It's December 1963, or maybe January 1964. Just after my fifteenth birthday. And I'm unable to go to school. Not physically unable. But mentally. Or emotionally.
No one in my family has words for this.
All I do is lie in bed, crying.
Thanks to the intervention of our family doctor, a man I've always loved, my parents get me to a psychiatrist.
I confess, in all sincerity: "I'm nothing, I'm nobody, I have no reason to live."
"You're not nothing," he tells me. "You're a writer."
It's true. I've been writing poems since I was twelve. And wasn't it because of a poem that I quit school? Sure, there were a hundred other reasons, most of them equally irrational, but the final blow came in English class, where we'd just been forced to memorize "The Village Blacksmith." The exam asked: what's the twenty-third word? what's the forty-ninth word? etc. I knew there had to be more to poetry than this.
Whatever the point of this first conversation with the psychiatrist, it works. For the next five years, I live under the assumption that I'm nothing, I'm nobody, I have no reason to live as a person, but maybe, just maybe, I have a reason to live as a writer.
And I have to write.
I never return to school.
It takes three years before I learn poetry doesn't have to rhyme.
I spend the better part of my non-writing time pacing the living room, constructing elaborate fantasies.
I attempt suicide once. Only once.
If I'm writing this, now, in the present tense, it's because sometimes, often, even forty years later, it is so alive within me that I forget I'm no longer that fifteen-year-old. I forget that, today, I am as much a person as anyone else, that I need not justify my existence by writing every minute.
Of course, I can if I want to.
* * *
That psychiatrist saved my life. His words also cursed me.
For the past thirty-five years, it's been a long, at times overwhelming, struggle to accept myself as a person, to realize that even if I don't get anything written today I still have the right to live, maybe even to enjoy life just a little.
Before moving to New York in 1969, I was relatively acclimated to a solitary existence. A writer writes. And I wrote. The main problem with that isolation was that there was no one with whom to share that work. And I suppose I had enough survival instinct left to realize that sitting in my room alone day in and day out would eventually drive me beyond the realm of seeing the psychiatrist once or twice a week.
When I arrived in the city it was another world. All around me, people were excited about writing, art, culture. I attended every writing workshop I could find. I even acquired friends. Still, I couldn't relax. All my friendships were based on writing; if I experienced a writer's block, no matter how temporary, I was certain I'd lose the friends.
I recall one person in particular, who lived in Westchester and often popped in at my one-room apartment, unannounced, on a late morning or early afternoon. The rules were clear: if I hadn't yet written my poem for that day he would busy himself reading or whatever until the poem was written. Good or bad didn't really matter, what mattered was that I had been the writer, now I could go off with him in my person disguise.
My friends had to be more than just writers, they had to be people as dedicated to writing, as obsessed, as I was. There was a classified ad I cut out of The Village Voice in the early 1970s; for years it was pasted on my old IBM Selectric:
Wanted: writer of adult fiction. Must be good typist. You will be expected to produce 50 double-spaced pages per day. Salary $200.
My parents were, at that point, subsidizing my income. This ad helped remind me that, if I was to deserve their money, I ought to produce 50 pages per day. I knew it wasn't realistic, but at least I could stare at the typewriter and laugh.
I never revised a poem in those days; it was just as easy to write a new one. Out of roughly 750 poems that I wrote between 1969 and 1971, a handful went into my first collection (A Birthday of Waters, New Rivers Press, 1971). In weeding through poems to compile that manuscript, I subconsciously began to realize that a poem every day wasn't important. Maybe a poem every other day, every third day. If I caught myself not having written for four or five days, I panicked.
I began to work with sequential, or even book-length poems. This saved me the effort of waiting for "inspiration"; I could simply read over the previous pages and continue from there. But even so, poetry wasn't enough for me. No matter how hard I tried, writing poems simply didn't allow me enough time in my writer's mask. That's when I turned to reviewing.
I began defining myself as a "book reviewer" almost by accident. Soho Weekly News -- an upstart alternative to The Village Voice -- was given several names as possible poetry columnists, and called me first because I lived just across the street. Other markets opened up as a result. Too many markets, I say sometimes, when I'm desperately trying to make time for some of my "own" writing.
And yet, in other ways, reviews have been my savior. Especially in those days before the Internet, I saw my name in print a lot more quickly than if I'd waited for poems and stories to appear in magazines, let alone books. There was the constant reminder that, yes, I'm qualified to do this, I'm a writer. But even more importantly, the reviews have been assigned. They have deadlines. I might be completely blocked, drained of inspiration for the poem or novel or story I'd rather be writing, but review assignments insure I won't experience a full-scale writer's block.
As a teenager, I would climb out of bed in the morning and reach for one of the poetry books on my shelves (James Wright and Denise Levertov were favorites). I would begin reading and, usually by the time I was halfway through the book, I had an idea for my own poem. The books I was reviewing began to serve a similar purpose. And, because it's always easier to spot problems in another person's work than in my own, I'm more highly sensitized to similar weaknesses next time I'm revising my own poems.
Had my editor at Soho Weekly News not insisted I was capable of reviewing what he termed "poetic novels," I highly doubt I'd be writing fiction today. That experience of reading closely, having to pick apart theme and structure, made those contemporary novels a bit less complex, the process of writing them less threatening. My poetry reading had evolved past "The Village Blacksmith," but I still thought novels needed beginning, middle, and end, everything tied up in a neat little package. The realization that there were alternatives to traditional narrative excited me.
But let me backtrack to 1967 for a minute. I was pacing the living room. It was easier to sustain the threads of my "private" life if I was pacing. As I would describe it 20 years later in my first novel, Bobby's Girl (Coffee House Press, 1986):
"She paced counterclockwise, a big circle in front of the sofa and behind the coffee table, around the dining room table, past the kitchen door, and back again. Every so often she briefly reversed the circle, so as not to get dizzy."
In the beginning, I paced mostly in the evening, when my parents were home, the television blasting from the den. My pacing, I realize now, was as much to antagonize them as it was to sustain the little world I had created. But as the years wore on, and I became more and more desperate for the fantasies to nurture me, I paced during the day as well, when I was alone in the house.
Then one day it was as if the sun had broken through the drapes I always kept closed. Everything clicked. I saw how much effort it was taking to create a world that would lead, if anywhere, to an institution, and became aware that precisely the same energy could be channeled into writing. Slowly I learned how to stop pacing, sit down, and write. Probably about a crying clown or a lonely widow. My writing at that point, and for the next five or six years, had little to do with my presence in the world around me. And I certainly wasn't about to record the elaborate constructs I'd never even described to the psychiatrist.
It was not until the late 1970s that I was able to tackle the material that had fueled my adolescence. Transferred, transformed, those fantasies comprised the core of Bobby's Girl . Seeing them spelled out in front of me, I realized how shallow they were. They also didn't fill more than ten pages. My only alternative was to go back to the teen magazines of the time and write some new fantasies. It wasn't difficult. As a matter of fact, I began to see how these articles had ignited my fantasies. "Go With Us To Annette's Pajama Party." "Bobby Rydell: Everything I Want In My Dream Girl." I hadn't been crazy after all, just extreme. And lonely.
I could finally acknowledge the way those years shaped me as a writer. As hellish as that experience was at the time, it also fortified me. All of a sudden, I wouldn't trade it for all the world.
Maybe it was then that I became a person.
Or maybe it was in 1995, when I first began work on this memoir. As I wrote to the editor of an anthology interested in publishing it, I didn't mind writing about what could be very sensitive aspects of my past, since I'd already fictionalized much of that material in Bobby's Girl. But when I actually sat down to begin work, I looked through the novel. And it wasn't there!
Oh, sure, I found vague references. The narrator gets caught up in fantasy vs. reality, sees a psychiatrist, moves to New York. In my second novel (The Lion's Share, Coffee House Press, 1991) I discovered a passage where the protagonist finds it hard to accept that she no longer has to be painting every moment. But I kept searching for two or three sentences I could have sworn I'd written:
"I'm nothing, I'm nobody, I have no reason to live."
"You're not nothing. You're an artist."
Earlier drafts notwithstanding, neither book does more than skim the surface of the physical and emotional turmoil I experienced as an adolescent.
Like that lost passage, other aspects of my "personhood" seem to have tiptoed into or out of my daily life at moments when I wasn't paying attention. Shortly after Bobby's Girl was finished I began to open up to the possibility of actually living with, and loving, another person. I was 36 years old.
Despite my newfound "real" life, I clung desperately to the sense of myself as a 24-hour writer. By then I understood that doesn't mean I write 24 hours a day, but that I'm attentive to what's going on around me, searching for material, noticing actions and reactions.
I'd already moved seamlessly from poet to reviewer to novelist. I'd written a few articles. Then in 1989 a friend was editor at a pop psychology/psychiatry publishing house. I ghost wrote three books, and found the writing process itself was not all that different from fiction. I read dry, academic descriptions of symptoms and combined them into lively "case histories" (at times even borrowing elements from my own "history"). I gave the patients names, ages, mannerisms. The press allotted eight to ten weeks to complete a 160-page book. So what if my next novel, like the last, takes five years to write? Not quite that "fifty pages a day," but I've proven I can write at break-neck speed if I want to.
I lucked out in being offered these books. But I also know that, as a twenty-year-old, even as a thirty-year-old, when I was still struggling with establishing my identity as a "real" writer, I wouldn't have even considered such a lowly project.
The final book I wrote was especially powerful. It was on Sexuality, Co-Dependency, and Depression -- a study of what constitutes a healthy relationship. It was just after turning in the completed manuscript that my lover and I decided to get married. And, in more ways than I can begin to count, it's been that loving bond which has fueled my writing over the past fifteen years. Not the fantasy, the reality.
WHERE AM I:
PERSONA AND SELF
IN THE POEMS OF ROCHELLE RATNER
Thirty years or thereabouts is a long time in the career of a poet. During that period Rochelle Ratner, poet, editor, novelist, critic and teacher has written fourteen books of poetry which can be divided into two groups: poems which employ the first person and are straight analytic autobiography full of feeling and insight; and poems that take on the character of the unicorn, the mermaid and in Someday Songs, the meanings of Jewish rituals for her grandparents and herself. In both groups, Ratner is a relentless tracker of emotion. When she employs various personas, her insights come indirectly, on a slant as it were and in some cases to this reader the emotions are at once more painful and more inescapable. The use of some personas allows the poet to confront herself. In others, she keeps a quasi-poetic distance.
In Quarry (1978), for example she writes, "I have seen the one we hunt.\I have sensed his magic.\Not to take him now\would be to let my own life\slip away." In these lines she seems to be facing away from the reader, and talking about emotion without confronting herself. The drama of the hunt, the glamour of the medieval tapestry, of the real and mythical animals act like a filter, give the poet distance to arrive at her own emotion through a far-away song. The poems in Quarry are scenic lyrics, sparse, boiled down, accomplished as all Rochelle Ratner's poems are. But the forest in them is a shield. The poems are as much about hiding as finding; the unicorn, the hunters and the dogs let the reader off to enjoy an echo of far-away remote sense of loss.
The book Combing the Waves, published a year later, is a very different story. Ratner's mermaid persona is never shielded by mythological glamour, but rather is prey to her ambiguous sexuality, and the physical impossibility of heterosexual love. The pain involved in taking on the character of a mermaid, the woman who is half fish in Combing the Waves, is the adolescent pain of the self to the self alone on the beach and adrift in the world and prey to the terrors of her own burgeoning sexuality.
Combing the Waves (1979) is divided into five sections. The first one, titled "Love," describes the terrors of learning to swim, learning to sing, for a young girl alone on the beach, alone in the bath tub. In the third section of the book, a "Howling at the Moon" the poem "Practicing to be a Woman" ends with a memory of her self as a young girl where "I played in the sand/but watched them and learned/how a woman becomes selfish/yet loves." And this poem in turn becomes the title poem of her Ratner's 1982 Practicing to Be a Woman: New and Selected Poems, predicting the more personal direction her writing is to take. Meanwhile, the book ends with "The Little Sea Maid" with Ratner slipping back into the persona of the mermaid chanting out loud and challenging the fates, "if the Prince loves me so much/he forgets father and mother/I will gain a human soul./But if he should marry another/I will be foam the next day." The human soul, the young girl in pain groping toward forming her own life, striving to grow and mature, haunts the reader.
Someday Songs: Poems Toward A Personal History (1992) belongs with Ratner's persona poems in that the poems celebrate Ratner's grandparents and Jewish family traditions. Someday Songs summons up an orthodox world of circumcisions, seder meals, the meaning of the Mezuzah (ten commandments in a small metal scroll) above the doorway to her grandfather's house. The book is a tribute to her individual grandparents, and how she perceived their life's experiences and beliefs. The past, the immigrant themes inform the poetry. Much of it is not new information, but no less resonant for not being so. In keeping with this theme, Someday Songs is a religious as well as sociological work documenting another time and place, for Ratner the lost time and place of her memories, bringing forward her past history. The language is spare and, as Michael Heller writes on the book's jacket "clean and precise." Memory and feeling become unavoidable and inseparable in the final poem in the book, the beautiful and very moving "The Pendulum" in which Ratner joins past and present, beginning and ending bracketing a child's ride on the swing with the death of her grandmother Bessie Leon Ratner.
Rochelle Ratner's 2003 House and Home dispenses with personas. The book is bitingly personal. The poet's "I" is always Ratner herself exploring experience. In the first third of the book we share with her the experience of becoming a house owner in upstate New York, and seeing her house, her neighbors and herself at the mercy of weather and repairs and an ever present sense of being alone and working in empty rooms. At the core of the book is Ratner's experience of being loved, of working out the problems of a one-to-one relationship. She writes out of a growing sense of self, making her part of an on-going history and subsequently being part of a couple, and a wife of ten years able to look back at ages eighteen and twenty-one, and the wonder to her of surviving the pain of those times. The focus of House and Home is at once narrower and more intense, more fixed on the self emerging from isolation and as it were growing wings than in the earlier persona books like Quarry, Combing the Waves and Someday Songs. The earlier books have a cultural layering, an insistence on the poet as singer that is absent from House and Home. It is as if in her new book, Ratner dispenses with imaginative glamour that distracts the reader in the earlier works and allows for nothing but intensity. The objects in House and Home, the gifts, the favorite sweater, anniversary presents are all emotional markers that resonate with feeling.
Self awareness in House and Home is the stuff of poetry of a stream-lined sort. No metaphors, brief lines with no words but things, House and Home unsparingly chronicles the unfolding of a life. It is the drama of emotions that resonate. Its scattered political poems for this reader are beside the point. The remorseless observations in House and Home proves again what we learned back in the seventies, "the personal is political" and, in the hands of a writer of Rochelle Ratner's capacity, is art.
House and Home is a kind of culmination for Rochelle Ratner, but already her work seems to be shifting back to the outside image. After 9/ll, Ratner bought herself a new camera and began taking pictures of the city streets, more specifically the store windows draped in American flags. In some of these pictures, there is a almost invisible reflection of the photographer. All of them reflect Ratner's new outward focus. The images in the 52 photographs selected for a cd range from red, white and blue Barbies to infant clothing, flags made up of tiny police cars, World War II photographs, sum up New York in a patriotic fervor - but more than that, we see what the photographer has chosen for us to see, an individual's (but no less universal) vision. Ratner's Reflections 911, New York City Store Windows suggests the new outer awareness already surfacing in Ratner's most recent prose poems.
Corinne Robins, author of two books of poetry, MARBLE GODDESSES WITH TECHNICOLOR SKINS (Segue Books) and 1000 YEARS (Marsh Hawk Press 2004) is also a critic, art historian, and contributing editor to American Book Review.
Third Person: Prose Poems
THE VAGINA'S LIP
The vagina's lip was put there to protect her. She was a clumsy girl, terrified of spilling. She was old for her age, motherless, and she took the Ten Commandments seriously, even though this was before Charlton Heston. She wasn't the type who got crushes on movie stars or crooners. It was a fairly straightforward lip, like you might see on those orange or turquoise ceramic pitchers from the thirties, gently curving outward. Except hers curved inward. So smooth she didn't even realize it was there. She would have done anything she could to protect her firstborn, and the lip seemed to understand she would later miscarry. The daughter's born premature. And the lip is passed on.
Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity. She watches Ben Casey reruns faithfully, goes to third grade, does her arithmetic homework, on winter weekends goes ice skating and learns to skate in figure eights, her favorite. She almost, but not quite, knows her eight times table, and plays with an eight-inch Ginny doll who has blonde hair and, like her, turned eight six months ago. Other than that, she's a quiet child. The sort of little girl who'll grow up to wear subdued colors and love to lie back, close her eyes, and see bright reds, greens, or purples flowing up and down her legs, skating figure eights in her pelvis, always eights lying on their backs, steadfast and moving at the same time. She wants to believe this will last forever.
Mama didn't drive. So Mama killed the dog just like she was killing her daughter, Grandpa said. Didn't know why, just saw it. Knew if she'd had a car when her daughter was eight she could have taken the dog for a ride and he'd still be alive, though not alive now, just alive back then, for maybe ten more years. He was a young dog. It was as if she was putting a knife to his heart, it was. With sturdy fingers that tried to call tunafish chicken. If she'd driven just one year later, when her daughter was nine, they wouldn't have had to bum rides with the girls who tormented her. Carefully turning the blade, cutting deeper and deeper. With all the love she could muster.
The exercise instructor's assistant has to remind her yet again to close her mouth. Be person, not pooch. It's like this whenever she tries to do anything physical. Or gets fully absorbed in what she's doing. Not that she does much. Never has and never will. That tongue hanging out. Like a mongoloid, says Mother.
MONTH AFTER MONTH
When they're together less than a month she goes to the doctor with an ear infection and he loves sitting next to her bad ear, and whispering. When they're together two months she goes back to her apartment in the morning, carrying her computer, a briefcase, and her pocketbook over her shoulder, and somewhere along the way drops her pocketbook. When they're together three months she discovers she's lost her wallet. Not at her place, she waits outside his apartment door, waits for him to return home and look for it, waits another month before she has the key. It's really the key she's been looking for.
What should she lose this trip? It started the first time they traveled together, when she thought she lost the blue deco necklace, one of only two pieces of jewelry she owned if you don't count her watch. Then there was the brass heart pendant he gave her for Christmas and the small orange bead she adored. And this last trip half her life later she might well have lost the entire jewel case (at least she hasn't seen it of late). No. Wait. That's wrong. It started when she was thirteen, with one ring, or one stone in the ring -- her birthstone.
It's Tuesday. 92 degrees, and still April. A large dog enters the elevator, panting loudly, refusing to drop his bone. Carts with shaved ice line the sidewalk. A restaurant called The Firehouse has put tables outside, and a young man sits there letting his Dalmation lie down and stretch and hopelessly search for whatever shade there is while he blocks the sidewalk. Slowing her pace, she carefully steps around him. Three years ago she tripped over a large dog lying on the porch of a friend's summer house. It was at a party. She thinks about how she hasn't seen many Dalmations, not in real life, only in movies or toy stores. It's Tuesday. Tuesday belongs to her father.
OPENING UP THE SUMMER HOME
Eighty degrees. And no power. She wakes to find three crows on the lawn. She's never seen more than an odd one here before, but there they are, beneath her best tree, circling, pulling something from the grass. What died here? No skunk, surely. No deer, no fox, no rabbit. And no power. Two crows squabble, then make up, their beaks somehow entwining. Three crows. A family just learning how to share. She elected to be alone here. The grass is brown in spots, despite all the snow, despite the rain. This interruption was scheduled, but for an hour later, if it didn't rain. Maybe they meant 10:30. He tells her she never takes time to read carefully. Three hundred customers, the recorded voice at NYSEG tells her. So they know the power died. What about the crows?
In his buttonhole, back in the days when mens' suits had buttonholes in their lapels, she thinks, something like that. Anyway, it was paper or plastic, she thinks, and red or yellow. Some flower with a black center and a lot of petals. A hose hung down in your pocket, though she can't think how you concealed it, and when people leaned close to smell the flower you squirted them. Though why anyone would want to smell an obviously paper flower is beyond her. Unless they used perfume, or strong industrial scents like her mother used. Anyway, this was the Fifties and she didn't know him then but he would, she thinks, have been the sort of boy who went to church with one of those trick flowers in his lapel. Bubble gum cigar in his pocket, maybe goblin incisors or an eye painted black. The sort of guy who, grown, doesn't care much about a boutonnière on the lapel of his wedding suit, she thinks. But she thinks she'll get him one anyway.
There's a hole in her head, like a bullet behind the eye, entering again and again. He wants to help her, soothe her, hold her, simply touch the tips of her fingers with the tips of his. Here's the church, here's the steeple. He wants to let her know he cares, but in this fog she can't see him. The hell with cat's feet, let him make noise when he comes. Pounding, pounding, pounding like a lobster. Like a valentine.
THE WAY MARRIAGE
She thinks of it as the way marriage grows on you. How that first year he sent flowers for every holiday, and it was almost a comfort to use the bathroom after him. The first time her parents visited, her father remarked there was no spray in the bathroom and she snapped back that those cover-up scents made her nauseous (implying, she knew full well, your house makes me sick, your life makes me sick). They'd cleaned the apartment themselves before this inspection. Now they have a Spanish woman in every week, a woman who has too heavy a hand with cleaning fluids, and some nights they have to air the apartment out before she can stay there. Finally, last Easter, she gently pointed out that the florist he's used for years, the same place that made their wedding bouquet, has lately sent half-dead arrangements.
Ninety years old. And now these flowers, a table centerpiece, actually, from a woman she barely knows - her lover's son-in-law's sister-in-law. Part of her surprise birthday dinner. Ninety years old, and the last time someone threw her a birthday party she was twelve. Actually she won't be ninety for another week, but his daughter and son-in-law had other commitments. Eighty-nine and 98/100th years old. She poses for photos on the running board of a Bentley, a single flower in her hair. Flowers too beautiful to name, like she's never seen before, let alone received. I nudge my father in hopes he'll get the message, then recall the arrangement I sent my mother on her final birthday, flowers like she'd never seen before, that we didn't dare name.
They didn't have Eckerds when she was growing up here. They didn't have much of anything. Still, early June always meant beach chairs and shovels and goggles, but she doesn't recall a bright green snorkel mask and tubes. Not that she'd have noticed, hating to get even her chin wet. It costs five dollars. Probably nothing but a toy. Play was something else she detested. Especially beach play, her body on display. Her father's body, snorkeling, at this very moment, two blocks from the ocean, five from the bay. It's too cold for swimming. His hands are cold. His tubes are much larger than this one. And they're pale blue.
HE TELLS HER HE'LL FORGIVE
He tells her he'll forgive, but he won't forget. This is six months before his daughter's wedding. He feels her pulling away from him. His wife, not his daughter. Shutting him out from the wedding plans. He's losing weight. He's having trouble eating. He can't walk more than a block without holding onto the side of a building for support. This is the week of his daughter's wedding. He manages to dance with both his wife and his daughter. He'll forgive, but he won't forget. He's in the hospital, diagnosed with lactose intolerance and depression. They don't actually say depression, though. His wife sits across from the bed munching a ham and cheese sandwich. The smell bothers him. The sound of her eating bothers him. She asks if he wants her to just go home. He tells her he'll forgive, but he won't forget. This is two weeks before his death from natural causes.
Day after day she would pass their house on her way to and from grammar school. The house with the beautiful lawn, her mother used to call it. When she ran away from home and walked to school and back (the only streets she was allowed to cross by herself), she'd see the father out playing catch with his two sons, younger than she was. She envied those boys. Their father taught at the local junior high, and later she would be in his class for math and English. He was the sort of teacher who romped on his large, pristine lawn with both his sons and didn't worry about ticks or grass stains. A teacher who mowed the grass himself. Later, he would start a day camp. Later still, he would murder his family.
THE YELLOW PLASTIC BAG
It sits, neatly folded, on the closet's top shelf, distanced from the clutter just beneath it. But it holds something small and rectangular, visible even from across the room. Something, perhaps, a little old lady was looking for. Standing on tiptoe (afraid to climb on a chair), she rummaged through the lower shelf three times. That's how it got so messy there. The bag waits patiently. It contains a book, perhaps, or a box of candy. She shouldn't eat candy, being diabetic and undiagnosed. Quietly, unseen by others, this yellow plastic bag has saved her life.
based on the French translations
Mohammed El Fasi
Some years ago, Robert Graves wrote an article on the cross fertilization of the Islamic poetic tradition and the Chivalric one. This cross influence seems evident in these "Songs of the Women of Fez," here translated by Rochelle Ratner. There is, indeed, that fervently Romantic lament for unattainable love, that desire to be the slave of the lover, as expressed in the Moroccan, as well as Andalusian nature. These little anonymous songs sing exclusively of the difficulties of love, a theme as timeless as civilization. As the tradition was explained by Mohammed El Fasi, who rendered a French edition of these Arabic poems, the young women sang songs from a common repertoire as they reclined on their swings and thus the songs were transmitted orally from generation to generation. A similar tradition marked the Andalusian mode of verse songs which gave birth to the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca would often sing and re-sing a poem, perfecting it orally, long before writing it down in some more permanent form.
It is interesting to note the Berber tribal language of the old capitol of Fez was a mixture of Greek and Libyan, demonstrating the migrations and combinations of cultures throughout the history of the Near and Middle East. We know that there was a great deal of trade between Spain and Morocco in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Indeed, the Moors of Spain were exiled to Fez in about 1492, when Columbus was discovering America, and so, we have the Andalusian blending with the Berberian to augment the tradition of courtly troubadour poetry sung in longing for unattainable love.
Morocco, in the days of Fez, contained elements of Berber and Arab tribes, as well as the Moors, or Moratanians and Sudanese cultures, but to keep the migrations of merging Near Eastern cultures in historic perspective is not an easy task, even for the well-schooled scholar. Always, there is the mixing and re-mixing of cultures. And, there is the fact of which Westerners are often unaware: poetry was and is a far more integral part of Islamic culture than of, for example, American culture. Talat Sait Halman, Turkish poet and editor of the love poems of contemporary Turkish poets (in an issue of The Poetry Society of America's Newsletter) asserted that the prophet Mohammed said: "God has treasures beneath his Throne, the Keys of which are the tongues of poets." These words are from a prophet who feared the "demonic" knowledge of poets, musicians, dancers, and artists who might with their fiery imaginations disturb the harmony of the monolithic society--repressive of the libido--which many scholars of religion say he sought to institute. Of course, many Christian religions--and modern fundamentalists of all kinds--are not free of attempting to repress the libido of humankind. In general, many religious dictators have wanted to spoil la dolce vita to keep human animals in check, or topple Sodom and Gomorrah to curtail animal desires when things became overly decadent. How much spiritual eroticism flourishes in civilization, or art, is always subject to degrees of taste and decorum often wrought by religious styles of belief.
Then, too, Western classicists often forget that our Baroque aesthetics in the music and decor of the European Renaissance were heavily influenced by trade with the orient which came through Venice and other port cities into Europe. The oriental taste for swirling and intricate geometric design is seen in the Baroque and Rococo art of Italy as much as the love poems of the period. The early Italian Renaissance was greatly augmented, no doubt, by the 12th and 13th Century French poets of Provencal and their tradition of courtly love song when their survivors fled into northern Italy to escape the genocide perpetrated upon them and their erotic art by Pope Innocent III and his Catholic militants-- a huge massacre of life and poetic art in the name of religion often forgotten!
Also, the rhythms of early Renaissance music show evidence of oriental ones as the oud moved Westward to become the fretted lute. For that matter, Enheduanna, poet of Ancient Sumer, now part of Iraq, played her harp and sang to attain erotic spirituality as early as 2300 B.C.E.--and she is the first known poet of whom we have physical evidence-- as some of her songs have come down to us inscribed on ancient stone tablets. Later, Sappho's 5th century love songs, too, are examples of erotic spirituality dedicated to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Most of her lyrics were destroyed by The Church so that only a small fraction of her songs of love and spiritual longing are left to us.
Despite our seeming obliviousness to the roundness of the globe upon which the circular currents of human history repeat and repeat themselves, the mixing of East and West is a phenomenon that continues, back and forth, between the artificial divisions of the compass. The American rock singer, chanting, "I love you, Baby!" is not so totally divorced from the Chivalric or Islamic traditions of oral poetry as his raw guttural sounds imply. Nor does he understand how much a virtuoso like Paganini, Europe's first big erotic "superstar" musician, had to do with forging the way to musical patronage by the masses, as opposed to that of the aristocracy. So, how can we expect him to remember Enheduanna, Sappho or the women of Fez when he is hardly aware of Sinatra and Johnny Mercer let alone Lorca?
To skip ahead, and back again, the point is that the later Age of Romanticism had its beginnings in the Chivalric ideal of "courtly love" when poetry was song with a passionate purpose. "The romantic lie in the brain," as Auden called it, has permeated art since the Roman de la Rose (c. 1235)--such a great "hit" in its day that innumerable French poets were inspired by it and translations of it in Flemish, Italian, and English, influenced distinguished authors of the fourteenth century from Boccaccio to Chaucer who was its chief English translator of his day. It continued to stir up literary controversy well into the fifteenth century.
Always in this tradition, the object of the erotic, though beatific vision, must be unattainable, or else the poet loses his inspiration to sing of unrequited longing. Rochelle Ratner has noted that these little songs of the women of ancient Fez are fraught with religious symbolism, and this too was true of Roman of the Rose and the traditions and imitations which it inspired. Often, in the chivalric as well as the Islamic tradition, the ideal lover becomes all mixed up in the mind with the godhead, or as in Dante, becomes the guide to paradise. Perhaps, that is simply because it is easier to believe in a god when one is in the emotional state of love. Ironically, the antique Near Easterner seems--considering the repressive qualities of some modern Islamic sects--to be better at mixing the beatific vision with the sensual, achieving, what one might call, "erotic spirituality"--a state quite foreign to the Victorian or Puritanical mentality reared under the heavy hand of "Christian Fundamentalism." Though the very spiritual American poet, Emily Dickinson, managed to break free of her Puritanical times and arrive at such a state in her "Wild nights, wild nights" of writing consummate love poems. Many American poets have since followed Dickinson and Walt Whitman into mixing the "Body Electric" with beatific and visionary spirituality, or humanist aspirations, as did Shelley, Keats, and Byron. How much of a debt they all owe to the ancient tradition of courtly love or erotic spirituality can be surmised.
For an oriental example of this erotic state of beatific grace, one can turn to the Temples of Kanorac, and then, too, there is the way of the famed poet of India, Mirabai, who wrote erotic love songs to Lord Krishna, making him her only, and spiritually symbolic, lover, "the rose of beauty," so to speak, for whom she danced and sang. But, there's a dissertation in these comparisons and contrasts that can't be covered here in this small preface to Rochelle Ratner's representative selection of songs by the women of Fez. It must be sufficient simply to say that throughout history, all repressive and fundamentalist religions have tried to kill the libido of humankind which still finds songs of love and erotic longing to be great food for poetic composition and spiritual manifestation, as in the often cited Keatsian quote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," or, the Dickinson refrain, "That love is all there is, is all we know of love." Or the fact that both Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions define "God as Love" and "truth as beauty"--as much as Mirabai or Sappho did.
These songs of the women of Fez are similar, too, as Ratner and El Fasi noted, to the love songs of Japanese geisha girls. They are in the female tradition of working to please the male lover with every feminine grace possible. They are, indeed, little "prayers of Love," as El Fasi, their French translator, called them. Sometimes the anonymous poet is as religiously metaphysical as a John Donne. For example, in the poem which says:
"My heart is an oil lamp and my lover's heart is the wick. Its oil is/ made of kindness; malicious darts chip at the wick...."
Or, there is the verse which reads:
"My heart is a lantern confined to his fire.
But fire and flowers cannot be joined.
My heart's like a pleasant garden where
all kinds of flowers and fruit trees spring
up: peach, pomegranate, vine and apricot; a
garden which is a distraction for lovers and
also gives fruit."
Again and again, one comes across such metaphysical conceits as "my heart is a grain of wheat and my lover's heart is the mill."
Sometimes the anonymous singer sounds very much as a Dante in Vita Nuova, in his perturbations over Beatrice, as in the little poem set by Ratner in prose which bemoans:
"...If I die, know that the object of my love
is a person who lives in my neighborhood.
Her beauty and splendor are faultless,
the most beautiful of gazelles. I've seen her
wearing a red sweater in the morning wind.
She raised her eyes and glanced at me,
then lowered her lashes and returned to her house,
leaving me afraid and perplexed, as usual."
There is, to be found, too, that essential trap of the feminine psyche which seeks all its identity from the lover, even if it means a masochistic self-destruction in the name of that unattainable lover. "If my love is dead today, I'll follow him tomorrow," sings one. "I am the slave of a handsome man, and I will belong to him forever," sings another.
But, "The lover of beauty must be armed with patience," wisely warns yet another, and, "Love is a spontaneous feeling, not an obligation," concludes a singer of some wisdom. There are, in these anonymous songs, the universal concerns, tribulations, and feelings, as well as the ancient wisdom of love. The delightful remains of these Arabic "Songs of the Women of Fez" are timeless, and Rochelle Ratner has certainly done us a favor to bring samples of them to us, through the French, into English.
I spent all of five days in Paris in the mid 1970s, but on the final day ran down to check out the famed book stalls along the river. I'd already translated the poems of the Belgian surrealist poet, Paul Colinet, and had toyed with some other translations. Chants anciens des Femmes de Fès caught my eye immediately, in part, I admit, because the French looked straightforward and relatively easy to translate. Set in prose, with no attempt to reproduce the Arabic rhyme or meter, it was published by Seghers in 1967, in an edition of less than 2000 copies. In his preface, Mohammed El Fasi does an excellent job of setting them in their proper environment:
The love songs of the women of Fez are little poetic compositions by anonymous authors. They sing exclusively of love and give the impression of spontaneity, a freshness which lends them a particular charm, similar to the love songs of the Japanese Geisha girls.
These poems were meant to be sung at "pleasure parties" given by families in the gardens which border the village of Fez. The young women climbed on swings and let the playful movement envelop their bodies. Each would sing an Arabic song from the common repertoire, transmitted orally, and anonymously, from generation to generation.
At the end of each verse the young girls and women present would join in chorus with joyous cries: those soulful cries one hears resounding each time the Moroccan lover explodes in exaltation. If one pictures this ritual as taking place in the spring, among the fragrant and multicolored flowers, under the fresh shadow of the orange-trees, one will have an idea of the charm that clothed these poetic moments.
Founded in 789 at a place where the mountains and the river joined, Fez is the oldest and largest medieval city in the world. The Fez medina, or old city, has remained virtually unchanged. The homes still have the inner courtyards and balconies, the streets are too small for traffic and most transportation is on foot. It served as the Moroccan capitol for a total of over 400 years, until the French protectorate was established in 1912. Today, it is home to Morocco's oldest university and the leading cultural and religious center. Even looking at photos, it's possible to see clearly the world these singers speak about. "Pleasure parties" aside, this is not the seething underworld of Paul Bowles' Tangiers or Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca.
I translated all 168 pieces El Fasi collects but found, despite his arguments to the contrary, that they became overly repetitive. Many seemed to be imitations of older songs, and much of their innocence was thus lost. For this selection, therefore, I retained his numbering, but include only those songs which I feel contain the essence of the book, and express their sentiments most lyrically. My aim was to present a unified cycle which could easily be read in one sitting. My renditions are generous and, at times, liberal.
El Fasi concludes his preface with the hope that readers will, helped by the grace of God, be raised to a level of mystical inspiration. And even if this rarely happens, it must all the same be remembered as proof of the purity and energy of the momentum which carried off these delicate and distinguished souls. If I have succeeded, then this selection will present contemporary American readers with an insight into those prayers of love which indeed carry over from one generation to the next, one culture to the next, speaking poignantly of and to our own lives.
-- Rochelle Ratner
The world has changed since 1980, when these poems were first translated. In these days of Internet access to the world's literatures, I expected to be able to get online and find out more than I wanted to know about these songs and the tradition they come from. I thought I'd find other translations, or at least references to other translations. But they were not to be found, and the information I gathered ended up being piecemeal. I offer these tidbits in the hopes that other writers and readers will explore them further.
· I discovered one ten-volume collection in the NY Public Library reading room, Eastern Love / English Versions by E. Powys Mathers. Published between 1927 and 1930, around the same time El Fasi was collecting these songs, Mathers devotes a full volume to the unique literature of Fez, including some tales related to him by El Fasi, originally told by his [El- Fasi's] grandmother. He also bemoans that the oral tradition is dying and considered amateurish, told mostly by women to children.
· In "Women in Oral Literature: Dreams of Transgressions in two Berber Wonder Tales," Yasmina Sarhrouny points out that "Moroccan oral literature was collected by French ethnographers during the colonial era."
· On an internet message board, I was led to the book Islam and Democracy by Fatima Mernissi. In it, she states that Mohammed al-Fasi, a Moroccan scholar "had the idea of collecting some of the songs that circulated in the harems of Fez during the 1930s. Many spoke of forbidden passions, or nocturnal rendezvous, or crazy escapades, and some ridiculed the effectiveness of locks and chains. Others celebrated the bird who played false when given the chance." Mernissi uses this reference, plus one poem she translates, to support her contention that Arab women have, for centuries, "been singing about freedom."
· Mernissi's thesis seemed odd to me, but much more began to make sense after reading her remarkable memoir, Dreams of Trespass (published in England as The Harem Within). Here, she talks about growing up in a harem in Fez during the 1940s. She's careful to delineate between the harem of antiquity and that of the 1940s, but one thing remained constant: "houses with gates and locks were needed to contain the women." Except on rare occasions, usually connected with religious festivals, only men could venture outside these walls. But by the 1940s, women could dream. "You dream of escape. And magic flourishes when you spell out the dream and make the frontiers vanish... Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head, and you can translate those images in words." The French had, after all, built a westernized city just beyond the walls. "Love has wings," one of Mernissi's cousins told her. "It comes and goes." Reading these words, The Songs of the Women of Fez take on more significance.
· In 1994, under the patronage of the King of Morocco, the annual Fez Festival of World Sacred Music was founded. Begun in response to the Gulf War, it was envisioned as a place for dialogue between different faiths. The June 2001 program describes how "The idea of creating a Sacred Music Festival could only arouse memories, dig out buried treasures, and release a wisdom, the need for which is painfully real." Why Fez? "Fez is a city with a human scale, where 'the other' is never too far away, but it is also a city with a dusty memory which, while striving to be 'saved,' risks ending up being a relic of past times."
· Guided by links to this music festival, I was able to locate a CD "Chants Sacrés des Femmes de Fez" (Paris, Al Sur/Media 7, 1998) - a small offering containing only 6 songs, but the final song is so similar in form it could have been lifted right from these pages. Finally, a footnote on the last page of the accompanying booklet reads: "The title of this CD is inspired by a work of Mohammed El Fassi… an invaluable collection of Aroubi texts of that feminine oral tradition, whose archetype is found in the Rubay'at of Omar Khayyam." (I assume the spelling "El Fassi", like Mernissi's "al-Fassi," above, are due to transliterations of the Arabic script).
· Writing on North African urban music since 1935, J. Vansina credits most of his understanding of Moroccan music to El Fasi's research. He writes that "in Morocco, the traditional urban music has never been in danger and continued to thrive in the direct filiation of the Islamic music. Its treasures include the quatrains 'arubi women of Fez,' the hymns of the brotherhoods or the haddarat sung in chorus by the women on various occasions like the marriages or the circumcisions, but especially the melhun or griha. He cites El Fasi's translations of Chants anciens des Femmes de Fès and notes "Arabic texts published by Fès, 1971." I could find no other reference to this publication.
I'm not a musicologist. But for those who want more information, I suggest turning to some of the many Internet sites devoted to Moroccan music. Mr. Vansina's site, listed above, is extremely valuable:
Another extremely useful site is devoted to the Malhun, or Malhoune:
Here again, reading translations of the songs, the parallel with these Songs of the Women of Fez is unmistakable. Both these sites are in French, but if accessed through Google they can automatically be translated.
Finally, let me close with another quote from the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music program: "Fez reveals itself to itself through the gaze of others. It gives and receives. Through these days of enchantment, Fez will demonstrate that one can open oneself to others while remaining oneself and that one can be enriched and transformed without losing oneself. It is necessary to understand and love this city for the sake of the message of universality that it bears within it." The same might be said of these ancient songs.
Sing, oh turtle-dove! The days are kind to you. In your cage you have water and millet. I let you drink your water and eat your seed.
A birdsong in the trees gives one hope. And she who loves beauty, oh Master, need only be patient.
In the Name of God, stop cooing, oh Dove on the high wall.
Your wing is broken, your soft cry adds to my sorrows.
You cry for your shattered wing; I cry for my love who has abandoned me.
After being used to intimacy, separation is difficult. Curse the ill-fated love.
Fate has bequeathed me part of an apple.
And this apple is very high on a very thin branch.
I stretched my arm, saying: perhaps I can reach it. But my hand withdrew all scratched by thorns and nettles.
This is about one who, being in a spacious place, has too much room.
I pounded on the garden door, calling: "Oh gardener!" The white jasmine opened up to me and the fake orange-blossoms held me tight in their arms. I passed near an orchard where a young man was trimming a red cloth. I said: "Oh young man, in the Name of God, cut it to fit me." He replied: "Wait until those men over there are asleep, and I'll pour a little coffee in a glass for you. If it cracks, the sovereign will be favorable." Two lovers entered. They said to me: "Oh lover, your beloved is dead." I told them: "If he's dead you need concern yourselves with neither his shroud nor his coffin. His coffin will be gold with silver nails. His shroud will be muslin. If my love is dead today, I'll follow him tomorrow."
Love is like a deep river the lover's heart hastens to cross. My lover puts his foot in the water; he might wade across in darkness. The water covers him, his hands flail at me. My lover wants to desert me and I hold onto him. I'm afraid my eyes will be blinded. As for the tears, I should have known love would make me cry.
Oh my God, I demand You grant me one day of happiness. I'd rule over all your creatures. I'd have my choice of a thousand costumes and, putting on a new one, I'd throw off my old rags. This will cause my enemies the greatest pain and please the friends who'll come to congratulate me. And I'll say: "God heard my voice!"
Let me be with my love in an empty garden; not even the gardener will be there.
Let me be with my love in an empty tub, without even a masseur; I will bring him as much cold and hot water as he wishes. I will even catch his sweat and put it in flasks so it can invigorate me. The day tears drive me to blindness, I will put it on my eyes instead of the dark powder.
You did all you could to cause me sorrow, telling yourself I would be very sad. But the passion tree is planted in my heart. You left me and put a barrier between us, but I used it as a ladder for the walls. You seemed to be apart from me. But for me it's good that I kept my distance. And if you've found better than me, I've found a young woman more beautiful; everyone notices her charm. If I've lost a pearl, I have an emerald to replace it.
Why did I go so close to the bees that they stung me?
Why did I go to the dinner? Did I participate in the feast?
Why did I roam his quarter until I met him?
He raises his eyes toward me, his brows knitting adorably and his lashes drooping.
When he mounts his horse, he's like a king in the midst of his army. And when he gets off, you'd call him an archer guarding the walls.
The lover of beauty must be armed with patience.
The passion! The passion! Because of passion I mortgaged the room above and the room below, and pawned my best clothes.
Due to this scarcity of things, oh Lalla, even our friends detest us.
You go back on promises, you take no notice of favors, no beauty can equal yours.
I loved and cherished you. I've saved you a special place in my heart.
I've set you on a pedestal higher than anyone.
I've discovered you're essentially a betrayer and a liar, and all the good one does for you is useless.
But the house doesn't stay empty and the tenant doesn't set his bags down outside and spend the night. I've asked the gypsies what's become of our friendship. They reveal that baseness is your main trait. May God grant that I never even see your shadow again.
All that concerns you, I studied and learned like the verses of the Koran.
From afar, I guess at what you're thinking.
Go find someone who easily puts up with your mockery.
Grill your fish on her without need of firewood. As for me, I lift the fish from the river's bottom completely seasoned.
There's a man whose spirit is heavy -- no one could be more boring.
He's heavier than the massive mountains. If he laughs, he makes the plains of Gharb shake and, if he cries, the seaside villages tremble.
To see someone that homely gives me a headache.
I never believed that passion reduces one who devoted himself to study, not until the moment it made me forget the letters of the Koran. Even the small board on which I wrote sacred verses stayed in the school, abandoned in a corner. They called in a fakir to explain my evils. He consulted my horoscope and said: "Her -- she's the cause of his state." Oh my friends: May God help me endure my pains. If I die, know that the object of my love is a person who lives in my neighborhood. Her beauty and splendor are faultless, the most beautiful of gazelles. I've seen her wearing a red sweater in the morning wind. She raised her eyes and glanced at me, then lowered her lashes and returned to her house, leaving me afraid and perplexed, as usual.
In the Name of God, come and describe first love to me, oh you who know all these feelings.
Someone told me that the gazelle has gone to the country. I said: "That black-eyed beauty doesn't deserve to live in the mountains. If the sun rises, she will fade in the twinkling of an eye. Men, I wish her a home in the clouds, water coming from the pump, birds singing with the turtledoves in both forests and gardens, the young goldfinch and nightingale whose trills make one think of the Koran's melodic psalms; a place where the most beautiful girl is worth her weight in gold."
I must be mad. I went into the desert and said: "I want to plant a garden." I built thick walls around it. "I'm sure to have fruits," I told myself. I planted peach and pomegranate trees, as well as bitter rose-bay. But I abandoned it, and the one who wanted only to possess it.
Let me delight in the music of the strings. May all those I love come and ease my pain.
It would be in a marvelous garden, under the ripe fruits of sweet-smelling orange trees and well-rooted lemon trees. Budding vines highlight the view with their greenness. Delicious, well-sugared tea is served in gilded glasses.
The music of the lute and the violin, the tambourine and the rebab, enchants our souls: the goldfinch, listening to them, enriches his repertoire.
Love, if I've blundered and you're angry, I'm sorry; I swear never again to disobey you in any way, and the harm I've caused you was intentional -- I was testing you. It wasn't because of any resentment or hate. Besides, the planets turn and the hours change and our reconciliation will be as grand as the grace of God, may He be Blessed: I am the slave of a handsome man and I will belong to him for ever and ever.
Oh Lord! I love you and I love God; repentance means a lot to me, just as to you. I will ask the generous God for a prayer mat to place in front of your door; I will prostrate myself for Him and look at you.
Oh my love, people criticize me because of you; they say: "There's a fool; he loves a negress."
He's a fool and a fool's son if he thinks Messouda is a negress. My dear friend is of noble blood and has sharp, perfect features.
I am white and have dressed myself in a raisin-colored dress because it becomes me.
Friends! Friends! You do not ask for news of those who have been taken away. Your poor brother is being tortured and no one worries about him. I have written of his welfare in a hundred letters and not one of you has responded.
If this is because you lack a coin to buy the paper, I will give it to you myself; if this is because you have no messenger, I myself will hire someone.
I am able to endure everything, except being separated from those I love.
My heart is a grain of wheat and my lover's heart is the mill.
He who turns that mill is too rigorous a miller. Grind him, Oh my God, milling after milling. He's tossed me to the sky and I've become weak in his hands.
Love is a spontaneous feeling, not an obligation.
A thick wall separates me from my love. There's no way I can reach him: no passageway, no path, no attic window through which I might be able to watch him.
I armed myself with vinegar and soaked the wall with it, in order to cut a hole in this citadel where my love is strengthened.
I advanced toward the doorway and shouted: "Oh sweetest friend, what do you want from she who loves you?" He replied: "I will not love the one who loves me, even if she proved it by coming here."
And so he closed the door of hope but let me keep my pride.
Oh home of summer, home of autumn, home of spring days when flowers bloom!
Another time, I would be with my love, side by side, but today he lives in a country no man can reach.
Oh neighbor! Carry my greeting to my love.
My garden, I have placed strong ramparts around you and hired sentries to keep watch over your young shoots. The guardian sits at the door never sleeping, never taking a rest. One would call him a wounded soldier spending the whole time attending to his wounds.
Lord Mohammed is in a little gold chest and I am its key. His wings flutter in my heart.
He guards a door in the desert, a door which doesn't even have a padlock! But one can guard only doors locked with keys. Whoever leaves merchandise in a warehouse closes it with a key and assures himself that the lock works well; this is what proves his watchfulness.
The clock itself needed a key to make its springs run. No ship's captain can venture on the sea without assuring himself of equipment which functions with keys.
Everyone needs keys and locks. The peddling grocer does a flourishing business but still sells to the kitchen help.
All things must be put under lock and key, whether it be made of zinc or gold.
If a bedouin from the Sahara arrives in town, he has his locks also; he mounts a fiery mare, but he's always in pursuit of his locked chests. Even the cook is tied to the soup cauldron in his quarters by an airtight seal.
We've found a way to open the padlocks you spoke about: don't tell anyone our secret - here is the key.
And each time I see Beauty, I bow before her and say: "Oh deeply loved, I will save you."
Oh you who bought passion's locks, here is the key.
I was the one who passionately ran to clip the dog, telling myself his hair would clothe me. But now his hair is nearly gone.
Besides, his incisors shine, he might bite me. Oh my God, protect me from the dog's teeth.
You haven't said yes or no. You haven't given me one bit of thread from the spool. You've abandoned me as if I were blind, as if night and day were the same to me.
You've abandoned me as if I were a kettle for melting tar: vainly I don a mourning dress and blacken my eyes.
You've abandoned me like one who's cooked stones: she has neither sauce to drink nor meat to roast.
You've abandoned me like bitter garden flowers -- flowers of all colors, but that does not mean someone picks them.
You've abandoned me like a motherless child: she humbles herself in front of women and no one pities her.
You've abandoned me like a fatherless child: she rubs shoulders with the men, and no one instinctively leans toward her.
You've abandoned me like one who's lost her horse: others are saddled, and she's on foot.
You've abandoned me like one who's fallen in a river: one wave sweeps her up, the next draws her down.
You've abandoned me like one who's fallen in a well: she can neither be rescued nor find a way to get out by herself, and the whole world cries for her.
My beloved hasn't granted me the joy of seeing him, it's as if I'm dead, but I'm still breathing and my spirit can't be set free.
Sad and miserable heart, you deserve someone who singes you with iron bars until they bend, who puts you in a tightly sealed casket and throws it to the sea so waves carry it off.
This is for he who neglects his duty to his love in troubled times. May he, too, be in need.
I bid you a hundred welcomes, oh springtime of the heart, oh you who forgive its rages.
Be welcome, oh you whose love lives in my bosom; oh my full moon, your happy steps are welcome.
Be welcome, you with a gold pendant and cheeks like a wild rose.
Be welcome, oh costly Venetian sword with which I've beaten my enemies and all the jealous ones, all the gossipers.
I implore the One who does not sleep, make all my hopes known to you.
My heart is a lantern confined to his fire. But fire and flowers cannot be joined.
My heart's like a pleasant garden where all kinds of flowers and fruit trees spring up: peach, pomegranate, vine and apricot; a garden which is a distraction for lovers and also gives fruit.
And in spite of all that, folks, I'm overpowered. Outwardly I seem in control, but I'm weak inside.
How pitiful she feels as she waits and hopes for her lover but doesn't see him come.
My heart is an oil lamp and my lover's heart is the wick. Its oil is made of kindness; malicious darts chip at the wick.
May love be like the mast which supports the flag.
If my love took a step as silent as the ping of a falling hair, I would notice it.
I've observed my lover looking quizzically at me.
Moreover, the man is a sword of betrayal; do not trust him.
An intelligent person can judge everything with a single glance.
Flowers are graceful only while they shine in the garden. If you pick them, they quickly fade.
So it is for the person loved. If she visits too often, she no longer excites him. Her value decreases and even the most vile men can lay claim to her.
Folks, my beloved wanted to kill me with swords and loaded pistols at his waist.
But my horse, folks, stood there quaking... My beloved killed me with scowls. What would his voice and words have done?
I pray for you, oh my love, oh Mohammed, before daybreak, before the first rays appear.
The pious men are all at their prayers and the others are plunged in their sleep.
Oh lover, get up. Why do you sleep?
In 1492 the Muslims, as well as the Jews, were expelled from Spain, and many people of both faiths ended up in Morocco. Within the Fez medina, Muslims and Jews lived in separate but equal harmony, each aware of the others' being driven out of their native countries, respectful of separate but parallel traditions and forms of worship. Life seems to have continued in much this fashion well into the 20th Century. Unfortunately, from the vantage point of the 21st Century, tales about these cultures joined in efforts to protect their heritage seem just one more fantasy concocted by Scheherazade.
It wasn't until I was putting together material for this issue of Sugar Mule that I realized the date on my introduction to the Fez translations - March, 1980. This wouldn't have been when I'd translated them, but when I was collecting them for a chapbook which never materialized. Later that same year I traveled to Israel with my parents and a group of people from their synagogue. It was during a period of relative calm between Israel and its neighbors. A period when American tourism was at its height. Even so, if you were willing to listen, the prejudice was at full volume.
I'd been working on a very "Jewish" cycle of poems at the time, which later formed my book, Someday Songs. I'd been collaborating on visual work with Bernard Solomon, very Jewish in theme, and many discussions about our complimentary arts veered off into Midrash and mystical aspects of Judaism and the Judeo-Christian heritage. A trip to Israel seemed a very logical step.
"And if it takes years to comprehend even my own reactions?" I wrote, almost prophetically, in the introductory poem. More than twenty years later, I'm still trying to sort out the conflict between what I saw and what I'd hoped to see, what I saw and what my parents saw. When a friend took me to Jerusalem's Old City for lunch, the rabbi worried I'd been poisoned. Now, they tell me, the Old City is a virtual ghost town. So many things have changed. With all today's ravages, I sometimes feel that in order to keep my sanity I need to keep revising and re-visioning these poems. Scherezade, indeed.
Poems from: Going Up Together
TRYING TO SPEAK OF IT
"Israel is marrow in bone,
eats away at you
from the inside
just like her olive trees
hollowing themselves in mourning
now that the Temple's gone..."
I start to describe
two Israeli flags
draped across the ruins
she interrupts to say
she doesn't think she'd
want to see that
in the proper context...
Friends back home
are still whole,
hard to break through to,
while acquaintances who've been there
know without my saying
in the Bible also
what they translate as
'to see' means 'to understand'
shedding of leaves
like all the other trees,
I keep my fears inside
and if it takes
years to comprehend
even my own reactions?
Some of those trees are ancient
yet still chip away at their rings
so that no one will ever know.
Yesterday he drove to New York
to leave his son with relatives
still he gets to the airport
just ahead of the bus,
an hour late
as soon as we're checked in
my father introduces me
and I'm greeted by a small
dark-haired man not much taller
than my own five feet
a familiar Jewish accent
that I can't quite place
but seems foreign, maybe Israeli
later I can name it: Brooklyn.
As a toddler I hid
behind my mother's skirt
if she ran into friends
on the street
her friends, and not mine
every time I ran away from home
they lured me back
but no tricks this time:
too cheap to spend my own money
I'm willing to pretend for two weeks
I'm still part of this family
and like all kids I grab the seat
right behind the tour guide.
I can't help overhearing:
the rabbi's wife asks how old
he thinks the rabbi is
and the guide guesses 26.
No, he is 32
born the same year I was.
I listen to him mouthing
all my parents' values
and shrink back in my seat,
not even a tallis to hide behind.
I hadn't realized this trip
would make me see even myself
as nothing but the shy,
my parents' friends assume
I'm a college student, all the while
looking up to their rabbi.
When the Yeshiva boys danced to the Wall,
their arms on each others' shoulders,
rushing toward their Sabbath
he fell in line behind them
walking back, he asks where I went today,
surprised to learn I've been with them
all afternoon. For the first time
we have a chance to talk
he says tomorrow night we're going
to join these yeshiva boys
in ushering out Queen Sabbath
and I tell him of the Furbringen
I was invited to in New York.
He's confused by me.
I realize I met this rabbi
once before: six years ago
when he was new to the synagogue
I was home for Rosh Hashanah.
Everyone talked about how
he was also a cantor,
what a magnificent voice he had.
And he did
except he sang the prayers
without realizing the congregation
couldn't keep up with him,
too much ego for the holiness
It's the same here:
he walks at his own pace,
suddenly turns to find the group
is not behind him, then lets it be seen
that he's uneasy.
This is not our leader. I am here,
This morning at breakfast he said
how, next to Jerusalem
Safed is his favorite city
and I thought of
16th century synagogues,
Rabbi Luria, all the mystics,
the one place in Israel
where the Holy outshines
struggle and destruction.
But it turns out he loves Safed
for its artists' colony.
Forced to stop in the synagogue first
he and the others pout and fidget
like kids in school.
The guide tries hard.
These were Sephardi, his people,
their customs were magical,
if we could just imagine...
He asks the rabbi to tell us
something about the Kabbala,
and our teacher begins:
men should not study these texts
until the age of forty..."
I want to interrupt, quote some text
in English, give some explication.
But who'd take my word for it?
I can't even pronounce the name
of this town correctly.
He has brought two yamalkas,
one black one brown, depending
on which suit he wears
even on the plane
he went back to daven
evening, morning, and noon,
wouldn't think of taking the elevator
on Shabbat, this is a rabbi
who is a good man.
Then there is the Other, the man
who is the rabbi also
the man who told people in advance
not to turn in their headsets
when the attendants come round for them
since we'll be seeing another movie
on the plane back
when checking out of the hotel
he forgets to leave the key
discreetly he will take pictures
of the Chagall windows,
though they've asked us not to.
On these things, Torah takes no stand.
FRIDAY ON BEN YEHUDA ST.
Lubovitchers wrapping t'fillim
around all the passers-by
is something which in New York
I'd never dare photograph.
But I become a tourist here
where all seems done for show:
that blonde man, for instance,
in the tight shorts
would be stoned if he walked
where these Hasids live
and the thirteen year-old
in peyos and caftan,
half his height,
wraps him up as fast
as he can mumble the blessings
someone taller places the box
between his eyes
while a third man shoves
the siddur into his hands:
it's a mitzvah to say the words,
no matter if he understands
and already they're unwinding
the straps from his arm,
another American cornered
next to him.
Aunt Ida's standing there,
waiting over an hour
to meet our tour bus,
late as usual
they say she's not supposed
to be on her feet much,
my mother behind me
in a quiet tantrum,
she still doesn't see why
they insisted they'd wait
on the road like this,
she'd have found their house
as long as someone here speaks English.
She wanted so much to talk,
my mother says,
that's why the phone call
was so difficult:
Benek talking English,
Chaika beside him
hanging onto every word
she didn't understand.
They had so much fun that night:
a few years ago at Aunt Ida's
she, Ida, Chaika trying to talk,
ending with gestures
and no, it must have been
ten years ago:
Ida's been dead eight years.
So it's not Ida standing there,
my god the sisters look alike.
Hard to believe, isn't it --
Tante Ida so much filled the role
of my mother's mother,
Chaika exactly my mother's age.
Out of seven children
Chaika was the youngest.
Only she and Ida
made it out of Poland
before the war.
Ida, Ida the favorite.
Chaika still recalls
the whole family crying
when Ida left for America.
Chaika was twelve then.
For forty years she and Benek
have been on Kibbutz Dan.
When they came it was wilderness;
now 500 people live here.
Not only is it not religious
but they don't even have
a synagogue (my father admits
they must be communists).
Their son was looking forward
to joining them today
but last night was taken
to the hospital - appendicitis.
That's why they were late
calling the hotel. Any other day
they'd be there with him
only this visit takes precedence.
Not sure what time they'd arrive,
Chaika took lunch from the kitchen
so she could heat it up
while my mother
had been looking forward
to the communal dining room.
She'll still get to see it
while the children eat,
meeting the grandchild who,
at three years old, won't say hello.
Then a tour of the kitchen.
Asking what something is,
my mother's handed a spoonful:
raw gefilte fish.
She spits it out,
Chaika runs for water,
other women gesturing in Yiddish:
it's good for you.
On the occasion of your visit
these pictures of Chaika and Benek
are signed on the back.
My mother holds one out for me:
You know, Grandpa always said
if we ever went to Israel on business
he wanted to go with us
he never dreamed we'd retire
and just take a trip.
He would have given up his place
in the World to Come
to have been with us today.
I don't know -- maybe he was.
PROGRESSING THROUGH THE NEGEV
And to our left we see
the Bedouin woman
hurrying her infant out
of the hospital complex
the evil eye sees
get back to the tent
Our guide points out
she'd wanted to stay there
with her midwife,
with her husband's strong hands
that he hasn't washed
these nine months.
Go to the top of Pisgah
and lift up your eyes
westward and northward
and southward and eastward
and behold it with your eyes
for you shall not cross over
But it was a game, surely,
God was teasing Moses.
To put in his path a river
barely three feet wide?
He could have reached across
and touched the earth there
had God not taunted him up
with the illusion of closeness.
From there he promised
to show him all the land:
Gilead unto Dan, all Naphtali,
the land of Ephraim and Manasseh,
all the lands of Judah
as far as the Western Sea,
the Negeb, and the Plain,
that is, the valley of Jericho
the city of palm trees
as far as Zo'ar.
But a river this small?
In all the yeshivot of Europe
it had seemed an ocean's size
at the least.
Where are our mystics now
to calm us with their words?
May they rest in peace.
What our eyes see before them
makes us want to believe:
Moses was shown more, more,
not a glimpse of land only --
the forests of Southern Gilead,
snow atop Mt. Hermon,
the Mount of Olives,
the four holy cities.
He was given more,
an old man's visions:
Samson and Gideon,
Deborah and David
taking over as His People's leaders.
It was so that he might
put his mind at ease
that God tricked him up there.
And so it shall be
For that cast iron woman
tossing her infant in the air
as she draws close to the land
like God, like Moses,
first among us.
History shall repeat itself.
If you ignore history
you are condemned to repeat it.
1945: picture two men
forced to walk over the weight
of this inscription.
Or better: one man and one skeleton.
And remember: only the man walks
the skeleton leans backwards
into an outstretched arm
so that fleshy, grasping fingers
become simply more bones jutting
from that rib cage.
His mouth opens in agony:
Hurry, here the cloud comes.
We must make it across
before it covers us
or we shall have to camp here
not to set out till it lifts
and I shall die like Moses.
The woman falls to her knees,
her child pressed at her breast,
the other arm extended
toward the land, fingers a claw
that can't close or open:
exasperation, antagonism, avidity,
execration. One hand.
It is a long way
and old men walk slowly.
One carries all the possessions
for the two of them:
suitcase, pack over his shoulder.
The elder, a few steps ahead,
cradles the Torah Scroll
saved perhaps from Auschwitz.
Have the spies not warned them
not to come into this land,
promise or no promise?
Amelekites dwell in the Negeb,
Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites
in the hill country,
the Canaanites dwell by the sea
and along the Jordan
This is a land which devours
all its inhabitants,
all the people we saw in it
are men of great stature.
We were like grasshoppers to ourselves,
and so we seemed to them.
Is it for War they came?
They are still near the Border
with these same peoples
Caleb had not sense to fear
still giant, still all around them.
What else but to crouch in the grass
and keep springing up, keep attacking?
Ten story buildings perch
like stage sets behind
this field of statues,
each with its windowless bomb shelter
jutting out, recently tacked on
at government expense.
There are so many borders now.
They have not forgotten:
throughout history they were oppressed;
it will be the same always.
Westward and northward
and southward and eastward
the people lift up their eyes
and see only memorials.
Years later, Rikka tried to convince her husband it was Lex she'd been afraid of. Alexadreana, the frisky boxer that belonged to her cousin, aunt and uncle. The dog twice her weight who'd playfully jump up to greet her and, more often than not, knock her down. At four years old she was small for her age and, frankly, terrified of dogs, though she couldn't remember ever getting really close to another dog.
She was also terrified of doctors. And dentists. And with good reason. Even though her mother later insisted the pediatrician had been the first person she ever smiled for, all she could ever remember doing was screaming from the moment she was dragged into his office until the moment she walked in the door to her own room again. All this in spite of all the toys around the waiting room and the green lollipop some nurse or other thrust into her fist at the end.
But how could any self-respecting nursery school graduate have been terrified of her uncle?
God, she barely remembers her uncle. She remembers the kitchen, the only kitchen she'd ever seen to have a booth just like the ones at the diner. And she remembers being hungry and her mother giving her some boiled ham that she found in the refrigerator, and she remembers eating and eating because she was really hungry and finishing the whole quarter pound and her mother being embarrassed. She remembers sliding all the way back in that booth and drinking milk with both hands.
She remembers that dentist's chair.
Her mother confessed, years later, that Dr. London, that pediatrition she supposedly smiled for once, decided she was anemic and had her in the office every week for an iron shot. It used to take two people to hold her down. If they'd had it to do over again they'd never have agreed.
The dentist was Uncle James. Never Uncle Jim, call him Jimmy and he'd probably jab you with novocaine. Sort of gives you a sense of how friendly he was. James.
There was a woman on the next block who owned this gorgeous collie that she was madly in love with when she was six or seven, long after Aunt Ella was dead, when she'd almost forgotten that dentist's chair.
Still, it had to have been Lex.
Brush her teeth after every meal? You've got to be kidding. Rikka was one of those kids who flushed the toilet then turned on the faucet to make her parents think she was washing her hands.
Who the hell cares about baby teeth? Or so her parents finally rationalized. They'd fall out anyway, a cavity or two wouldn't kill her. One time, when they were over Ann and Fred's house -- they weren't related but they were adults and she called them by their first names -- they were over Ann and Fred's for dinner and she got a toothache and they gave her a little liquor in a glass and told her to dip her finger in and rub it on the gum. After the tooth felt better she drank the drop that was left in the glass. It took her parents six months after that to realize every time they had dinner at Ann and Fred's she got a toothache.
If seeing the dentist tortures her that much... Besides, Uncle James's office was in his house, if she refused to go near him they could always chalk it up to a visit to Aunt Ella.
Uncle Harry's office was in his house, too. Uncle Harry wasn't her real uncle, just the husband of a woman her mother got friendly with at the playground, who had a son and a daughter she liked to play with. She remembers -- though really she'd forgotten until just now -- they had this huge room that was just their playroom, and you could ride bikes in it and everything. Or tricycles, probably. And probably those little cars you walked around in.
They had a parakeet named Chirpy, but not a dog.
Uncle Harry might not have been her uncle, but he was a real dentist. And he was a lot nicer than Uncle James, who probably wasn't her uncle anymore anyway. Not with Aunt Ella dead.
Every time her mother brought her over to play with Danny and Jillie, they'd stop in the front of the house first, at Uncle Harry's office. Sometimes they had to wait, but she never started screaming. When Uncle Harry was finished with his patient he'd take her into his office and convince her just to climb up in his chair. Then her mother would talk with Uncle Harry, and they'd both talk to her. After a few minutes she'd come down from that chair and they'd go off into the house to find Danny and Jillie.
After forever, Uncle Harry convinced her one day to let him look at her teeth. All he did was look. After he was finished, he'd opened this little cupboard and pulled out a drawer filled with charms and let her choose whatever ones she wanted. Charms as in charm bracelet, or charm necklace, which she started making for herself but probably never finished. They were only plastic.
The first time she actually let him work on her mouth they made a deal: if what he was doing hurt her, all she had to do was raise her hand and, he promised, he'd stop.
She thought about raising her hand in class when she knew the answer or had to go to the bathroom.
And he didn't hurt her. She raised her hand twice, because the sound of the drill frightened her, but it never hurt. Except for one time when she raised her hand but he kept going. He apologized later, said he had only a drop left to do and wanted to finish it. But she was older by then, anyway.
There have been other dentists since then, and other doctors, but Uncle Harry stands out as special. He was just sort of there when she needed him, even when she was long past having to raise her hand and wasn't especially interested in charms (he never, never, gave lollipops; she remembers, when she was playing with Danny and Jillie, they would get these sports card packs with bubble gum besides and they always had to throw out the bubble gum because it was bad for your teeth just like lollipops and the other candy charms were).
She was no longer friendly with Danny and Jillie by the time her grandmother died, but Uncle Harry was there for her. The morning of her grandmother's funeral, the only time in her life she'd woken up with a toothache so bad it had to be filled right that moment, her mother ran her uptown to Uncle Harry's and then got her home in time to change and get to the funeral parlor.
That's what this story's about, really. Her grandmother. The person she loved more than she's ever loved anyone else, at least until she met her husband. How dentists and love seem somehow intertwined. Or dentists and death. Aunt Ella was the first person she ever knew who died. She was in kindergarten then, and didn't understand death meant forever. Besides, she wasn't crazy about Aunt Ella either (though in retrospect she was really sick by the time Rikka knew her, so what do you expect?). Anyway, if she never saw Aunt Ella again that didn't really upset her.
Maybe this story's really about love.
She keeps thinking back to that whisky. How she could use a toothache to get what she wanted. Without even understanding the implications.
Grandma, love, and her teeth were all mixed together. The orthodontist she went to was two blocks from Grandma's house, and often she walked over there afterward and her father picked her up on his way home.
Grandma died three months after they took off her braces. But she'd been in a nursing home for nearly a year before that, and the apartment had been given up.
Rikka couldn't stand to see Grandma in that nursing home, so she almost never went to visit. It would have been like it is when a dog -- say, Lex -- gets her teeth into you and holds onto your shirt or pants despite the fact that you've pulled away. Not that Lex ever did that, but maybe that's where the fear came in.
Does that make sense?
About as much sense as death does. And she didn't need a psychiatrist to tell her that the toothache the morning of her grandmother's funeral was her means of escaping the reality or finality or whatever, if only for an hour.
That might have been the last time Uncle Harry worked on her. She remembers, one time after that, when she and her mother stopped by and Uncle Harry was sitting in the waiting room. He was talking about his mother, how she likes to watch tv and knit, except, her mother told her later, his mother died years and years ago. He was, apparently, senile. Not that a word such as that has much meaning for a self-centered teenager. She just knew she wasn't anxious for him to look in her mouth again.
The braces were another horror story, the orthodontist was about as charming as Uncle James, but this isn't the time or place to go into that. Maybe the pediatrician would be a better example. He worked with kids but should never have.
Her mother used to say she was weird because she liked the green lollipops. All the other kids liked the red ones.
Years after the braces were off and Grandma had probably turned to dust and she'd moved as far away from home as she could she let all her teeth go to hell. When, finally, two of them rotted and had to be pulled she started caring for the others better.
It was as if they'd extracted her childhood. That's what this story's about: leaving the past behind you.
She was living in Manhattan by then. And she went for a good five or six years without even a toothache. By the time of her next cavity she had a network of friends and was able to find a dentist every bit as nice as Uncle Harry.
"Oh, I'm so glad you came to me," Dr. Willis said on her first appointment. He'd squeezed her in the day after she called. He'd looked in her mouth and didn't see any problems, looked at the tooth she pointed to and still didn't see anything, then took a set of x-rays and sure enough, there it was. The sort of cavity which, if not caught in time, would have caused real problems and probably required a root canal.
She didn't want novocaine? Fine, he wouldn't use novocaine. "Some patients come to me because they don't want novocaine," he told her. "Others come because I'll give them novocaine for even the slightest cavity."
Dr. Willis gave people want they wanted whenever possible. And cleaned teeth himself. And charged small town prices. One time, when she was about to go to Florida to visit her in-laws, she woke up with her jaw hurting. Not only did he work in an emergency appointment and find nothing, but he diagnosed it as a sinus infection and suggested she apply heat to that whole side of her face, and it did the trick. He told her to call and let him know how it was. She called from Florida, left a message on the machine, and believe it or not he called back to remind her, if that happened again, she should apply the heat again.
That's not a dentist, that's a friend.
He invited her to two fashion shows where outfits his wife designed were being featured. She gave him copies of articles she'd written that she thought might interest him. When she was considering built-in cabinetry for her apartment he gave her the name of the carpenter who'd built the cabinets in his office. That sort of friend.
There was always classical music playing in the background. While her mouth was propped open he talked about experiences at concerts, medical stories (he was an M.D. first; the D.D.S. came later), stories about other patients. She asked him once if he'd ever owned a dog and he told her about the two beagles his father used to hunt with, but who were otherwise pets. They discussed that dentist in Florida whose patient accused him of contaminating her with AIDS. He said no way, and she believed him. The company which carried his liability insurance insisted he wear plastic gloves now.
He had his own troubles. His wife was a closet alcoholic. The dental hygienist who worked for him was embezzling money. She also didn't pay his auto insurance (cashing the check herself) and then his son was in a bad accident and hospitalized for months.
His prices became more competitive.
There was one period, in the late 1980s, when he was on sick-leave. There was a message on his answering machine giving the names and telephone numbers of three other dentists who would be covering for him. But it was just a cleaning, so Rikka waited until he was back in practice.
He looked a bit older, more drawn, but she never asked him what the problem had been and he never volunteered the information. If anything, his office suited him better now, he blended seamlessly with the antique dental equipment he had on display. His hair had been white for as long as she'd known him.
Flash forward to 1994. Rikka's married Norm, Dr. Willis's wife has died, his son's living in Alabama. She sees him twice a year for cleanings, but her cavities and fillings have remained fairly stable. She has a partial that he's remade once as her teeth shifted. She's commented to him, just the last two visits or so, that her front teeth seem extremely small. He looked, said yes, they're small, nothing to worry about.
She should have called to schedule an appointment in October; instead she waits till December. Nothing open until January, so she schedules it then. Comes home one day to find a message on her answering machine that Dr. Willis is on "sick leave" and will hopefully return soon. The hygienist also gives her home number if patients want more information, but Rikka doesn't feel like bothering her. Every two weeks or so she calls the office, hears the message change from "hopefully return soon" to suggesting patients call this other dentist who's covering for him, to they're not certain if and when he'll return, to the other dentist having the files.
From January through March, Rikka's shrink has been bringing up her need to see another dentist, but she's always insisted she's waiting for Dr. Willis to return. More viable in January than in March. She and her shrink have gone over her fear of doctors again and again.
In the middle of March her shrink dies of a heart attack.
Norm's been bugging her for three or four years now to try Dr. Garber. His dentist. Before they married she'd gone to Norm's accountant, and liked him immensely. And one of her teeth is starting to hurt a bit. They'll be going on vacation soon, and the last thing she needs is for it to act up then.
Well, he'll never win any popularity contests. But he's thorough. Too thorough. Thorough to the tune of six thousand dollars. Remember those tiny front teeth she told Dr. Willis about? Well, this guy wants to put overlays on them. It's not cosmetic, it's to save the teeth before they wear down any further. And the back teeth he'll cap, and he'll build a new partial. He suggested implants at one point, but there was no way he could convince her to go through that horrendous process.
They schedule six appointments, one of which she has to cancel on account of Norm's mother's hospitalization, then funeral.
Oh, shit, that sounds so callous. She's only making it sound that way because she's gotten caught up in the dentist side of this story, when really it's about death. And love.
Norm's mother, in many ways, reminds her of her grandmother. Same small frame, same slightly mischievous smile, same thinning hair that wasn't overly full-bodied to begin with.
Maybe she'd told Norm one too many stories about not visiting her grandmother in the nursing home. Because he went into this heavy trip about how there was no need for her to fly down with him when his mother was first in the hospital, she was in a coma, he was going for his father's sake, and so on. Truth is, as he later confessed, he was nervous as hell, worried she'd run from the sickness just like she'd shut out her grandmother thirty years before.
For Rikka, it was just the opposite -- a chance for closure.
Her shrink, were he still alive, would have been proud of her.
Just when the doctor listed Norm's mother as stable, said nothing more would happen that night, just when Norm's father slept at home for the first night in two weeks, she passed away.
Between the death and the funeral, Rikka and Norm flew home for a day to catch up on some loose ends. Rikka kept the dentist appointment she'd made a month before.
There was a letter from Dr. Willis stating he'd regrettably decided to give up his practice, but felt confident he was leaving his patients in good hands with this new dentist who already had all the records.
Rikka wished now that she'd gone to him instead of Dr. Garber.
The biggest problem with these new teeth is that the overlays round out the edges of her incisors just enough that she can't bite her fingernails. The left hand's sort of okay, but how the hell do you trim the nails on your right hand when you can't even hold a fork properly in your left? There are these squared, ragged, sharp edges.
They say the nails keep growing after death.
Work on Rikka's teeth finishes two days before she and Norm leave for vacation, and actually she runs back there the morning they leave for a minor adjustment.
Never have two weeks in Bermuda been more needed, or more restful. For the first time in three years, Norm's not beeping his answering machine three times a day to make sure there aren't complications with his mother (his father and brother always had a phone number he could be reached at, but he never trusted them to remember it in an emergency). They mostly conk out on the beach all day.
Rikka calls her parents twice. The second time her father says her mother's getting weaker and weaker (and she no longer picks up the phone to at least say hello). Her mother had a stroke four years ago, and is partially paralyzed, but aside from that she's been perfectly healthy. Back in the city, they call her father twice a week now. Again and again he says how her mother's losing weight, not eating, has no energy. They plan to drive down there for a long weekend. Her mother goes in the hospital the day before their arrival.
Probably the best place for her. They've given her two blood transfusions, she's eating a bit more and getting her energy back. Her skin's no longer yellow. Even so, Rikka realizes it's the beginning of the end.
She returns home to find a letter: Dr. Willis died.
DONALD DUCK OUTSIDE THE DRUGSTORE
"I know you love him, but Donald's not feeling well today," a woman says, pulling her son gently by one arm while his other arm's around Donald's neck. Cilla's head turns. No, Donald isn't broken, though there have been other days when there's a handwritten "out of order" sign dangling from his neck. Probably the mother's just in a hurry to get home, or to the next shop, or wherever. It could be to meet her lover, for all Cilla knows.
The only kiddie ride on the whole of Columbus Ave. and it's right across the street from where she lives. Every time they pass it, Robert offers Cilla a ride. Believe me, she would if she could, but her thirty-year-old mass would more than likely put her and Donald both in the hospital.
God, she used to love those rides. She loved all rides, including rides in the car (which her father absolutely detested). Every spring and fall, her mother took her to buy shoes at Boston's, a children's store which had one of those rocking horses on springs. Even that was a treat. Cilla straddled the saddle and rocked till she was dizzy as only a little girl can be dizzy, giggling, reaching out her arms, becoming larger and larger. It wasn't the ocean, you know; she wasn't turning purple.
Maybe some parents made their kids get off after a few minutes. Which just goes to prove that her parents never meant to deprive her. In fact, they went to the opposite extreme, giving her just about everything she wanted. Most likely, she was too young to know how to ask for a horse like that. And if she seemed to enjoy it so much, well, they must have told themselves, she enjoys a lot of things. Including the wooden rocking horse that had once belonged to her cousin. One of those with curved wooden supports like on a rocking chair, and a seat inside. You leaned forward then back to make him rock. He was white with a black mane, face, and tail, and his paint was chipping. She used to rock in him sometimes when she watched Howdy Doody or Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
She was certainly not deprived. They went to amusement parks twice a summer. Every time her mother saw one of those Donald Duck or stork or horse or pig or fire engine rides, they put her on. Sometimes she rode through four or five quarters, and even then was reluctant to get off.
Yesterday, walking along Broadway, she saw a little boy on a Mickey Mouse ride, standing on the seat, holding onto Mick's ears, his mother there beside him, braced, ready to catch him if he lost his balance.
She can hear Robert again, asking if she wants to ride. Her parents never asked, they just assumed. Hell, with her pulling Mommy or Daddy over, not wanting to leave Donald or Mickey's side... just like that kid in front of the drugstore. Or maybe not like that kid. More likely, she pulled Mommy over once, and every time after that her parents, anticipating her desires, would just lift her up and on. Of course, if she didn't get to ride, she'd throw a tantrum. Her mother, especially, lived in fear of her tantrums.
A swing set -- that's the other really fun thing she never had. Their yard was simply not big enough.
Robert sometimes jokingly stands in line with her when there are two or three children waiting for a turn on Donald. He's enthralled by the little girl in her. A few years ago, when they were first dating, he signed her up for a "free cone on your birthday" from the Baskin Robbins store a block away.
There's a little girl just climbing on Donald when she walks in the store. They need shampoo and extra strength Tylenol. As she walks out, the mother's pulling her daughter away: "One ride, that's all; you know the rules." If I ever have a cute little kid like that, I'll let her ride as many times as she wants to, Cilla thinks. When there's somewhere we have to go I'll leave early to make sure there's enough time.
That if looms larger every night.
They got married two years ago, mainly because they wanted to start a family, but so far nothing's happened. They've had fertility tests: everything fine, still nothing. Robert's so depressed he can't perform most nights. They even bought two different potency lotions (from a drugstore in midtown they'll never set foot in again), but they haven't had the nerve to try them. Still, Cilla reasons, as long as Robert seems his cheery old self in the morning, there's nothing to worry about.
As for her, well, she loves to be held, cuddled, played with. There's also the exercise bike she bought last winter. She read about the advantages of exercise for stress relief in the bike's manual, and she hasn't been able to get that out of her mind. It's been in the seventies all week, but the bike's one of those where the front wheel acts as both a propeller and a fan, so even at eighty degrees she doesn't get overheated. $200 at the Sears store up in White Plains. She bought it ostensibly to help her lose ten pounds; God knows how much weight she'll put on if and when she gets pregnant.
Some mornings she pedals at 15 m.p.h. from the first turn, not putting on music or the news, just going full force with every ounce of strength she has. Sweating too hard to fret straight. Maybe that's why she hasn't felt overly upset about the impotency thing. A dull longing, sure, maybe a touch of sorrow, but it somehow stays out there, impersonal.
"How about a ride?" Robert asks again.
"I'd get all dirty," she quips. And goes on to chide him about never offering when she's wearing jeans or old clothes. It's Friday evening, and they're off to meet friends at a new pasta place that's opened on 72nd St.
"Did I ever tell you my father used to refer to those things as masturbation machines?" He puts an arm around her.
"No," she laughs, "you've been holding back on me."
"The drugstore's open till midnight. Maybe on the way home." But by midnight they're back at Katie's apartment, on their second bottle of wine. By the time they pass the drugstore it's long closed.
When they get home, it's all Robert can do to make it to the bed. She stays in the kitchen for a bit, playing with the exercise bike. (You know you've adjusted to DINK New York City living when you move the kitchen table into a corner so you can fit in an exercise bike). She was hearing a faint creaking noise when she rode it this morning, and the movement of the right pedal seemed jerky. She stands behind it and works the handlebars, back, forth, back, forth, watching the pedals turn. She sees where the crank shaft is coming loose. Damn. They bent one of the rods when they assembled it; it looks now like it's been pulling on that crank. She gets a wrench, tries to tighten it. Gets on for a moment to test it. Still a little noise, but the movement's not as jerky. She supposes that'll hold for awhile at least.
She goes into the bathroom to wash up. There was obviously grease on that crank, among other things. She slips on her nightgown, crawls in bed. Robert's snoring soundly; he always snores after he's had a few drinks.
She wonders, now that she's diagnosed the problem, if that rod will keep pulling until eventually the whole crank has to be replaced. She goes out once more to check on it. Rides. Pushes the pedals manually. If she bends out this section of the rod just a bit... There. She climbs on to test it, then worries her nightgown will get caught in the spokes, so just takes it off. No one can see in this window. Besides, it's three a.m.
It seems to be turning smoothly now. She picks up speed just to make sure the crank or whatever it is can stand the strain. The front wheel spins its air, aimed, she realizes now, right at her crotch. She pedals faster and faster.
EXPOSED TO THE ELEMENTS
Looking back, I think it was the day the starling shit on my head that I decided I had to either move in with Bill or break off the relationship entirely. Much as I wanted to be in Manhattan, to live in Manhattan, to take advantage of the restaurants and theaters as I'd never been able to when the girls were younger, taking the train back to Huntington five mornings a week while Bill went off to work at the office was getting absolutely ridiculous. First, there was the time involved. Second, there was the fact that I'm a writer -- children's books, what else, when you're raising three daughters -- and I'd gotten used to writing at home. I was accustomed to getting up in the morning and having my computer right there, turning it on while on my way to the bathroom, sometimes jotting down notes or lines of dialogue before I'd even had a drink of water. Third, there was the bird shit on the car.
The birds wouldn't be shitting on my car if I parked closer to the station instead of at the far end of the lot, where all the trees are. But, like, I had a choice? If I took the 4:49 train, which I usually did, it meant all the executives hadn't returned home yet, so that lot was packed. Packed. Some nights I felt lucky to get any space at all. And for that I paid $5 a day. Or night, rather.
At least my train fare was at off-peak rates.
I remember, when Sean and I were first together, when we'd scraped up enough money to buy a second car, he lectured on the importance of washing off the bird shit, how it would eat away at the paint if left on too long. He, of course, washed it off with the garden hose, sometimes turning it on a child or two while he was at it, and couldn't have cared less that he was tracking mud into the house. I was the one who cared, mostly because I was the one doing the cleaning. Looking back, I probably shouldn't have cared that much. Have cared about him, I mean. And it was good to see the girls laughing, enjoying their father. Back then he still really loved his family; these days, I think the girls consider themselves lucky if he calls on their birthdays. As for him, he has a new family now.
After him, I didn't care about anyone for eight or nine years, except for the girls, of course. Then I met Bill at, of all things, a PTA meeting. He was staying with his sister in Huntington for a few days, she was active in the PTA, and he tagged along. Janie was still in high school at the time, there was no question of my moving into Manhattan before she finished school, but the point is she finished two years before that bird shit fell right in the center of my head (no hat, of course). I mean, I'd been working on my laptop during the train ride, all I could focus on was getting home and printing those pages out, getting a better sense of them. I was really feeling good about myself. And instead of sitting right down to work I had to go take another shower, shampoo my hair twice, and hope to hell the dye hadn't been ruined. By that time it was nearly noon, which meant maybe four hours to work before hopping the train back. And of course I decided what I'd written on the train was shit.
It was the second time in as many months that the trip proved disastrous. The first time I didn't even have a key to Bill's place. I'd arrived at the station to discover my keys weren't in my purse. I mean, what was I supposed to do? If I'd thought clearly, I might have grabbed a cab and stopped off at the fuel company's office (they have a key in case there's trouble with the furnace and I'm away), then taken the cab home and arranged for it to pick me up at 4:30. But I'm supposed to work under that pressure, not knowing where in hell my keys were, or who might at that moment be planning to rob me? I mean, I was fairly certain they'd fallen out of my purse at Bill's, probably between the sofa cushions. For some reason, from the first night I spent there I got in the habit of just throwing my bag on the couch when I walked in. But who knew?
So anyway, I took the next train back to the city. I don't know what I was thinking, maybe that I'd show up at his office and he'd present me with my own key. As it was, when I called him, he didn't even say come meet me at the office. He wasn't even there. He was seeing clients. While I spent most of the afternoon in a little café on Amsterdam Ave, nursing two cappuccinos and trying to write. Trying to think straight would be more like it.
And at least it wasn't a Starbucks, the only place I might have gone in Huntington, if you don't count the library and the quiet in libraries makes me feel like hiding out in the racks and getting nothing done. I found a small table near the window, so I could look out and see people going by, eavesdrop on a few conversations. Expensive cappuccinos, to say the least, but it was worth it not to be holed up in Huntington, with its flat, treeless streets. That's right -- treeless! The town knew how to control those starlings sure enough, just go out there with a big saw and chop all the trees down. Walk the streets and you go from one Gap to another. The more I drove these streets the more I questioned what I was doing there. In New York there's Central Park and Riverside Park. Had it been just a few degrees warmer I'd have been sitting in the boathouse café with a glass of sangria, observing, writing.
Within the week I had my own key to Bill's place, so I must have made an impression.
Anyway, like I said, it was the bird shit that was the final straw. The shit on the car I could deal with, especially with a car wash two blocks away, but on my head now? Forget it.
I gave Bill the ultimatum.
He was ready with all the arguments I might expect from a lawyer. That he owned the apartment and if I moved in and sold my house and we broke up I might have nowhere to live. That I might not enjoy being in the city full time. Which was, frankly, a crock of shit, and he knew it. Fitting, when you think of the bird shit, isn't it? Or starling shit. God forbid they should have been ordinary pigeons.
I solved the problem of being left out in the cold by renting the house, until we finally sold it, and sold his apartment, and bought a place together.
Do you want to hear my favorite New York City story? It was maybe three months before the bird shit. I remember, because it was an extremely warm day in December, and we took full advantage of the weather by eating brunch at one of our favorite outdoor cafes. All of a sudden the wind came up, overturning trash cans on the corners, blowing scraps of paper everywhere. Some of the people immediately rushed inside, but we stayed out there, like giddy children, laughing so hard we could barely keep the food down. Then this one scrap of paper lands directly in the center of our table. And do you know what it was? A wedding invitation!
We went inside after that.
Bad Hair Day, as we've come to refer to it, starling shit day, I washed my hair again as soon as I got to Bill's. Then we sat down to talk more seriously than ever before about living together. We were both calculating, dead serious, as intense as we've ever been outside the bedroom. Not a frivolous bone in our bodies. That wedding invitation was the farthest thing from either of our minds. And in retrospect, even though we're happily married now, I suppose that was for the best. But ask me again in ten years and I might feel different.
I'm still in touch with friends back in Huntington, of course. I gave my car to my friend Janet when Bill and I really made the commitment. It's old now, and has some serious cosmetic problems, but it still runs well. Every few months we'll take the train out and spend the afternoon with Janet and her husband, or other people from what I now think of as my past life. They all look older now; something about living in Manhattan seems to keep you young. Just to prove what good shape we're in as we approach sixty, we've often walked from the train station to wherever. They've at least planted flowers on the major streets now, and I haven't seen a starling since I can't remember when. People tell me they've moved on to Babylon.
"Do you think I look like Howdy Doody?"
"People used to tell me I looked like Howdy Doody. I was thinking of entering a Howdy Doody Look-alike contest. They're having one next month, some sort of promotional gimmick."
"Nope, you don't look like Howdy Doody. He never, ever had a bulge in his pants. If he did I'd remember."
"That's because it was a children's show, for god's sake."
"So was Pee Wee's Playhouse."
"That was different."
"I once met someone who used to sit in the Peanut Gallery."
"She was a twin."
"You never told me this before."
"It never seemed to matter before. But she was a twin and her uncle worked for the station or something, and every time there were extra seats she and her sister would have bows put in their hair and they'd go sit in the Peanut Gallery."
"Bows in their hair?"
"It was the Fifties. What can I say?"
"It sounds awful."
"I wonder if Howdy Doody had freckles on his cock?"
"He had freckles all over the place."
"How would you know?"
"The boys used to talk about it in school."
"Great school you went to."
"Why are we doing this to ourselves?"
"It's two in the morning. We always get into these conversations when we should be falling asleep."
"Because it gets so quiet."
"Were you almost asleep?"
"It's in Milwaukee."
"What's in Milwaukee?"
"The contest. The Howdy Doody Look-alike Contest."
"My friend Laura lived in Milwaukee for years. She said it's cold there."
"Laura would say anything below sixty degrees is cold. She still goes to Florida every winter."
"She has family in Florida."
"I thought you said she lived in Milwaukee."
"She did. But she grew up in Florida. Or in North Carolina, then in Florida. She's lived a lot of places."
"Probably driven out of town."
"I still don't know why you don't like her. She likes you okay."
"She's the type who'd like any man."
"She's been a good friend to me."
"I'm not disputing that."
"I've worked really hard to like all your friends. I wish you'd try a little harder sometimes."
"I know, sweetheart. I'm sorry. It's just that every time we meet your friends I seem to be just coming from work, and the pressure's been so much lately. I just don't have the energy to devote to new people."
"Sometimes I think you create your own pressures half the time."
"Oh, I have no doubt that I do. But not all the pressures. I still have time for you, don't I? Have you been feeling neglected?"
"You know I haven't."
"I'm making more money now than I ever dreamed of."
"Has the pressure lightened any since Bill got back from vacation?"
"A little. Not as much as I expected. Bill seems to have a lot of other things on his mind these days."
"Problems at home?"
"I'm not sure, and Bill isn't talking about it. I suspect his wife's been drinking again, though. She used to be an alcoholic."
"You never mentioned that."
"She was pretty dried up by the time I met Bill. They say there's always the chance of slipping back, though."
"What about poor me? I'm the one who has to do all the extra work."
"Sorry, dear, but I'm not an alcoholic. If you had an alcoholic girlfriend, maybe people would feel sorry for you."
"Maybe I'll take up with Laura."
"Laura's not an alcoholic."
"She has an addictive personality. Give her ten years, she might well be."
"If I have to put up with you for another ten years, I might be too."
"I'll do my best."
"I'll bet Howdy Doody never said anything like that."
"Wanting his girlfriend to be an alcoholic. I'll bet Howdy Doody never had a girlfriend, even."
"How would you know?
"It was a children's show. I used to watch it at five-thirty every day. My sister used to want to watch The Mickey Mouse Club, but I always made her turn it off when Howdy Doody came on."
"I might have known."
"You're just saying that because I'm telling you."
"You probably only like me because I remind you of Howdy Doody. You never saw me as a person in my own right, did you?"
"Well, that settles it. I'm entering that contest."
"Can I go with you?"
"Go with me where?"
"To Milwaukee, stupid. I want to see the contest. If you don't win, that way, I can go off with whoever looks most like Howdy Doody."
"Oh, great. I've been wanting out of this relationship, anyway. Maybe I'll put makeup over some of my freckles to make sure I don't win."
"You'll be sorry. You're liable to end up with someone like Laura."
"Spoil Sport. Anyway, I need my sleep."
"Your freckles glow in the dark."
"They do not."
"Yes they do. That one, and that one, and that one."
"You're seeing the reflection of the streetlights, silly."
"No, I'm not. I wonder if Howdy Doody's freckles glow in the dark like yours."
"They don't have streetlights in Milwaukee."
"Yes they do. They have streetlights everywhere."
"If they do, then they turn the streetlights off at midnight. It's time for all good children to be in bed."
"That settles it, neither one of us is going to Milwaukee."
"I killed a dog once, did I ever tell you that? I ran over him with my car on the Garden State Parkway."
"When was this?"
"I don't know, I must have been eighteen or nineteen. Over twenty years ago."
"What kind of dog was it?"
"Just a mutt. But big. I didn't even see him dart in front of me till after I'd hit him."
"I'd just picked up my car from a garage in Lakewood. I'd been driving back from New York City the week before, and the car broke down, had to be towed to a garage. My father drove up at midnight to get me, then had driven me up that day to pick up the car. He was following right behind me in his Chrysler. God, did he give me hell for stopping in the middle of the highway like that."
"What do you mean?"
"After I hit the dog, I just stopped the car. I didn't pull over or anything. My father could have plowed right into me."
"Did he see you hit the dog?"
"He said he saw everything. The dog died right away, though. There was nothing either of us could do."
"Okay, poor you."
"You were thinking about the cat again, weren't you?"
"I guess so. I wasn't overly fond of that cat, I never expected it would haunt me the way it does. I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have moved in with you."
"Maybe I should have let you bring her with you."
"This apartment's too small. And she'd probably have peed over everything. Maybe I should have put her to sleep, like some people told me."
"No, you were right to give her to your sister."
"Even though she died from feline leukemia?"
"Even though she died from feline leukemia. You had no way of knowing."
"I thought she was healthy."
"When she got sick, I couldn't even bring myself to visit."
"I should have at least gone to see her."
"Just give me a few more years to get on my feet at work. Then we'll get a larger apartment, and we can have a cat, a dog -- both, if you want. Maybe there will even be a doorman to walk the dog."
"Try not to dream about the accident. Or the cat...."
"You still awake?"
"I was just thinking."
"It doesn't matter, I'll tell you in the morning."
"I'm awake. Honest. You can tell me now."
"I was just thinking about someday being able to afford a large apartment, with a doorman and everything."
"What about it?"
"Maybe we wouldn't get a dog, then."
"Whatever you say. I thought you wanted a dog."
"Maybe it wouldn't get along with the children. Dogs can be incredibly jealous, you know, especially around babies."
"That's the first time you ever mentioned children."
"I think if we ever do get a dog, I'd want a pit bull."
"That sounds like the sort of thing you'd want."
"You'll probably want one of those buildings that has some sort of ban on them."
"Probably. Besides, I don't think we'd be able to ask the doorman to walk him."
"You can never tell. He might like the doorman."
"Sure. He'll fall in love with the doorman and he'll turn on us. Pit bulls are one person dogs they say."
"They say, they say. Everyone has something to say about pit bulls, everyone has to put their two cents in. It's as bad as the racial prejudice we lived through in the sixties, or the anti-semitism our parents lived through. This year it's pit bulls they're picking on."
"Okay, we'll give him a chance to get to know the doorman. If we're even living in New York City by that point. We could be in Georgia or Nebraska by then."
"You must be kidding."
"No, really. A guy in the customer service department was transferred to Chicago last week, another guy was transferred to California a few months ago. The company's expanding, they're opening up new branches all the time, you can never tell where they might want to send me. With a salary increase, of course."
"I don't want to leave New York."
"Even if you could have a pit bull?"
"We'd probably end up in some stupid bedroom community."
"Right. The woman from the Welcome Wagon would come, and the pit bull would bite her. You wouldn't get your new set of silverware or your electric can opener."
"Welcome Wagons went out of business in the early sixties."
"Not in the small towns they didn't. My cousin told me about them when they moved to Ohio. They're part of the church groups, off shoots of the sisterhoods and what have you."
"Well, once they learn we're Jewish, they'll leave us alone."
"Don't count on that. Some of those people have never seen a Jew before. They'll keep trying to get friendly with us, inviting us to come to church with them next Sunday."
"I'll sick Butch on them."
"The pit bull, stupid. Doesn't Butch sound like the perfect name for him?"
"Then, of course, the Welcome Wagon lady will find out we're not even married. Wait till we see her reaction then."
"And she'll find out you killed a dog."
"And abandoned a sick cat."
"We'll get a leash for Butch."
"You'll have to walk him."
"You'll walk him sometimes."
"Does this mean you're giving up the idea of children?"
"I thought it was a triangle."
"I thought it was a triangle. You know, one of those things kids hit to make music."
"What about it?"
"I thought it was a triangle Dopey was playing. You know, the authentic Disney figurine you gave me Christmas two years ago."
"It's a cymbal."
"I know. But when I wasn't looking at him I thought it was a triangle."
"It's a cymbal."
"I know that now."
"Anyway, what about it?"
"He has his arm drawn back and he's set to pound it with all his might."
"So I thought it was a triangle. Did I ever tell you about my triangle?"
"In school. It must have been first or second grade. The music teacher gave all the kids instruments, and the ones who couldn't play very well she gave triangles and they had to stand near the back. Then she took it away from me."
"Took the triangle away?"
"Took the triangle away."
"Why would she do that?"
"I don't know. I guess I must have been hitting it at the wrong time."
"Were you banging and banging and banging and banging?"
"No, I was trying to play it right. I just couldn't hear the rhythm."
"So what did you do?"
"Just stand and listen."
"We didn't see her very much, you know."
"The music teacher. We only saw her maybe twice a year. I think she went to the upper grades mostly, but by the time I was in middle school she'd had a stroke and the school never replaced her."
"Sounds like she got what she deserved."
"She was really fat, too."
"Definitely headed for a stroke or a heart attack."
"It could have ruined me for life, you know. Ruined all my appreciation for music."
"But you played piano."
"That was later. And I was never as good as the other kids. Even with a metronome I got the beat wrong. And I wouldn't even hear it."
"Music isn't everything, you know."
"I wonder why you chose him, that's all."
"I get you a dwarf every Christmas."
"I know, but why that year? Why Dopey?"
"I thought it was cute, him with his arm raised and all. I thought you'd like him."
"I've got a nightgown with Dopey on it."
"Well, a night shirt actually. An oversized tee-shirt."
"I've never seen it."
"Well, I never wear anything to bed when we're together."
"Where'd you get it?"
"At K-Mart. It was on sale."
"Nobody else wanted it?"
"He's next to the dachshund now."
"Dopey. The Dopey you gave me. I have him on one of the shelves in my bookcase, next to that dachshund begging you gave me years ago."
"The one I almost couldn't find?"
"The one you told me you'd gone to get and discovered it was a real dog."
"I was in the wrong store."
"I know, but it was still funny."
"Then you told me what the right store was and I called them, remember?"
"You said you'd buy him and asked them to take him out of the window."
"Then we walked down there and you said if he's still there you'll buy him."
"I wanted you to think you'd missed your chance for him."
"Only there was another dachshund, similar, and I wasn't sure."
"Like you weren't sure if it was a cymbal or a triangle."
"Mine was real."
"My dachshund. Peanut. I really adored him."
"Better than me?"
"Well, better than Dopey."
"Okay, then I won't buy you anything more if you don't like what I give you."
"I didn't mean that."
"Remember the Jack-in-the-Box?"
"That I never had as a child?"
"That I gave you."
"I still can't get it to play right. Every time the clown pops up I get all excited."
"I looked all over the city to find him."
"I got a robot instead."
"That Christmas I wanted a Jack-in-the-Box."
"He's made by Mattel, you know."
"I thought it was Disney."
"Disney made the dwarf."
Rochelle Ratner - from HIDE AND SEEK to HOUSE AND HOME
by Karl Young
In April, 1997, Rochelle Ratner's Hide and Seek went on-line at my Light and Dust web site. I'm not sure when or how we started this project, but it took at least half a year to do, involved Rochelle turning a series of poems first published as a chapbook years earlier into a multimedia presentation, and gave us both the opportunity to learn how to do things we would put to other uses later.
Hide and Seek's first recension was simply a series of printed poems. The original series had collateral photographs, mostly of childhood, on which the poems were based. These were not included in the original book. As we discussed putting them on-line, we decided to include the photos.
Significantly after we started putting the photos up, Rochelle discovered that she could tinker with them using some of the graphics software available at the time. Before the third layer, the altered photos, became part of the work, Rochelle sent me the photos to scan and put up in the "sequester" where we worked.
A sequester is what I call an area at one of my sites where I can work on projects with other people without linking it to anything. Thus, unless a search engine spider picks it up, the only people who can see it are those invited to participate. When the work is done, it gets "launched" by being linked to menus, either at Light and Dust, or moved to another place and advertised if it is a commercial job.
When we started Hide and Seek, I was learning how to do web graphics and how to use an early release of PhotoShop. Rochelle was using a different program. In some instances, her program couldn't produce quite the effect she wanted, so she'd send me as much as she could of it with instructions on how she wanted it finalized. For the most part, this was simply filling in Rochelle's requests, though toward the end of the project we decided that I should do one of the altered images myself.
During this project, Rochelle was consciously revising the notion of personae that forms a basis for much of her work. This included her use of personae in the texts and also their extension into several graphic modes. For me, the project was first and foremost an exercise in learning how to get such a series on the web. But on another level, it was an ideal "reading" situation for me. There are many ways to read.
The two most familiar to most readers are silent, private reading on one hand; and on the other, oral delivery - either what we call "reading out loud," if we are reading someone else's work, or "giving a reading" if we are reading our own work to an audience in a more or less formal setting. For me, what I call "engaged reading" involves considerably more, and this has informed my studies of poetry and art. It was a motivating factor in getting me started as a publisher and critic and keeping me at it.
Some forms of engaged reading involve translation, a traditional means of literally getting under a poem's skin. With certain types of art and visual poetry, painting facsimiles serves a similar function. Trying to "read" Chinese poems in as close as I can get to their original language, I write out the characters, even if I'm simply reading an en face English translation. Publishing involves keyboarding the poems, which includes a particularly attentive reading, and as often as not gives me the chance to discuss the poem with the author.
Since Hide and Seek is a multi-media work, I got to give this series a fulsome and multifaceted reading in the process of putting it on-line. As in much of Rochelle's poetry, she works her way through resentments, disappointments, and a sense of loneliness left over from childhood in a constant process of finding out who she is and what she wants. If she were a lesser poet, this would simply lead to interminable whining and self-indulgence. This does not happen in her work, in part due to the complex use of personae, in part due to good judgment, and in part due to what I'll call a type of dream iconoclasm. The later plays a particularly important role in the composition of the various stages of Hide and Seek and in the way I put it on the web.
The main personae in Rochelle's poems quite often exist in such complex baffles of subsidiary personae that the poems can at times seem like mini dramas, with rather large casts. My guess is that as a child Rochelle wasn't abnormally lonely, but was more aware of her loneliness than many children, and that what separated her further was that she was more willing and able to act on her perception of herself as isolated. This may have caused some problems. It almost certainly lead to her dropping out of school, for instance. But these are things she's made up for in other ways. I also doubt that she was any more resentful than other kids, though she has contemplated her feelings more intensely, and, if anything, purged a lot of them in the process.
In her sense of loneliness, she may have used proto-personae as a means of talking to herself at a time when she claims she scarcely acknowledged her own existence or gave herself credit for feeling that her life had meaning. Not only may the young Rochelle have had a lot of proto-personae, but when she became proficient in writing and made conscious use of personae as such, she had created a curiously complex cast of characters, some of them different parts of her own personality.
She notes some of the complexity of this in her introduction to the web version of Hide and Seek:
The most significant revelations came when studying the photos accompanying "Pictures With Diane" and "Winter". Notice, if you will, that Diane's wearing the dark snowsuit in the first, I'm wearing the same snowsuit in the photo that accompanies "Winter". Nothing so unusual. Diane's 15 months older than I am, and I frequently wore clothes she'd outgrown. But looking closely at the scanned photo, I questioned if that might not be Diane with the snowman. Look at the way she's holding her head, her lips, her arm. My father confirmed, beyond a doubt, that I was the one with the snowman. Still, the similarity, that initial confusion, haunts. My cousin stood for everything I disliked. Did I really, unconsciously, adopt some of her mannerisms? Certainly the child in the picture did.
The process of creating the new sequence suggested dream patterns to me, and I used that concept as a means of connecting the web pages. Here's how I explained it in the web introduction:
This work has been set up so that the reader moves in a narrative line through texts and images. To go forward from an image, click on the image; to move forward from a text, press the arrow at the bottom of the page. We set it up this way so that images appear as though they were looming up in memory or in dreams, images that have to be pushed through. Texts in this case are more rational and conscious entities, logically structured, and requiring a deliberate and conscious act of direction.
Rochelle's creation of personae in work up to and including the first text of Hide and Seek, sometimes used sublimation processes which manifested themselves as unicorns, mermaids, and other figures and animals which appeal particularly to girls, often enough lasting into their teens and sometimes beyond. In some of these works, she gently displaces or reforms the personae, or she reworks them according to what we could call metaphysical conceits, or she lets them exhaust themselves - or she can go into iconoclastic "image breaking" mode.
In dreams, a situation similar to the latter breeds nightmares and reveals the powers of insecurity. The dreamer creates pleasant images with one part of the psyche. Another part of the psyche, however, begins to suggest the things that could go wrong with this picture. If the anxieties or uncertainties are strong, the image of bliss becomes the base for images of destruction and horror. Thus, the origins of nightmares.
In Hide and Seek, however, Rochelle's iconoclasm seems to move in an almost diametrically opposed direction. Instead of being further intimidated or upset by images of loneliness and despair, she seems to be breaking the images in such a way as to reject and liberate herself from their binding and repressive powers. A delightful element of this game of hide and seek is the nature of the original photos. They may have reminded Rochelle of things that were painful to her. But on another level, they're simply the kind of photos that collected in the albums of North American families of the era: a few that capture a moment very well and have a professional look due to accidentally getting the focus and the lighting just right - but many of the photos look odd, unintentionally comic, and often downright goofy or grotesque. There seemed to be a streak in the dream of the 1950s and early 1960s that was just as ardent about making fun of itself as it was about presenting visions of prosperity, stability, and happy family life.
During the time Rochelle was working on Hide and Seek or shortly afterwards, she began toying with photography, moving relatively quickly to the use of a digital camera. One of her projects involved photographing homeless people in New York City, partially as an adjunct to a novel in progress. After the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, she shifted her attention to photographing patriotic displays in store windows throughout the city.
At this time, she seems to have been going through a process of learning as much about photography as she could. Her correspondence with me was full of references to newly purchased books of reproductions of prints by classic photographers. Perhaps she was giving the city something like the "engaged reading" I talk about when I do such things as make facsimiles of Aztec iconographic books or putting works like Hide and Seek on the web.
Following her reasoning about the autobiographic nature of her growth as a writer, the photography, the city, and the unfolding of historical events may have significance related to what she has said about her development as a child and adolescent, and which she worked with in Hide and Seek. This means of analysis would include the following elements. Photos catch images that are of necessity illusory: they remain static as long as they exist; the situation of which they remove an eyeblink from a single point of view takes that small portion out of its context, most of which becomes lost.
Rochelle's interest in photography grew greatly and rapidly after she went to a digital camera. She is proficient in computer usage. She has participated enthusiastically in computer fairs and workshops. Her husband is a computer programmer whom she met at a Kaypro users' group meeting way back in the days when Kaypro still made computers. The world of digital photography is one in which she feels at home and confident in a way she might not feel in the older emulsion process.
A photographer isolates herself in taking a picture, removing herself from the image photographed. The world of computer usage, however, is one in which Rochelle is highly social, sharing photos with friends, and including essential elements of love and family. An important element in photographing the homeless may come from her sense of childhood isolation (the protagonist of the novel is a child who watches the homeless people around her). Another may be her claims that she came alive by meeting literary people, after growing up in a town where she found no one to talk to about her writing. In a sense, the city could be seen as something like a surrogate mother, or at least the entity that empowered her to speak, first as a poet, second among people who shared her interests and seemed more "real" than the masks of a miniature city in Kansas.
The attack on the World Trade Center towers had and continues to have all sorts of significances. So much has been written and discussed about this that there's no need to list any. Just to point out that in Rochelle's case, the attack may have seemed in part on her own voice or her own ability to speak. In the window photos she makes some dramatic moves away from her earlier poetry and the photos such as those in Hide and Seek.
Her correspondence with me at the time suggests that she was feeling out her own evolving sense of what it means to be an American, at times using other people's images as masks for her own feelings of patriotism, but more often trying to capture the ambiguities of other people's self-imges. Ambiguities and indecision about issues ranging from gender roles to commercialism as expressed in window decorations suggest a visual equivalent of the kind of stuttering speech of people recovering from trauma.
The main "voice" in the majority of these photos is not Rochelle's, and has moved away from personae. Her personal masks make appearances in the ghostly reflections in the window glass between her and the displays - but other ghost images of the city join her in these overlays. The game of hide and seek has taken on much greater complexity in these photos than the one played in the book of that title.
House and Home came to me in the mail. This is not a work we discussed in progress, and although the author says in the letter inserted in it that many of the poems were written at the time we put Hide and Seek on line, and that that project helped her revise her sense of personae, I'll switch names from first to last in discussing it.
The word "persona" as Ratner uses it, comes largely from Ezra Pound's reworking of the premises of Greek drama into small poems. Outside drama and Pound's conception of Imagism, Personae tend to generate parables. Ratner often fought this tendency in her earlier work. In the first part of House and Home, she makes full use of it. In these poems, one level of parable is the symbolic laying out of the landscape and delimitation of the summer house where she spends part of the year, at times alone, at times with her husband.
These poems are full of details of the house and grounds. Plumbers find a dead rat and a broken bottle under the floor, next to pipes which had not been solidly joined, but simply abutted. This had worked at least partially for the former owner, despite the leaks it caused. In autumn, the area becomes infested with hunters; she hoists cartons of old books into the attic bearing in mind the woodsmen's admonitions on carrying deer over their shoulders. A barn on the property collapses - she intended to use the weathered boards to panel the living room. It could be that the house is infested with termites. The former owner returns after long absence and shows her where she'd planted asparagus, which Ratner had took for weeds. Her parents visit, make a nuisance of themselves, and introduce themselves and her to some of the neighbors. And so on.
With these details, Ratner gives the reader the impression of what the house and grounds are like without devoting as much as a single stanza to conventional description. For me, this brings to mind the fragment of Sappho, identified as a chorus, which reads "raise high the roof beams," suggesting all sorts of possibilities without pinning them down. Instead of the grandeur of creation myths, Ratner works on the more humble level of parables in the construction of a house and its metamorphosis into a home.
Of the parables in this section of the book, those that run through "Months Along the Road" seem most skillfully and profoundly worked and interwoven. The first poem in the sequence begins with what seems like a lament for animals killed on the road in the vicinity of the house. This seems to set the stage for ecco-sentimentality or sermonizing. (As an environmentalist, I know how tiny the number of animals killed on the road is compared to those slaughtered by toxins, land and water mismanagement, etc. - including the manufacture of paper from virgin pulp paper.)
As the poem unfolds, however, we learn that the farmer on the adjoining land is dying of cancer, and is himself a better example of more insidious forms of road kill. In what seems like a step back from this theme, Ratner describes the way the falling of leaves reveals the houses of people wise enough to keep their homes hidden from the road. After this section, we find Ratner, not free of greed, calculation, and something like callousness, wanting to buy the farmer's land after his death. She then drops this desire when someone else buys the land for the same reason she wanted it - to keep it from being developed and spoiling her country retreat. Despite the lack of any language that hints at scripture, this set of parables has an almost Biblical ring.
The second part of the book reprints some of the poems, apparently somewhat revised, from the chapbook Zodiac Arrest. In these poems, the animals and mythological figures of the zodiac make brief appearances, sometimes related to astrology, sometimes not. They may take the place of the unicorn and mermaid personae, but here Ratner either uses the masks as a starting point which she drops almost immediately, or in effect steps aside from the masks, letting them function separately, on parallel tracks.
The first of the poems forms a link with the last poem in part one. In that last poem, she speaks of moving into an apartment in the city, in the first of Zodiac Arrest, she speaks of addressing the house after five years of renovations, in a housekeeping prelude to the love theme which begins in the last stanza. The next several poems develop some of the giddynes and enthusiasm of this new move out of loneliness.
A major turning point, which casts light on the rest of the book, comes at the end of "September's Order, An April View." Here are the concluding lines:
To date I've enjoyed our being
This is beautifully developed. Note how the beginning of the second sentence initially seems to make no sense or to create confusion in the reader or to suggest ambivalence in the speaker. The careful measure of the next two lines resolves the ambiguity or confusion, but state with great precision a situation that many couples who seem happy can fall into without noticing that they're really losing each other. If the final lines of this poem resolve ambiguity and uncertainty, the rest of the poems in this section and the next fully explore related uncertainties and doubts.
The rest of the poems in this and the next section explore conflicts, uncertainties, insecurities, domestic conditions, satisfactions and accomplishments that can make up shared lives. The subtle complexities and curious, ironic, or amusing dialectics of the passage quoted above continue through the rest of the poems. In this extended meditation, words taken for granted, such as "to honor," the names of wedding rings at a jeweler's, arguments over politics, even irritation at snoring move from the mundane area where they might seem trivial into careful consideration of what the daily fabric of existence means and how it works.
In a delightfully sly look back at previous work with personae, a Macy's parade on television presents a bonanza of characters in one way or another associated with children, ranging from Little Bo Peep to Bart Simpson, and all suitable for the kind of masks Ratner had employed in previous poems. This poem doesn't swell or develop the characters, but simply uses the way parades move, with starts and stops, to bring out the way people in proximity learn each other's habits and develop expectations which may be beneficial or may be deadening, depending on the context and circumstances. The burden of these poems does not rest as much on the specific issues they deal with as discrete events, but on the sensitivity with which they become worked out or incorporated into life over time. In this, Ratner shows her major leap ahead of the earlier poems that simply coped with loneliness, alienation, and related themes. And this is precisely where she goes beyond most "domestic poetry" written in recent years.
In this series, Ratner makes a curious move from personae to motif. Many of the poems deal in one way or another with gifts. Masks tend to morph into the mediums of exchange, fencing foils, tools for sending messages and other dynamics which move around and behind gifts. Thus the gifts of a reasonably contented life in a real home which Ratner explores don't sink into the corny or saccharine illusions of gifts as necessarily being things people share or desire. The scrutiny she gives them moves a few out of the thicket of odd motives and forms of coercion, letting them show their sincerity in a context free from the illusions which can come along with the word and the concept of "gift."
The final section of the book takes its title and center from a poem called "The Waiters." This poem posits an intersection between internal toxicity and the attack on the World Trade Center. The poems in this brief section deal primarily with illness, mainly cancer and carcinogens, and the cancers that can infect an individual running parallel with those that can infect a society. Although adding an extra edge to the nature of domestic life, they almost seem to want to break away from this book and form one of their own.
This is not an unusual situation, and they may indeed be more a prelude to another volume than a conclusion to this one. Of course, you could see that as a good way to leave things - waiting for the possibilities of extended or newly found themes to find enough focus and gather enough mass for another volume. As a literary device in this set, ending in a state of uneasy waiting can be characteristic of domestic life or any kind of shared experience.
We could note that this suspension suggests a continuation of the hide and seek game, and note how essential it is to Ratner's poetry, whatever the themes may be. These themes can initially seem tricky. Ratner writes a good deal about loneliness, and even writes about writing about loneliness. Yet at this point in her life, she's anything but the withdrawn child she recalls as her teenage self. A significant part of what she seems to have been moving toward has more to do with establishing and maintaining her independence as an adult using the more easily recognizable models and icons of childhood and adolescent alienation. And perhaps this is another area of personae which she will further develop and from which she will eventually move on, in a dialectic that she may not be able to predict any better than I can.
Rochelle Ratner's books include two novels: Bobby's Girl (Coffee House Press, 1986) and The Lion's Share (Coffee House Press, 1991) and fourteen poetry books, including her new e-chapbook, Tellings (available at www.tmpoetry.com), Practicing to Be a Woman: New and Selected Poems (Scarecrow Press, 1982), Someday Songs (BkMk Press/Univ. of Missouri-Kansas City, 1992), and Zodiac Arrest (Ridgeway Press, 1995). A new poetry book, House and Home will be published by Marsh Hawk Press in November 2003.
She lives in New York City, where she is Executive Editor of American Book Review and reviews regularly for Library Journal and other publications. An anthology she edited, Bearing Life: Women's Writings on Childlessness, was published in January 2000 by The Feminist Press. Hide & Seek, an original poem-photo series based on the limited-edition poetry volume, is posted on the Light and Dust website:
More information and links to her writing on the Internet can be found on her homepage: