll and rounded a corner too quickly, accidentally leaving out Y, as a reader later pointed out. Y is so sometimes.
To the extent I deliberately employ a Jewish kopf, a Jewish head around poems, it’s because I like being connected to those ancient ideas, which cohere, uh, also, sometimes. I see Jewishness like an inherited, extensive set of (good) china on the high shelves of the self, and the gravy boat is lost and the serving platter chipped. But everything that exists still belongs to the complete set. And sometimes Jewishness shows up in the poem unrequested because, well, I’ve been eating off those plates my whole life.
A twisty variation on being lost in the woods and being rescued in some way by the alphabet shows up in “Why I Started Writing a Novel.” In that poem the speaker considers the overwhelming misogyny of experience and expresses the fantasy of writing a story without any. It relates a magazine article by an investigative reporter which details pervasive, often physically threatening, misogyny by male rangers in the Grand Canyon National Park in order to have the territory for themselves. Decades of this behavior—successful in scaring away female rangers—went willfully unpoliced by the Parks Department even after being repeatedly reported (a la Larry Nassar etc etc etc) by its victims whose professional dream-come-true had been bullied out from under them. Through a Jewish scrim, that fantasy of a novel in which nothing bad happens to a girl or woman is the recreation of the world, it’s Genesis all over again, and the first woman in Eden—or in The Grand Canyon—can live before the Fall in sublime beauty, while the speaker herself relaxes in that other biblical starting place, Zion. The action unconsciously holds a pentimento of Jewish thought around those who, in their role as National Park Rangers, come to the aid of wanderers. The couplets—which I always sense as intimate —hold a few ideas. The title of the referenced article by Kathryn Joyce is “Out Here No One Can Hear You Scream,” and couplets reflect the vulnerability of a girl or woman left alone with a man, in nature and elsewhere, surrounded only by blankness. Another is how couplets diagram simile: a first thing is like a second thing. Fiction is like real life. Nature is like the whole world. There’s the problem, and how to address it. And by naming Joyce for remediating criminality and inching us closer to wholeness, the poem celebrates tikkun olam, the Jewish instruction to mend the broken world, and also to praise those who do. I only see that now, Sally, so thank you for asking.
Judy Katz’s poems have appeared on Poetry Daily and in The New York Times Book Review, Salamander, The Women’s Review of Books, Plume, upstreet, and other print and online journals. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and widely anthologized, appearing in such publications as Best Indie Lit New England, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Judy graduated from Barnard College and received an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. For many years, she worked as a documentary filmmaker and producer of public television. She currently teaches poetry at the Heschel School in New York City.
The Room Behind My Eyes
I’m drinking coffee with Melissa
telling her about an idea for a poem called
The Encyclopedia of Small but Significant Gestures,
in which I explore the gesture of pressing my fingertips
against my eyelids when I’m trying to recall someone’s name
or remember the word for elevator. This small
gesture helps me concentrate. I go into the room
behind my eyes where all the lost things are
and look around for the missing word.
And this gesture
leads to a further back room, where my mother and grandmother
and great grandmother stand at the dining room table
scooping the air above the lit Sabbath candles
as if they could bring the light into their bodies,
then cover their eyes with their hands
to say the blessing.
And this image
breaks into a hundred images, a mirrored corridor
of all the women before me, back and back
to the first woman
lighting the first candles,
going into the privacy behind her eyes
to look for the first lost thing.
Salamander, Issue 46, Spring/Summer 2018
In a way, I wandered into the Jewish content of “The Room Behind My Eyes.” I was sitting in a café with a friend and, in an effort to find a word I was looking for, I made a gesture that’s second nature to me: I pressed my fingertips against my eyelids for a moment. The friend said that that gesture reminded her of being at my house on a Friday night and seeing me cover my eyes after lighting the Sabbath candles. Jewish ritual was a big part of my family’s life growing up. I saw my mother and the women in my extended family light Shabbat candles every Friday night, and for years as an adult, I’ve done so myself. When you practice a ritual throughout your childhood, it embeds itself in the body; it becomes part of your muscle memory. So even though I’d never connected these two gestures, it made sense to me that they might share something. The idea interested me and I filed it away for later.
The notion of going into a room behind my eyes to look around for something is a little like my own process of writing. At the beginning, I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for; there’s a lot of feeling around in the dark. When I sat down to write this poem, I began by turning over the simple gesture of pressing on my eyes in order to concentrate. Why do I do this? How is it helpful? Where do I go when I remove myself from my present surroundings? And this initial writing, this feeling around, led to the language of a room behind my eyes where “all the lost things are.” The idea of a lost thing – especially one associated with my mother— was deeply resonant for me since my mother died young, at the age of 53. Was I looking for my mother – or perhaps finding her – in the act of lighting candles every Friday night? The discovery in writing the poem was that the gesture of lighting Shabbat candles that I been enacting for years might, like its counterpart in day-to-day living, have something to do with looking for a “lost thing.”
It’s so interesting where particular language and imagery can lead you in a poem. I also didn’t know I’d be going back through the generations of women in this poem to the first woman looking for ‘the first lost thing’— and yet, I landed there, and it caught my interest. The loss at the center of the Eve story – a loss of connection to the natural world, to a sense of wholeness, ease, integritas – do we all feel this? Does this story remain so powerful precisely because we can feel that an essential, un-nameable something is missing for us?
In some of my poems that cast a more direct gaze at Jewish themes – “The Watcher,” “Burial,” and “Brief Prayer at a Cousin’s Wedding” for instance – there are more traces of ambivalence, struggle or even anger. I think my ambivalence about Jewish practice is largely why it comes up in my work. I grew up in a modern Orthodox family in Memphis, TN, where I went to Jewish schools and where our family observed all of the rituals, and while I loved much of how I was raised, I also rebelled against it. I argued with teachers and texts. I found the practices constraining and, in some instances, sexist. All of which means, this is fertile ground for making poems. If you have just one feeling about something – unequivocal love or respect, say, or a feeling that the whole thing is ridiculous – it doesn’t make for very interesting poetry (or, in my opinion, a very interesting spiritual life). As Yeats said, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”*
Brief Prayer at a Cousin’s Wedding
If God is a woman
please don’t let her wear
a wig, like the one
my aunt is wearing
now that she is religious.
Or a long, brocade dress
that stands still
while the body inside it
struggles to move.
Don’t let her fall
for the modesty of the doomed
the sad or weary
If God is a woman
let her dress like Flo –
turquoise scarf tied at the neck,
hair pulled back
from an open face.
Let the fabric of her skirt
float to the knee.
When she sits down,
please god, let her show
a little skin.
Lilith, June 14, 2010
This poem springs from an early, deeply held need to speak up on behalf of the body. Though the poem is clothed in humor, it’s a humor born of anger. Or maybe argument; argument is definitely more Jewish.
When I was a teenager, I had fights with my mother, as many teenagers do, about what I wore. But the fights took place in a particular context. Various members of my extended family were becoming more and more observant, and for the women there was a corresponding shift in dress code. A couple of my aunts stopped wearing pants or sleeveless blouses, one began covering her hair. It seemed impossible to tell where and when this creeping conservatism would end. What the aunts considered “modesty,” I saw as a denial of the female body and shame (or fear?) around women’s sexuality. I’m sure, at the time, my sophisticated way of putting it would have been to simply call their style ugly. Also, it didn’t make sense to me. If they really believed God created the human form, did they think it was a sign of devotion to shut it away?
Obviously, this subject has stayed with me, and probably for a whole range of reasons. One is that it engages the question of what it means to be “religious,” or to claim that word for oneself. By titling the poem a “prayer,” the speaker immediately co-opts the language of religion, and religious language is sprinkled throughout. There is “fall,” a word typically associated with Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence, after which they no longer experience unself-conscious ease in their bodies. In the poem, however, the word is used to suggest “falling for” or being tricked into something – namely, the idea that a woman who’s more covered up is more pious. Don’t let God fall for that. There’s also the word “guilty” and, in the last stanza, a phrase ubiquitous in Orthodox communities: “please god” (lower case mine). It’s as if the speaker is saying, Come over to my side, language. And it’s not just language she wants. The poem seems to be arguing for God to take the speaker’s side as well. After the initial hypothetical – If God is a woman – the plea becomes, please don’t let her dress like my aunt. Let her dress like my friends, stylish and feminine. Let her be in favor of the body.
This notion of wanting God to “back one up” reminds me of a famous story in the Talmud. A highly respected rabbi is in heated debate with his peers over a technical matter of Jewish law. The majority stands on one side and this rabbi on the other, but he refuses to bend. At a certain point he says, If the law is in accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it. And the tree flies into the air. Then he says, If I am in the right, let this stream flow backward. And the stream complies. But neither proof serves to convince the majority. Finally, the rabbi summons a “Heavenly voice” (i.e. God himself) to come down and take his side in the debate. In the same way, the speaker of the poem seems to be summoning God to her side, and praying she’ll come down in a knee length dress. While this poem is playful in tone – it takes place at a wedding, it floats a fanciful proposition, it ends with a joke – it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If you scratch the surface, a whole world view at stake. There’s a current running through here that’s dead serious, as arguments over women’s clothing inevitably are.
Nomi Stone is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly 2008) and Kill Class (Tupelo 2019), a finalist for the Julie Suk Award. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a Fulbright, Stone’s poems appear recently in POETRY, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, and widely elsewhere. Also an anthropologist, her ethnography and field-poetics, Pinelandia: Human Technology and American Empire is forthcoming (University of California Press 2022). A section of her collection of poems in progress, You Could Build a World This Way, was recently a finalist for Bull City Press’s chapbook prize.
What I meant is that when the child shook the branch,
the beetles, quiet, somnolent, darkly, fell and again fell
like plums. Once woken, they bzzzed towards
the street lamps, loving each light well, thwacking
against them until they landed face down or face
up, trying to find their feet, reminding me of Eve’s face
as a baby when she tried to lift her head on her stem
of a neck before yet she could. Upon the child’s shoulders,
beetles landed, kinging him. The dusk’s gray mute
unfolded its scrolls, while his mother made toast
with boysenberry jam, his father played solitaire,
and think of his sister doing her biology homework.
But they are under the tree, he is, the bright ones falling
upon him like stars, and as they fall, he names them:
some doctors, some cooks, depending on the size
of their antennae. His face was a diary of leaves: dark,
lit, risen with laughter, then suddenly at rest. This
was one way to be inside the world rather than outside
looking into a bright window.
Copyright © 2017 Nomi Stone. “Wonder Days” originally appeared in New England Review. Used with permission of the author.
Under early night’s quilt, half-asleep, rocking my milk-fat newborn, I dream him as a little boy, under a splendid tree. Beetles fall like plums from the branches, as he points at each of them—seeming to conduct them—giving them names. Sleepily, “somnolent,” I inscribe him into the poem. When I wrote “Wonder Days” four years ago, my life was otherwise. At the time, I imagined the boy in the poem to be tinglingly awake, inside the world—as CD Wright says, “seeing feelingly.” At that time, I felt like I was observing life’s pour from an edge, through a window; I wanted to be inside.
I was approached to write about a poem where Judaism played a role, and “Wonder Days” (published a few years ago in New England Review) was proposed to me. Judaism was not on my mind when I wrote this poem, or not consciously. But I am a Rabbi’s daughter. Which forms of knowing are always half-there within us, without our acknowledgment? In my return to this poem, I thought of the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: the Book of Life unscrolling its days open. I thought of those ten days of the Hebrew calendar, how I feel particularly awake to my life and acts during them—on the inside, the world fruiting, trembling around me. The syntax of the poem begins, “What I meant is,”; and this too, is perhaps one of the greatest properties of wonder for me: I’m always trying to get closer, shaking the branch, always in revision towards the body’s relation to the earth. Maybe the poem acts as a kind of Shehekheyanu, that prayer for all kinds of natality in the world. To write a poem is to mark wonder, and that is a prayer. The prayer of the poem keeps changing, as I change: the boy is a figure for living in the stream of life in the poem’s original iteration. Now, in my little-sleep nights, the boy is my actual child in my arms, pivoting up to look here then there, “loving each light well.”
Another recent poem of mine, published in The Nation, “For My Wife, Who Is Writing a Collection of Stories Called ‘Homescar,” reckons with Judaism more directly. A home scar is the groove in a rock where limpets hold fast; they return after foraging to the same spot. The shell of the limpet comes to match the rock shape, to keep hewing again to the same indentation. My wife and I talk a lot about homescars as metaphor — as the tug towards home, an ache into the past, “the X the body can’t stop returning to.” My homescar is perhaps suburban American Judaism, or what yawns before it, the millennia- long tug of history, of escape and fear. Part of my relationship to Judaism is tangled with a narrative of anxiety and melancholia (from the stories of persecution, to the impulse to always bring an extra sweater and to at least prepare for the worst). I am tethered to that past, it lives in me like an ache. But meanwhile, I lean forward into other ways of being and becoming—while still preserving my deep tie to Judaism. My wife Rose is from the island of Mull, off the West Coast of Scotland. Since she has been in my life, I’ve lived in a way that has felt more intrepid, more embodied: the joyful shock of cold-water swimming; the scramble through mossy forests hunting for mushrooms in the pouring rain. “The body longs/ backward and forward, backward and forward.” I think of my son, how he will inherit these contrapuntal tugs. Who he will become?
In your writing about “Wonder Days” you say that maybe the poem serves as a Shehekheyanu, a prayer for all types of natality. Besides all that you describe about the poem, and related to this idea of natality, I noticed the baby named “Eve” and the young boy “naming” the beetles like Adam names the animals, and the tree under which he sat. All this seemed to ring of Genesis to me. Is this way off the mark?
Yes: there are perhaps echoes of Genesis here. The child names the beetles of the world and through this gesture, he makes his own invented catalogue. I’m really fascinated by the world-building that happens through a child’s eyes. As for the mention of Eve: my niece’s name is Eve, so that is actually a coincidence—though perhaps one with resonance.
And what you said about the first line and how you are always trying to get closer. That poetry is an opportunity to look closely, to pay attention. Do you think of poetry in general as being at all related to prayer?
I do see poetry as a kind of prayer. The close rush of seeing that precipitates a poem is perhaps the closest thing to prayer for me.
For My Wife, Who Is Writing a Collection of Stories Called ‘Homescar’
Rocks are notched
with sea limpets, and the pockets
limpets leave once they’ve sealed
into the rock and know
themselves most inside it,
softening the stone.
You can sketch
with your thumb, the X
the body can’t stop
returning to, little mollusk
driven by the seas then
sealing again to the same
known. My glorious wife and I joke
about home, grooves
in the rock we land in
again and again. I am from the soothing
of PF Chang’s,
the shoe stores in the mall, the lit waves
of others exchanging money
for calm. Before that, my people
are from fear: my great-
hidden in a wagon of straw. He crossed
the ocean early, just before
he couldn’t. I am from fear.
clear of harm if I can, wear an extra
sweater and don’t let
my ankles buckle. Oh beloved, I will try
to be bold. The body longs
backward and forward, backward and forward.
The Nation, July 20, 2020
I want to ask you about “homescar”. I never knew this about limpets and had always assumed they just grew on a rock and remained there for the course of their lives. I love how the word, “homescar” seems to be an oxymoron, home being a place of comfort and scar, well… Do you have any further thoughts about these opposing forces?
Yes, it’s this seesaw that so compels me: home soothes but also can constrain and sometimes harm. I was interested also in generational homescars, how they ripple forward. The suburbs—sprinklers and lawns and malls — are a calming bath but also unnerve me, as they are so narrowing. Likewise, Judaism offers me familiarity and pleasure, ritual and anchor; but tradition as a category makes me uneasy.
In my first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (2008, TriQuarterly), I wanted to understand Judaism (and its tugs) in a wholly other context. I lived for some time among the Jewish community on the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia. That community might have arrived in North Africa after the fall of Jerusalem’s First Temple, in 586 BC. According to myth, a handful of exiles—Kohanite Jews, of the priestly caste— arrived on the island carrying a single stone from the destroyed holy place. The community believes that the stone is still lodged in the frame of their largest synagogue. Their homescar is perhaps the idea of the Temple. Or as I wrote in that book:
“The priests buzzed around the nothing
that was left there, inspecting it with
itching fingers. One threw the useless
keys into the everything above.
Now, they must learn to make
a meadow a temple, an act or an absence of
an act, a temple.”
I was wondering about the origin of the poem. Did your wife’s title for her collection of stories send you researching about limpets? Or did the poem come first and give her the title? The poem is an incredible metaphor for the human condition.
My wife’s collection sent me researching limpets. Thinking about homescars became an idiom between us, a way to understand our own complex relationships to place, family, and the past.
I love how the limpets can soften stone and so in no way are they “limp” or little limp ones. The sound of the word rings of Nabokov’s “nymphette” for its rhyme only, not for its meaning. Any thoughts on any of this? I am probably going too far off course.
I will not banish nymphettes from any conversation! Even if I did not imagine them myself.
The poem is a tight little sound machine as compact as the limpet itself. Was this intentional? All the “s” sounds and the long “o” and the long “e” sounds towards the end.
Thanks, that’s lovely. I did see the poem as a sound-machine of sorts — with its whooshing S sounds, that little sea sucking at the rock; and the O for the aperture, the ache of what opens (and also for the gash of the scar); and the E for the shriller quality of fear.