Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2021

How it started:

Jennifer Melfi - Wikipedia

How it’s going:

Silvio Dante Picture

Another year around the Block. I definitely don’t take that for granted. It’s one thing to know intellectually that life is short and unpredictable, entirely another thing to feel that urgency as one wakes up every day in a country under threat from fascism and disease. What am I waiting for?

High Spirits: I tried marijuana edibles for the first time in November. It was pleasant to feel my brain slow down for about 5 hours. No time to do it again till February, I imagine. I really need to readjust my work-life balance.

Salem’s Lot: Studying witchcraft this year has brought me great satisfaction, mind-body integration, and optimism. ICYMI, I blogged about it earlier this month. My first year of training will wrap up in March 2022. Time to start selecting my magickal name, which may coincide with applying for a new passport and driver’s license with a male gender marker. (My desire for gender affirmation conflicts with my basic laziness regarding paperwork and my Ron-Swanson-esque opinion that my gender is none of the government’s business anyway.)

Personal Soundtrack: Remember that week in January when everyone was singing sea shanties on TikTok? I got hooked on The Longest Johns, and particularly their song “Bones in the Ocean”, a poignant ode to survivor guilt that seemed extra meaningful as America’s COVID death toll reached 800,000. The Young Master independently discovered this song at summer camp and now we listen to shanties together on Spotify. His fourth-grade music teacher also introduced him to 2Cellos, an energetic pair of HOT guys who play pop tunes in a classical style. And I still can’t get enough of that German Karneval music.

Bookbag: Some of the extremely homosexual books I enjoyed this year were Aden Polydoros’ Jewish paranormal mystery The City Beautiful, Brandon Taylor’s literary short fiction collection Filthy Animals, and the poetry collections Mutiny by Phillip B. Williams and The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed. I’d been meaning to read Glen David Gold’s historical novel about vaudeville magicians, Carter Beats the Devil, for almost 20 years, and it was all I hoped for and more. Julie Murphy’s queer YA romance Pumpkin gave me the courage to sign up for a transgender runway show next month. Pictures forthcoming!

The Writing Life: I finished a major revision of my novel Origin Story with guidance from the peerless editor/sensitivity reader Denne Michele Norris, co-host of Food 4 Thot Podcast and the new editor-in-chief of Electric Lit.

Once again, I took part in the 30 Poems in November fundraiser for the Center for New Americans, while binge-watching “The Sopranos” on HBO’s streaming service. The conjunction of those two pastimes generated The Waste-Management Land, a poetry chapbook manuscript in need of a good home.

My third full-length poetry collection, Made Man, comes out in February from Little Red Tree and is now available to pre-order. Cover art and interior illustrations by Tom W. Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel. This book explores female-to-male transition and gay masculine identity through the voices of unusual objects and fictional characters. Enjoy the opening poem, first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal.

Self-Portrait as Pastry Box

Under my roof, cathedrals of piped
icing breathe out the sacred stale
sweetness of cream and cardboard
white as a right-hand man’s
final satin bed.
Under my roof we pay our respects.
The family is a thin shelter, soon wet.
If you don’t believe me, open
and see the red smash where tiered berries kissed
the jostled lid. No shifting
the ingredients. No loose knots in the string.
Under my roof I’ll thank you
not to take knives in vain.
Remember him who was lifted
from the river, from the box he was sealed in.
The snapped wafer laid on your tongue like a secret
recipe. Religion‘s root means to tie
string round the wrists, the trash
bag sinking, the harbor’s surface restored.
Under my roof the family’s bound
to gasp, glorying in the sugared name
I display to be sliced after the blown-out wish.
Take the cannoli, broken for you.

100 Georgia Postcards Make a Poem

Happy 2021, readers! And happy Feast of the Epiphany, too. As of this writing, it appears that both Democratic candidates for Senate have won their runoff elections in Georgia, giving us the slimmest majority in the new administration (51-50 with VP Harris’ tiebreaking vote). Big thanks to Stacey Abrams, the NAACP, Movement Voter Project, Swing Left, and other folks who worked hard to bring progressive and minority voters to the polls. Gerrymandering and voter suppression have long made the South seem more conservative than it has to be. Next stop, Mississippi?

My two writing projects this fall were 30 Poems in November and those get-out-the-vote missives for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. This mashup was the result.

 

100 Georgia Postcards Make a Poem

Turning the Senate blue? Don’t write our cause off:
Time to work your ass off in the runoff for Jon Ossoff.

Rev. Warnock too, though hard to rhyme his name,
Could represent the state without taking his cross off.

Incumbent Loeffler saw stocks about to dive,
Pandemic inside knowledge, sold to write her loss off.

Perdue — no relation to the chicken man —
Is scared to tell any campaign-donor boss off.

The lame-duck fascist fears the winds of change
Will blow his toupee’s pumpkin-colored floss off.

While Giuliani sues to throw out ballots,
His flop sweat streaks his TV makeup’s gloss off.

Democrats hustle to get out the vote,
Thousands of names to register and cross off.

My hand’s still sprained from the November race,
Like a cat’s paws when the vet has pulled its claws off.

Nonetheless I will write one hundred times —
Like a bad schoolboy dusting his blackboard chalks off —

“Dear Georgia voter, it all depends on you!
Sincerely, Jendi, a volunteer for Jon Ossoff.”

Poem: “Strap-On Ghazal”

First, let me just say:

BIDEN/HARRIS: WE DID IT!

During the darkest moments of Election Week 2020, I spent a lot of time in the graveyard across the street from my house, invoking the ancestors. Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) is buried there. These delightful reminiscences from poet Steven Cordova on the Lambda Literary website show Ali’s gay side, as in both sexuality and playfulness. I apologize to his spirit for the poem I wrote this morning after visiting his grave. Please sponsor me to write even worse poems every day this month in support of the Center for New Americans.

Strap-On Ghazal

Diagnosis, girl: missing her own penis.
My body is the Tomb of the Unknown Penis.

Firmer than rims on a bright-blue pickup truck
The secret boast of the silicone penis.

The two genders: do you click on “Like” or “Block”
Surprise photo texted to your phone — penis.

Tip for the successful gardener:
Weekly T-shots fertilize a home-grown penis.

Cockiness the downfall of great men —
The teleconference disrupted by a shown penis.

Yet even Jacob raised his Ebenezer to the Lord,
Marking angelic throwdown with a stone penis.

And Earth herself thrusts up wood and mountain,
Exoskeleton and bone penis.

While I, Jendi, though my leg hair grows like fruited plains,
Must make do with ordered-from-Amazon penis.

My Poem at Flowers & Vortexes Online: “Self-Portrait as Pastry Box”

This poem of mine was first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Vol. 5, and reprinted at Flowers & Vortexes Online this month. I wrote it during 30 Poems in November 2019, the annual fundraiser for the immigrant literacy and job-training organization The Center for New Americans. Sponsor me again this year!

Self-Portrait as Pastry Box

Under my roof, cathedrals of piped
icing breathe out the sacred stale
sweetness of cream and cardboard
white as a right-hand man’s
final satin bed.
Under my roof we pay our respects.
The family is a thin shelter, soon wet.
If you don’t believe me, open
and see the red smash where tiered berries kissed
the jostled lid. No shifting
the ingredients. No loose knots in the string.
Under my roof I’ll thank you
not to take knives in vain.
Remember him who was lifted
from the river, from the box he was sealed in.
The snapped wafer laid on your tongue like a secret
recipe. Religion‘s root means to tie
string round the wrists, the trash
bag sinking, the harbor’s surface restored.
Under my roof the family’s bound
to gasp, glorying in the sugared name
I display to be sliced after the blown-out wish.
Take the cannoli, broken for you.

 

On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem with Joshua Corwin

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for Episode #10 of Joshua Corwin’s poetry podcast Assiduous Dust. As Josh does with all his guests, we produced an “On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem”, a format that he invented, which is generated by taking turns sharing phrases from found texts. He’s kindly allowed me to share our freestyle creation below. Check out his new poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable, just out from Baxter Daniels Ink Press. In it he writes about autism, sobriety, Judaism, mysticism, and neuroscience. You can see why we had a lot of common interests to talk about!

 

VaLENTine Poem: “To Roses You Shall Return”

Happy Valentine’s Day and a blessed Ash Wednesday to my readers. For the first time since 1945, the holidays fall on the same date. I wrote the poem below in 2014, when they were one day apart. This blog template has trouble with indents, so imagine that the second line of each stanza is indented. Or buy a copy of Bullies in Love and read it in proper format!

I’m giving up being female for Lent. Hit me with some pronouns, let’s see which one feels right.

To Roses You Shall Return

When I see petals on the pavement
on the day after Ash Wednesday

May there be a pause in my hearing of tongues
of torn-out girls

When crinkled crimson holds the kiss
of boot heels

May I walk on
no trail of barefoot flight

Let there be no broken lips
or shadow of palms

Pierced in spring
let me infer only the generous florist

Scattering the currency of coupling
on the stony path to his fragrant store

 

Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return
KISS ME

 

When you see ashes on my forehead
on the day before Valentine’s Day

Will your torched ancestors still whisper
of riders in spotless robes

Will the flooded firstborn mouths
give up their bubble songs

When you see my face marked
by the dirt cross I chose

Will you only bend deeper
to the slap of your imitation sacrifice

Will you stuff your crone’s mouth with roots
as ordered by pig-roast priests

Tell me the seven wounds of roses
let our arms become the burnt horizon

Let our foreheads be graves where laughing girls
paint their sisters’ legs with mud

 

Almighty and everlasting God
you hate nothing you have made
BE MINE

Interview About My Poetry at the Book Lover’s Haven

Denise Turney, author of the popular novel Love Pour Over Me, runs Chistell Publishing, an independent press with a special interest in African-American and inspirational books. Her free monthly e-newsletter, the Book Lover’s Haven, features freelance writing jobs, literary conferences and events, and author interviews. Subscribe here. We’ve been connected online for several years because Chistell has periodically offered a free writing contest that we profile at Winning Writers. (The most recent submission period was October 1, 2015-February 28, 2016.)

I was honored to be the featured author for her September newsletter, which was headlined: “Bold Writers! Are Writers Too Scared to Write Authentically?” The newsletters are not archived online but she’s kindly permitted me to reprint my interview below. It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same breath as the prophetic truth-tellers she lists in the intro. I’ll try to live up to it!

Book Lover’s Haven Interviews Jendi Reiter

Novels, short stories and poetry demand authenticity. Although writers deal with fictional characters, imaginary settings and hard-to-believe plots, to connect with readers, writings need an element of real life. It’s easy when those real life elements are accepted by the majority of society. It’s harder when most people abhor the ways that a story resembles worldly events or experiences that many wish would just disappear. That’s when writing gets hard.
Yet, talent speaks for itself as it happens with James Baldwin, Jodi Picoult, John Irving, Amy Tan, Richard Wright, Leo Tolstoy, Marilou Awiakta and Alice Walker, writers who tackled issues and experiences like racism, mental illness and family dysfunction that most readers may prefer to turn away from. Our feature writer’s talent has opened doors for her. She covers heady topics that, although mirroring what’s going on in the world, make storytelling a challenge.

Keep reading this Book Lover’s Haven issue to learn more about Jendi Reiter, her poetry, short stories and novels. Her writing talent is undeniable.

BLH:  What inspired you to write?
JR:   Books have been fundamental to my experience of the world since I was a small child. “What inspired you to write?” feels almost like asking “What inspired you to talk or walk?” Composing poems and stories is just how I make sense of being alive.
Each of my poetry collections reflects the spiritual, emotional, or political dilemmas I was wrestling with at the time. I don’t want to find “answers” as much as to create a space where all possibilities have room to breathe.
For instance, my latest full-length collection, Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015), takes aim at myths that confuse us about the difference between passionate love and abusive control. These myths may come from society’s gender roles, religious dogma, or our own wishful thinking about relationships.
My chapbook Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) is the most experimental of my books. Swallow uses fractured language, absurd humor, and collages of found texts to resist the oppressive narrative of psychiatric labels. It was inspired by unethical practices I encountered during my (ultimately successful) seven-year quest to adopt a baby.
BLH:  Tell us about the process that you follow to create poems that pull up a lot of emotion in readers, especially since poetry leaves writers with so little room to connect with readers?
JR:   The scarcity of space is an advantage, I think–the energy bounces faster and harder off the walls as they close in! I mostly write in free verse now, so I take extra care to listen for the difference between poetry and prose in the cadences of my lines. It is an auditory process. Poetry, to me, should sound tighter than prose, with fewer pauses or explanatory transitions between one thought and the next.
Intentionality about line breaks is a big part of that. It’s a pet peeve of mine when breaks in free verse seem random or end on a weak word. The reader is going to hear the “beat” created by that visual break, so it had better come in a spot that makes sense in the musical line.
BLH:  Your poems are powerful. Did you train with a professional poet or take an advanced creative writing course?  Do you recommend that writers receive professional/college writing or communications training? Why?
JR:   Thanks for the compliment! I didn’t, and I neither recommend nor discourage such training. It is a very personal choice. Some writers, like me, are unable to filter out the distraction of other people’s energy when working on first drafts. (I ask for feedback from a trusted writer friend on some of my revisions, but not all.) Others are more extroverted, or not as psychically porous, and thrive on the collective creative ferment of writing in a workshop.
I do recommend that everyone take classes in critical reading of contemporary and classic poetry. The English department at my arts high school (shout out to St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights!) taught me everything I know about good technique, other than what I learned through trial and error by actually writing.
BLH:  How did you arrive at the title “Bullies in Love”?
JR:   The title poem was inspired by an episode of the TV show “Glee” where the homophobic high school football player reveals that he’s been bullying the flamboyant young man from the choir because he’s secretly attracted to him. The secretly gay bigot is a common and, in my opinion, problematic twist in many stories about tolerance. It can preserve the dangerous fantasy that we should give our abuser a pass because he really loves us and just doesn’t know how to show it.
BLH:  Please give us a brief synopsis of Bullies in Love.
JR:  This blurb from the back cover says it best:
“Jendi Reiter’s astute observations of the complex nature of love reveal not only its beauty but also its damning consequences. From the child to the adult, the home to the wider world, this collection of affirming yet disturbing tight-knit poetry in various forms kaleidoscopes vivid images, framing the struggle to free oneself from parental and societal expectations from start to finish. These poems span the coming-of-age search for self-respect and love; the ideologies of marketing and religion; teachers’ censorship of children’s literature; and political crimes against sexual minorities.”
-Suzanne Covich, child rights activist and educator, author of When We Remember They Call Us Liars (Fremantle Press, 2012)
BLH:  Where did the idea to include photographs in Bullies in Love come from?
JR:     This was my publisher’s request. His background is in graphic design so he likes to combine art and writing in his titles. I had recently won a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship for poetry, so I asked the MCC staff to recommend some visual arts fellows whose work would suit my style and themes. I couldn’t be happier with Toni Pepe, the fine art photographer who agreed to collaborate with me. We share a preoccupation with dark fairy tales and historical representations of womanhood and motherhood. Check out her website at www.tonipepe.com
BLH:  Why you think that poems don’t sell more? They are so powerful.
JR:   Most poetry is published by small presses that have no marketing budget. The average person may feel that poetry is intimidating or old-fashioned, because their education has not included contemporary poetry that feels relevant to their lives. Perhaps the standardized-test-driven modern school is partly to blame for that: poems are ambiguous and complex, harder to summarize (if they’re good!) in a multiple-choice question.
This slippery quality of poetry is also a marketing problem, because how do you give an elevator pitch for what your book is “about”?
BLH:  I recently interviewed another writer who said that, today, there’s more pressure on women to be perfect while juggling more and more. Do you tackle that perception in Barbie at 50? If not, what topics do you tackle in Barbie at 50?
JR:  Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010) is my most light-hearted book, but with an edge. The through-line is how girls use make-believe games and fairy tales to imagine what it’s like to grow up-and then the reality that is more complex and bittersweet, yet liberating, as truth always is. I am a Barbie collector and a feminist, two interests that some would say are incompatible, but I believe that instead of scapegoating feminine fantasy, we should create a world where people of all genders can try on roles without being confined to any of them.
BLH:  Please share two to three marketing strategies that work for you in spreading the word about your books and reaching your target audience.
JR:  Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are free, low-tech ways to break your poems out of the obscure printed book or journal and spread them in quick, shareable formats. Does this translate into sales? Not always, but it creates satisfying interpersonal connections and a sense of being heard. Think of the poems that have gone viral on social media in recent years, because they voiced people’s hopes for peace after tragedies and injustices in the news. As poets, we may need to measure our success in terms of impact rather than dollars.
Other than readings at local bookstores and libraries, I haven’t done as much as I should to publicize my poetry books. My first novel, Two Natures, is forthcoming in September from Saddle Road Press (http://www.saddleroadpress.com/two-natures.html), so I’ve been giving myself a crash course in marketing this year, guided by Carolyn Howard-Johnson at HowToDoItFrugally.com. I recommend her highly!
BLH:  What advice do you have for a writer who is publishing her/his first non-fiction book, specifically as it regards finding a publisher or printer (if they are self-publishing) and marketing their first book?
JR:  Nonfiction isn’t my specialty, but my advice would be similar: for marketing, check out Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter, and Fauzia Burke, Online Marketing for Busy Authors. I am the editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site for creative writers. Our Useful Resources pages include a page of self-publishing vendors and advice sites that we have vetted for their honesty, expertise, and cost-effectiveness. (https://winningwriters.com/resources)
If you are going to submit your manuscript to a small press publisher, do your research and trust your instincts: Does their website look modern, and is it easy to find information about their books? Do they have any online marketing presence, such as an e-newsletter, active Facebook feed, or Twitter feed? Are they prompt and clear in responding to emails (or phone calls, if that’s your preferred method)?
I love my novel publishers, Don Mitchell and Ruth Thompson of Saddle Road Press, because of their stellar transparency, friendliness, and ability to hit deadlines. They’re also great writers–check out their books on their website! Interestingly, I found them because Ruth and I admire each other’s poetry and wrote blurbs for one another’s latest books. This just proves Carolyn’s advice that marketing today is about building your personal brand as an author, not just promoting one book at a time.
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Book Notes: The Doll Collection

doll_collection_cover“Not just toys, dolls signify much more than childhood,” writes poet Nicole Cooley in her introduction to The Doll Collection (Terrapin Books, 2016), a rich and complex anthology of doll-themed contemporary poetry edited by Diane Lockward. Dolls are imbued with our powerful, contradictory feelings about gender, race, class, mortality, and innocence. “Symbols of perfection, they both comfort and terrify… They are objects we recall with intense nostalgia but also bodies we dismember and destroy.”

Collecting dolls has been as much of a constant in my life as writing poetry. Both pursuits take me to the realm of imagination, where one is never “too grown-up” to communicate with one’s fantasies and fears. I was honored to have my poem “The Fear of Puppets and the Fear of Beautiful Women” included in this anthology, together with notable writers such as Denise Duhamel, Jeffrey Harrison, Enid Shomer, Cecilia Woloch, and many more.

The book stands out for its diverse cast of characters from doll history. Alongside the well-known Barbie, GI Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Ginny, and Raggedy Ann, we meet paper dolls of the Dionne Quintuplets, blow-up sex toys, jewel-box ballerinas, anatomical models, artists’ miniatures, teddy bears, and baby dolls in many stages of porcelain perfection or grotesque dismemberment. Dolls are burned, smashed, stolen, repaired, reconstituted like Frankenstein. They are preserved in museums, or in the homes of their now-grown owners, as a focal point for sweet or regretful family memories. The dolls in these poems remind us of love or its hard unsatisfying simulacrum, of fragility or a taunting imperviousness to time and loss.

“The dolls/are always being picked up and placed/by forces outside their control./Words are put into their mouths,” writes Elaine Terranova in the poem “Secrets”. Dolls give us the opportunity to act out both sides of the power dynamic, to identify with early memories of helplessness or vent our rage on someone who can’t really feel it…can she?

Several selections voiced the feelings of children confused or stifled by an adult agenda. “I was the live birth after the stillborn/one, crowned to be Mother’s little doll,” says the speaker of Joan Mazza’s “Little Doll”. Comparing herself to the identically-dressed doll children in her carriage, she says, “Undressed, baby dolls had smooth bodies,/no crevices. I’d be perfect, never play,/an untouched doll, if mother had her way.” By the poem’s end, “mother” is lowercase, suggesting the young girl’s rebellion. Michael Waters’ “Burning the Dolls” starts from a poignant historical anecdote: “In 1851, in John Humphrey Noyes’ free-love settlement in Oneida, New York, the communally-raised children, encouraged by the adults, voted to burn their dolls as representative of the traditional role of motherhood.” The child narrator lays her beloved rag doll on the pyre, but a lot more goes up in flames: “when her varnished face burst/in the furnace of my soul,/the waxy lips forever lost,//then I knew I’d no longer pray,/even with fire haunting me…”

Conversely, for some other poets, dolls represented childhood feelings of safety and trust, which the adult speakers wish they could recapture. In “When Catholics Believed in Limbo”, Mary Ellen Talley recalls a simple faith that led her and her friends to baptize her Little Women dolls. Lee Upton’s “To Be Blameless Is to Be Miniature” searches for a way back in to the dolls’ perfect world: “No one sleeps./No one gets comfortable here./You cannot stand inside innocence.” Alison Townsend begins her prose-poem “Madame Alexander’s Amy” with the line, “Two weeks after my mother’s death, the doll was waiting under the tree.” The speaker wanted to love this last gift from her mother, and in a way she did, but the doll (which she still owns) was also “an emissary from the country of death to tell me that childhood was over, and she was the last plaything”.

David Trinidad’s “Playing with Dolls” and Scott Wiggerman’s “Playing GI Joes” show the awakening of a gay identity through breaking the gender boundaries around toys. While Trinidad’s sestina ends sadly, with his parents forbidding him to play with his sisters’ Barbies (“You’re a boy”), we know he gets the last laugh because he’s now a well-regarded gay poet. Wiggerman’s delightful narrative reveals how hyper-macho toys have a homoerotic side just waiting for the right person to bring it out. His GI Joe likes “hot little loincloths attached with a pin” and volunteers for missions where he’ll be stripped and put into bondage. “Tied up, disciplined, tortured into a frenzy,/he was a master of man-to-man endurance,/revealing only name, rank, and serial number,/as a sly grin edged toward the scar on his cheek,/a mark that covered so many of our secrets.”

These are just a few highlights. Doll aficionados will find their own favorites in this must-have collection of 80+ poems about our uncanny little friends.

doll_collection_book_1

Olivia, Agnes, and Emily approve of this book.

doll_collection_book_2

A new soldier in town impresses Rose Sauvage-Grimpante with his interest in poetry.

“Jerusalem Cycle” Revisited: This Poet’s Wish for Peace

I wrote the following poem in response to newspaper articles about the Second Intifada (2000-05). From the still-raging conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, to the dreadful news of the terrorist bombings in Brussels this week, it seems that the cell phones of the dead never stop ringing, and desperate people never stop killing and dying for their political visions. Though my family heritage gives me a visceral concern for the survival of the Jewish state, I made every effort in this poem to give a balanced voice to the Palestinians suffering from Israel’s human rights abuses. May there be peace and an end to prejudice.

This poem was first published in Clackamas Literary Review (2003).

Jerusalem Cycle: April 2002

I

The phones of the dead are ringing
as pale men in black vests
gather them into plastic sacks
methodically as bone collectors
for centuries in this holy desert
have hunted the bodies of the past.
The shoes of the dead are bewildered.
They were humble, being shoes,
only wanting to help the dead,
who weren’t dead yet, walk safely from synagogue
to café to bus stop; they never asked
to be flung into flight
and lodged like crows in a tree
beside the peeled bus.
The toys of the dead are grinning like warriors:
no explosion can shake their focus,
bright fur in the gutter, mud over one glossy eye.
The newspapers of the dead are a thousand shot cranes.
The phones of the dead are ringing and ringing
like mad birds in a sack.
One by one their shrilling
will be cut off by the touch of a button
and someone, always the wrong voice, will answer.

II

I had a clay house and now it is gone.
Tanks laid the land bare and rational.
But who doesn’t harbor a guilty one

in her heart, a dark son
with a stone in his fist, secret Ishmael?
The baby was coming and now it is gone,

his head cresting red and hopeless as the sun
while rubble blocked the passage to the hospital
as if it might harbor a guilty one

sleeping dangerous as Jesus in his tomb.
The donkey walks the same path to the well
and circles back, forgetting that they’re gone —

water, house, memory. Only the gun,
the moment that is its own rationale.
How quickly this clay house is gone.
Send forth the brave, the guilty one.

III

For you were a stranger in Egypt,
enslaved by heat, alien vowels
like sharp seeds on your tongue.
Asking for only a crack
in this prayer wall
to shade from the sun
your white unwritten skin.
A stranger in Israel,
returned to glean a heritage
like porridge spilled in the dust
by a regretful Esau,
asking too late for the blessing.
So you died at this table
at a seder in Netanya,
another suicide bombing,
your dinner knife embedded in the ceiling
left behind by the practiced men who hosed
next day the floor clean of blood and prophet’s wine.

IV

Everyone has a right to the morning.
Today I will not be a girl.
I will strap on death like a cock and go riding.

Maybe it will be on the foolish bus
that my heart will flame like a can of petrol,
or dismounting at the market, the dusty place

where you burned your black shadow on the wall,
Ayat, sister. You were spent like a bullet,
like a coin, unsentimental.

A coin’s only worth is in what it buys.
The soft enemy mourns the loss of his own
but we celebrate when another martyr dies.

I am wrapped with nails like a prickly pear.
No one spies me moving stiffly as a robot.
Ayat, we played with dolls and combed our hair

and dreamed of something. What did the land
mean to us? Our mothers pouring tea
in the kitchen, nights listening to the sand

whisper outside our bedroom window,
and nothing dangerous in the distance —
a world without anything we know,

without bulldozers, without checkpoints. Children old
like us, dying. Now my foot is on the bus.
I am paying the toll.

Did it hurt very much when you split apart?
Was it worse than childbirth? I need you
to tell me it’ll be all right,

this maidenhood I’m losing, the last touching
I’ll ever know. Oh, Ayat, you died and left me
here among the useless living.

V

if you had led us out of Egypt
and not fed us with manna in the desert,
Dayenu (it would have been enough)

if you had fed us through the desert
and not offered us your law
Dayenu, Dayenu

if you had not led us
out of fear and scattering
out of every fatherland
floods of hair, quarries of teeth
ashes
falling like dew into the dead pit

out of the icy gulag, the grey agreement
marching into the future
where looters now loll in furs
the end of the hammer dream

even out of the soft cradle
of the Christian smile,
this most expansive host land
of buttery fields and wind-up monuments
wakes up! to find us departed
from their streets and comic books,
every bearded judge and fish-fingered peddler,
leaving silver holes in their movies

if you had laid on us your law
and not led us into the land of Israel
Dayenu

even when G-d promises, bring a knife

who are these that stand on line for water
whose children are stones rising
like the desert they want one thing
like the sun they will burn it all to bone

who has negotiated with the desert,
or shared a bed with the sun?

if you had given us the land
and not given us peace

and not given us peace

A Song for All Saints’ Day

stgertrude

I sing a song of the cats of God,
Korat and Russian Blue;
Who purred and pounced, and chased their tails,
For the God who made them mew;

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And one was a tabby, and one Siamese,
And one was an alley cat full of fleas–
They were all of them saints of God, if you please,
And I mean to be one too.

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They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands more;
The Internet is full of cats,
That’s what it was invented for!

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You can meet them on Facebook, in blogs or in tweets,
In shelters and homes and on the streets,
For the cats in my life showed God’s love to me,
And I mean to love them too.

Cat-April-1982

(Top to bottom: My beloved Sidney, 1978; my mom Roberta’s Cat, 1973; my cousin Melissa’s Rusty, 1976; my grade school best friend Becca’s Snowball, 1982)

May the communion of feline saints receive Chloe, my friend Greg’s cat, who passed away last month.

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