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On Poetry

            I keep trying to push at my boundaries lately, to see if they are still solid brick or becoming something more flexible over time, and one of the boundaries I’m trying to move is the one that keeps me at a distance from poetry. I used to write poetry, and I even got some of my poems published way back when. I don’t remember what the toggle was, between poetry and songs and plays and novels and essays and short stories, but I wrote all of them at different times and often at the same time. I had (and still have) a form of Hypergraphia, an obsessive need to write. I used to write on my bare legs during summer classes in college, when I ran out of room on the page where I was supposed to be taking notes.

            I went through a phase of trying all of the forms of poetry I could find – Tanka, Haiku, Sonnet, etc. – and the rules were reassuring, for a while, and then not at all. So I tried to create my own forms, experimenting with meter and rhyme schemes and lower case letters and spacing on the page. I spent years at it, waiting for something to click into place and sound right and true, and it never really happened. I don’t know if I failed to reach the heart of poetry, or if poetry was just the wrong shape for my heart, but it left me feeling like only slivers of my story were visible, as if the best I could do was to present a broken mirror to the world.

            But recently there have been subjects that seem to beg for poetry. I tried to write about my Paw Paw trees and the Carolina Wren in poems, but they turned into essays, insistently, over and over again. I couldn’t seem to translate myself into the vocabulary and shape and size needed. I feel like there’s a mystery to poetry that I can’t crack, a rhythm I can’t find, or create.

I love what poetry can do: how it can say so much in a few words and inject wisdom so quickly, in so few images and words, into our collective blood streams. Not every poem succeeds, but the good stuff feels like a lightning strike.

We read a lot of poetry at my synagogue, and the prayers themselves are often poems, or poetic prose, trying to capture that lightning of an Aha moment, so that in a relatively short service we can be reminded of why we live our lives the way we do. Prayer feels relatively meaningless, to me, without a community to sing and say it with me (either in person, on zoom, or in my imagination), because it’s that communal feeling that brings God, the idea, to life. And I think the same is true with poetry, for me. I need to imagine other people reading and hearing and thinking the poem at the same time in order to hear the echoes in the words.

“We’re listening too!”

            But I want to write poetry, not just read it. I want to be able to contain my thoughts and feelings in those manageable boxes, and have those small jewels to share: beautiful and perfect and under control. I thought, maybe, that I could freewrite, in order to get the ideas out of my head, and then find the poem by cutting the excess away. But all I could do was to take my clumsy, oversized self and chop away limbs until I fit inside of the box, and then I didn’t recognize the poem at all. Worse, I hated it for the monster it had become.

“Monsters? Where?!

            Prose gives me more room to stretch out, and to put the puzzle together in my own way, but still, poetry sits there on the shelf, waiting for me, glaring at me, wondering why I am still so far away.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The Harmony

 

When I was eight years old or so, I started going to Saturday morning services in the big sanctuary at my Conservative synagogue. Most of the children in our synagogue went to junior congregation on Saturday mornings, for an hour of prayers and trivia games, meant to fit in between morning cartoons and afternoon gymnastics or computer classes. My brother and I went from the short children’s services in the tiny blue sanctuary, to the long adult services in the cavernous, stained-glass spectacle of the big sanctuary. And we loved it, or at least I loved it. The prayers were more complex, the congregants were happier to be there; but, for me, most of all, there were the harmonies.

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Harmony, like this.

We had a female Torah reader, along with our male cantor, who sat with us in the congregation, except for when she had to go up to chant the Torah. When I was older, she taught me how to chant from the Torah for my Bat Mitzvah, and taught me the different chant for the Haftorah, and for the reading of the Megillah on Purim, but every week, during Saturday morning services in the big sanctuary, she taught me that there was such a thing as harmony. I learned by singing along with her, and somehow it made the songs sound deeper, and truer, and more complete. More than thirty years later I still sing her harmonies without a second thought.

This year, I finally sang with the choir at my synagogue, as an alto, during the High Holidays. The fasting and prayer and atonement, and the endless standing, of the long day of Yom Kippur is meant to be the final lap of the marathon; the gasping, I-don’t-know-if-I’ll-survive, final effort to change course before the rest of the year begins. But it’s not the repentance, or the fasting, or the standing that makes Yom Kippur powerful for me. In fact, if it were only that I would feel dimmed and darkened by the holiday. No, it’s the communal effort of it all, and the way we create energy and joy together, all of us participating – singing, reading, opening the ark, dressing the Torah, carrying it; for some, just the act of coming into the sanctuary to be with the community for hours at a time.

We read poetry and prose during the services at my synagogue, to dig into the crevices and corners of the prayers that we might otherwise ignore as we push our way through the service. This year we read part of an essay by a Reconstructionist Rabbi named Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, called Soul-AR Eclipse, about how we absorb so much of our loved ones that when they die they don’t totally leave us. I believe this. I’ve taken in so much from the people around me, some good for me, some not so good, but they’ve become so much a part of me that even when they are far away, they seem close by.

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Butterfly

dina smiles

Dina

And I think that’s what happened this year as I was singing with the choir. This woman who hasn’t been in my life for many years, was standing right next to me, even singing through me. I felt like an eight-year-old again, singing harmonies, and filled with awe for the music, and the all-of-us. So many years ago she taught me that music can connect us, and help us to express the all-of-it, not just the happiness or the devotion, but everything we feel and can’t find any other way to say. I couldn’t name the feeling at the time, but I felt such relief singing those harmonies, knowing that music could be a conversation, even within myself.

Towards the end of Yom Kippur I went up onto the bima to read a poem by Linda Pastan. I didn’t know why I’d chosen that poem, except that it was one of the shorter readings available, until I read the last lines to the congregation and finally heard the words fully:

“When my griefs sing to me

From the bright throats of thrushes

I sing back.”

 

And I realized, yes, that’s what I do. I sing back. I sing in conversation with grief. I sing in response to grief. No matter what, I sing. And I’ve been doing it for a very long time.

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Cricket sings too!

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Nature Poetry

My rabbi adds poetry to Friday night services. Scratch that, he adds poetry to every service he leads, but the services we go to every week are on Friday nights. I am not really a poetry person. I wrote poetry and songs as a teenager, but I felt like I didn’t belong with the other poets. I wrote poems just to get the glitchy thoughts out of the corners of my mind, not to be profound. I just wanted to say what I meant without having to think about rhythm or rhyme, or “the right word,” or what was going to impress people. So much of the poetry I was told to admire was incomprehensible. I love Mark Doty’s prose, but we spent two hours in a graduate class trying to diagram one of his poems, and I still did not understand what he was getting at.

So it was a surprise to me when I realized that I looked forward to the poetry every Friday night. That’s not to say I love all of it, I don’t. But sometimes it says exactly what I needed to hear, that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

“Mmm poetry.”

The other night there was a poem from Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, with the Hebrew version and the English translation both printed on the page. My Hebrew is clumsy, and if I’d tried to just read the poem in the original, it would have been a struggle. It was pretty and melancholy in the English, about the conflicted feeling of being in Jerusalem in 1967, where you expect joy and transcendence, and instead get grief and complication.

In the English the words were bland, plain, clear and practical, but in the Hebrew, the words themselves were onomatopoetic, they bounced. The Hebrew words were playful and full and carried some of those sprouts of joy that were missing from the plain meaning of the poem.

It wasn’t even one of the nature poems, intentionally. It was one of the “Israel is complicated” poems that we get every once in a while, because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.

There was also a poem by Mary Oliver, called “What Gorgeous Thing,” about the beautiful, and incomprehensible, song of the bluebird in the morning. She describes it as “the only thing in the world that is without dark thoughts,” or at least seems so.

“Really?”

I keep thinking that I’ll go to the library and pick up a stack of poetry books and find poems that speak to me, but I never do. I often have to re-read a poem to really get it, even on a basic level (forget about depth, or historical references, or coded language, then I’m clueless). If I like the sound of the poem, or the image it leaves in my mind, or the feeling it creates in me, then I’m in.

It helps that someone else is reading the poem out loud and I’m not just stuck with how the words appear to me on the page. We have some very good readers at my synagogue who can bring out the rhythm or pacing of the language in a way that doesn’t occur to me on my own.

For sentimental reasons, I always like when a dog shows up in a poem, but most dogs make more sense as storytellers than as poets. Cats could be poets. Cats are terse, with a well-chosen gesture or expression saying everything that needs to be said.

A genius at work.

A poet at work.

Actually, I think Butterfly might be writing nature poetry all the time, but her medium is pee, and I am too human to understand it. She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.

My nature poem!

A nature poem!

Cricket, a poem in process.

Searching for a poem…

There it is!

and there it is!