To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century

We present this work in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

05-06 Rukeyser
Muriel Rukeyser
American
1913 – 1980

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity

Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

My Father’s Love Letters

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 75th birthday.

04-29 Komunyakaa
Yusef Komunyakaa
American
b. 1947

On Fridays he’d open a can of Jax
After coming home from the mill,
& ask me to write a letter to my mother
Who sent postcards of desert flowers
Taller than men. He would beg,
Promising to never beat her
Again. Somehow I was happy
She had gone, & sometimes wanted
To slip in a reminder, how Mary Lou
Williams’ ‘Polka Dots & Moonbeams’
Never made the swelling go down.
His carpenter’s apron always bulged
With old nails, a claw hammer
Looped at his side & extension cords
Coiled around his feet.
Words rolled from under the pressure
Of my ballpoint: Love,
Baby, Honey, Please.
We sat in the quiet brutality
Of voltage meters & pipe threaders,
Lost between sentences…
The gleam of a five-pound wedge
On the concrete floor
Pulled a sunset
Through the doorway of his toolshed.
I wondered if she laughed
& held them over a gas burner.
My father could only sign
His name, but he’d look at blueprints
& say how many bricks
Formed each wall. This man,
Who stole roses & hyacinth
For his yard, would stand there
With eyes closed & fists balled,
Laboring over a simple word, almost
Redeemed by what he tried to say.

Courage

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 100th birthday.

03-12 Kerouac
Jack Kerouac
American
1922 – 1969

Wonder if my poem title will be acceptable.
(The Absence of Courage)

I.

Courage is an interesting virtue.
The only difference between courage
and unrealistic hopefulness is success.
Courage to me means standing up against injustice,
or atleast finding the strength to do something
your character or the outside world would rather you didn’t do.
It’s that noble buck with big horns we admire and have the deepest
of respect for,
it’s that noble buck with big horns we like to shoot down and hang on our
walls.

Like the tobacco in a cigarette, the only way to draw it out
from the depths of your character is to embrace it and set it on fire.
But don’t take more than you can handle,
or you might find yourself coughing up the illogical notion,
the practicality of your subconscious triumphing.
Bite off just enough,
enough to sustain hope, but not enough to defeat the
cowardice in your soul to the point where you altogether snuff restraint
and self doubt.

II.

I have seen courage in a number of places,
in the sun for it’s miraculous overpowering of darkness every morning,
in a woman who decides to have a child despite life threatening consequences.
I’ve seen it mainly in action movies,
where it exists without the natural predators of insecurity and sensibility
found in the real world.
I’ve seen it in the insurrection of children who decide to just say yes,
I’ve seen it in the cynical gaze of withered old addicts who are trying to
say no.

Courage, it’s a wonderful thing.
It’s both a blessing and a curse.
Embrace it and harness it,
but do it in moderation,
or it might get the better of your self-doubt and sensibility.

The Old Flame

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 105th birthday.

03-01 Lowell
Robert Lowell
American
1917 – 1977

My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill –

Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stripes
hung on a pole. The clapboard
was old-red schoolhouse red.

Inside, a new landlord,
a new wife, a new broom!
Atlantic seaboard antique shop
pewter and plunder
shone in each room.

A new frontier!
No running next door
now to phone the sheriff
for his taxi to Bath
and the State Liquor Store!

No one saw your ghostly
imaginary lover
stare through the window
and tighten
the scarf at his throat.

Health to the new people,
health to their flag, to their old
restored house on the hill!
Everything had been swept bare,
furnished, garnished and aired.

Everything’s changed for the best –
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!

Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,

we heard the plow
groaning up hill –
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.

To a Steam Roller

We present this work in honor of the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death.

02-05 Moore
Marianne Moore
American
1887 – 1972

The illustration
is nothing to you without the application.
You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down
into close conformity, and then walk back and forth
on them.

Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of the parent block.
Were not ‘impersonal judgment in aesthetic
matters, a metaphysical impossibility,’ you

might fairly achieve
It. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive
of one’s attending upon you, but to question
the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.

Scribe

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 75th birthday.

02-03 Auster
Paul Auster
American
b. 1947

The name
never left his lips: he talked himself
into another body: he found his room again
in Babel.

It was written.
A flower
falls from his eye
and blooms in a stranger’s mouth.
A swallow
rhymes with hunger
and cannot leave its egg.

He invents
the orphan in tatters,

he will hold
a small black flag
riddled with winter.

It is spring,
and below his window
he hears
a hundred white stones
turn to raging phlox.

Shine, Perishing Republic

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 135th birthday.

01-10 Jeffers
Robinson Jeffers
American
1887 – 1962

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught-they say-God, when he walked on earth.

The Journey of the Magi

We present this work in honor of Three Kings Day.

01-06 Eliot
T.S. Eliot
American
1888 – 1965

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Honorary Jew

We present this work in honor of the First Day of Chanukah.

John Repp
American
b. 1953

 

The first year, I grated potatoes, chopped onions
& watched. The second year, I fed all but the eggs

into the machine & said I’ll do the latkes & did,
my pile of crisp delights borne to the feast by the wife

who baffled me, our books closed, banter hushed,
money useless in the apartment—house, my in-laws called it,

new-wave thump at one end, ganja reek at the other—
in which she’d knelt to tell the no one who listened

no more no no more no a three-year-old mouthing
the essential prayer. The uncle made rich by a song

stacked three & dug in, talking critics & Koch—
everyone crunching now, slathering applesauce, slurping tea—

talking Rabin & Mehitabel, radio & Durrell,
how a song is a poem or it isn’t a song

& vice-versa. Done, he pointed a greasy finger
at me, said You can’t be a goy. You—I say it

for all to hear—are an honorary Jew!
which, impossible dream, my latkes lived up to

for five more years. Then the wailing.
Then the dust.