I first encountered Reena Ribalow’s accomplished poetry when she won the 2008 prize for traditional verse at Winning Writers. Born in New York City, she makes her home in Israel, and her work is strongly influenced by Jewish tradition. Her first full-length book, The Smoke of Dreams, was published last year by Neopoiesis Press. This stately, melancholy collection of poems is steeped in sensual memories of bittersweet love, be it for a holy city or a forbidden affair. Her roots are planted in Jerusalem, sacred and war-torn, harsh and captivating. Her more personal poems show the same mix of pleasure and pain in romantic relationships. One way or another, history is inescapable. Reena has kindly permitted me to reprint a poem from The Smoke of Dreams here.
Was it Cezanne who said, “God is light,”
and went South to paint?
Or was it someone else who did not know
that we can take only so much light,
without going crazy?
The slant of afternoon in a dim room,
the dazzle after a passing cloud,
a radiance through shifting leaves,
is all that we can bear.
Here people are mad with light,
their nerves raw with it,
their eyes irradiated;
they cannot see right.
Shadows disappear from streets
with nowhere to hide.
Light hunts us down,
relentless as the Law.
Some plants survive, some thrive,
some play dead by noon light,
wakening to moist life
in the seducing dark.
The light of Europe hints,
Civility infuses light:
the safety of umbrellas, of cloudy parks,
of rooms that hold their breath,
gilded with motes of gold;
this is easy, this wears well.
The prophets were born to desert light,
crazed with it, dooming us
to a surfeit of holiness.
We endure, odd growths
on a sun-battered land.
Saints, madmen, artists
offer their strange and mutant fruit.
Eat of it, they plead,
and know in every cell
the terrible truth:
that God is everywhere.