Sometimes in yoga class, I invite students to dedicate their practice, that is the energy generated during movement, as well as any good will engendered, to someone else, to make a connection that extends beyond the mat. Poems can do this, too. Writing about another as a connection, an honoring, an acknowledgement that we’re situated in this time and place and part of something extending–before or after, to the right or to the left, above and below.
She for whom I am named
left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed.
Good-bye, skinny chickens and fly-bitten cows,
synagogue leaning on one side, as if to dodge blows
from a Cossack’s boot.
Hello, crowded, terrifying boat,
creaking horribly as it rides the vagrant waves.
Let’s draw a veil over her journey in steerage,
thick and homespun like the curtains
they put up to separate men from unmarried girls.
We’ll catch up with her on arrival:
bewildered, hungry, homesick, excited, ashamed,
scanning the crowd for a face she won’t recognize.
He’s found a job, he drives trucks
for the sanitation department,
hoisting heavy buckets of stink on his shoulders
for the next forty years, for the rest of his life.
She hugs her shawl around herself,
trips on strange concrete in her heavy shoes,
and speaks only Yiddish. So they begin their marriage.
She was young. She must have had hopes.
Let’s not dwell on their wedding night
or the nights afterward when she wept
uselessly, until, as good girls were taught,
she settled into her fate.
Sat all her life behind that same curtain
separating women from the important
black hats who crowded close
by the rabbi’s golden fountaining,
for the least drops of holy wisdom.
Kept to her home in Brooklyn,
and later in life, after He died,
kept her pockets full of candy for the children.
Sweet, she was, my father says,
and in the only photo I have of her, stout,
in her wire-rimmed glasses and flowered dress.
She’s holding a small book–a Bible?
in her hand, though she couldn’t read,
she’d never been to school.
It must have been a prop,
a pretense, its own kind of prayer.
She wanted to be remembered
studying The Word, which in men’s mouths,
dark and terrible, could make or unmake the world.
In me now combine uneasily
her meekness and silence, his rage
as I scrawl and type, click and tap
through thickets of English
as she never could, making my way,
bushwhacking, sometimes flying
in this story-telling business of lies.
This is not how she would have recounted
her life, were she given leave,
had she even thought
such a thing possible. Singing
the thready off-key melody
of Shava (which means, in Hebrew,
“Cry for Help”), Gittel, (“Good”)–
who loved a glass of sweet wine and a fierce game of cards,
who, God rest her, my uncle says,
never said an evil word,
and as for her maiden name, which no one remembers anymore,
let’s put an X.
Note: Poem previously published in Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry; poem posted with permission of the poet