I appreciate that the goal of A Moment of Your Time is to create a sense of community when so much of the world is feeling isolated and cut-off because of the ravages of COVID19. Take a minute to be part of this endeavor!
During this time of confinement and Covid, the folks at Poetry Spoken Here – Charlie Rossiter and Jack Rossiter-Munley – a father/son duo – started a project called Open Mic of the Air. Writers from around the world present their work as if we were all together at a Poetry Reading. I’m delighted to be reading one of my poems at the 8:40 mark below. Tune in!
My new piece entitled “A Dictionary of Tomatoes” appears in Aromatica Poetica. This literary forum focuses on work which appeals to the senses – olfactory, auditory etc. “A Dictionary of Tomatoes” details my relationship,as a language teacher, with a very special student.
The summer language classes are free, but Rabka insists on leaving payments on my desk. Slippery eggplants—aubergines--swaddled in a dish towel like purple babies. Ripe tomatoes cradled in a woven bag. Cookies, sweet and wheaty, pregnant with raisins. Moist, glistening farmer’s cheese, twisted like a rune.
I try to return the towels and the tidy bags, carefully stitched from recycled nightgowns or a baby’s shirt, a towel from Canadian Tire.
“This is a useful bag,” I say. “You should take it back.”
Rabka shakes her head. The bags, like the foods, are a gift. She beams when she gives them to me.
I can’t tell how old she is. Some days she looks twenty, with naturally red lips and dark black hair that curls with the humidity and frames her cheek like a hijab. The Muslim women from Syria cover their heads, but Rabka is Syriac Christian. She can walk around the town bare-headed and wear whatever she wants. Sometimes she comes in bright red toreador pants. I wonder if the men look at her at the bus-stop.
She told me that her oldest daughter is fourteen so I know she can’t just be twenty years old herself. Her youngest is six. And there are twin boys who are nine.
I’m big mother, she boasts.
I think she means she has a lot of children. She’s certainly not big in stature. She comes up to my shoulder. Even when she’s wearing those little green sandals with the heel that she found at the friperie, the second-hand clothing store on Rue Belvedere.
If she misses the bus and has to walk across town, the green heeled sandals are not very practical. She arrives out of breath, wrapped in sweat, her feet bony and aching. At those times, when she sits down on the metal folding chair, even if she’s wearing the red toreador pants, she looks like a fifty-year old, maybe older. A grandmother, even.
We always sit face to face, close enough so we don’t disturb any other students. I can smell anise on her breath and the faux- flower scent of cheap deodorant. She smiles at me and calls me Professeur Madame, or sometimes, Madame Professeur.
I apologize for the sweltering church basement. Not my church. Just a church.. A neighborhood congregation which allows us volunteers to teach French to immigrants, refugees, people off the street, no questions asked.
“I’m sorry it’s so hot in here, “ I say.
Syria is much hotter, she says.
She arrived in Quebec, three years ago, during a February snowstorm. Alone, with her four children. No one had told her about Canadian winters.. The shock of ice underneath her feet, the numbness of her fingers in the cold. Her children, jet-lagged, but giddy, dared to touch the snow, roll in it. They shrieked and laughed and learned the word “neige” from the refugee coordinator. And soon they acquired the French words for “snowball” and “melt” and “hot chocolate”. This was the new life their mother had promised.
I am very lucky, she says. No complaints. Hot or cold.
We study vocabulary. At the doctor’s. At the dentist’s. In an emergency.
911, she says and pretends to dial a phone. Then she gives her address slowly and clearly, as if she is reciting a prayer. Maybe it is a prayer.
She often tells me how happy she is to be here. In North America. In Quebec At this table in the church basement right now. She brings a little paper dictionary with her and consults it throughout the lesson, searching for the words she needs. She writes down idiomatic expressions in a little notebook, like a schoolgirl.
The grammar is hard. The words don’t roll off her tongue. But she knows she needs to learn French in order to get a job, go to conferences at her children’s school, to speak to the neighbors who water their geraniums on the shared balcony. Rabka herself grows tomatoes in buckets, tying the lusty vines with string to the wrought-iron railing. She tries not to encroach on the neighbor’s side of the space. The refugee coordinator has reminded her several times.
For a reading lesson, I show her a newspaper article about a woman whose shed was struck by lightening.
That’s very sad? How can we help her? Should I bring her aubergines? Tomates?
I explain that the story is old. The shed is probably rebuilt by now. We don’t know the woman. It’s just a lesson.
Rabka looks as if she wants to tell me something else, but she doesn’t.
We role-play going to the pharmacy.
Rabka pretends to have a rash, a headache, a broken foot. She’s a good actress, When she acts out a bout with poison ivy, scratching her arm like a kitten, she looks twenty years old again. She pretends to buy some antiseptic, Tylenol, cough drops.
“Do you need anything else? “I ask, as if there were really attentive salespeople in the local Pharmaprix.
We both know that the drugstores are self-service.
I am sick, she says, here, pointing to her heart.
I give her specialized words: heart attack, nitroglycerin, crise cardiaque and things like that.
She shakes her head. Not that kind of heart, she says.
She lowers her eyes, lets out a sigh. I don’t have all the words I need, she says.
“I know, but you will someday,” I say.
During our sessions, there’s always the hum of the dehumidifier, the whirling of a small fan. The weeks pass; the summer is exceptionally hot. Sweat seeps across my neck, trickles down my back. After an hour, I start to stick to the folding chair. When I sit forward, my tee-shirt stays attached to the metal for a second and makes a little sound when it comes undone, like a wet towel thrown against a tile wall. Rabka wipes her forehead with a handkerchief, but she never complains about the heat.
She does her homework. She tries to speak. If she can’t think of something to say, she runs her index finger in and around the dents in the wooden table, rubs the film of grease left over from the fried chicken suppers at the church.
No matter how much I protest, she never arrives empty-handed. When her tomatoes ripen, she brings two full cotton bags onto the bus, all the way to the church basement. A few of the tomatoes crack open and ooze in the heat, bleeding seeds into my hands.
Keep the bags, she says. You can wash out the stains.
Then one day, we’re both feeling faint from the heat. It’s too hot to study. Her hair has curled in massive waves across her shoulders. Her eye make-up is smeared so it looks as if someone has taken a crayon and melted it across her eyelids. My tee shirt is sticking to me, front and back. I abandon the idea of a lesson.
I end up just showing her personal photos on my phone: a tree swing, the day lilies growing in my yard, one of my children sitting in a wheel barrow, my husband at the barbeque grill.
Rabka stares hard at the photos. And something seems to burst inside her. Her memory explodes, grenade-like, and words tumble out as well.
In Syria, I had a house too.. With flowers and a terrace. Just like you. Before the war.
I give her the word “rubble.” She makes a note in her notebook.
And then she keeps talking. Asking for words for civil war, bombs, loss, horror, burial.
She cries, but keeps looking for words. She tells me about a day in Damascus when she was a little girl, remembering the sound of her grandfather speaking French.
He’d been a child when Syria was a French colony, she says.
Is that why you chose to come to Quebec? I asked.
I didn’t chose. It just happened. From the agency. It could have been Ontario. That other place, even. I can’t pronounce. Sasaska ….Saskachutan? I didn’t know about French. I thought all Canada was English.
I stare at her. She no longer looks twenty. She looks decades older. There are tiny black hairs on her cheeks like a cat. I notice small double nicks on her chin, as if she once fell against a fork. Her dark eyes are wet and brined like olives.
I grab her hand and she keeps talking.
I listen. It’s so hard, she says. Losing all that.
I put my arms out and Rabka falls into them, like a young child, soft and fragile. I imagine I can smell cinders in her hair, sulfur, smoke.
For the rest of the summer, Rabka keeps bringing me tomatoes. And I keep feeding her new words and expressions, snippets of grammar, all the small seeds of language to grow a new life.
I usually write free verse, but during this tumultuous period of Covid19 and politics and strangeness, I am taking comfort from traditional forms of poetry. When stressed, I turn to iambic pentameter, I guess.
I am intrigued by the complexity and simplicity of the villanelle form. Famous ones include Roethke’s “Waking” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Repeated lines, repeated rhymes….it’s a kind of haunting form. Tercets and a quatrain and all that good stuff.
The new publication GRAND LITTLE THINGS just published my latest villanelle. Many thanks to Patrick Fey, the editor.
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
It's not just sadness, but a form of prayer:
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf.
A plague marauding, silent like a thief,
The cities stilled, a waiting in the air
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
Autumn comes,the grain encased in sheaf
I don't remember harvest quite so rare
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf.
Things falls apart, renew,and test belief
I search for hope, and dance against despair
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
Because I know that permanence is brief
And filaments are fragile, prone to wear
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf
I ride the breeze, the stars, to find relief
Acknowledge kindness when I see it there
Each day, these days, I make the time for grief
I watch the world unfolding, turn its leaf.
Every week NewVerse News publishes poetry that is related to current events. Most publications takes months to read, decide and publish submitted work. But New Verse News shares writer’s immediate reactions. They just published my poem entitled “The Supreme Court Justices Go to the Garage”, which I wrote upon hearing of the recent legal decision to uphold the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was inspired by a courageous and talented friend named Erica P.
A multi-media issue of Rockvale Review features two of my poems: Friend: Submerged and Talking Not in Turkish. The theme of the issue is communication….right up my alley! Artist Henry Jones paired his artwork with each poem. In addition, Friend: Submerged was selected for a musical response. Musician Jeff Byers composed original music inspired by the poem. I am deeply honored.
When Ayse’s mother comes from Turkey, we speak to each other with our eyes, iris to iris, lens to lens. Sometimes Ayse translates, but mostly she’s busy with other guests, passing out baklava, pouring tea. The Pearl and I sit side by side, no language between us. Mostly we grin. Or we link arms, or hug, or pat each other on the shoulder. Her cheeks smell of rose water, minarets, the sea. She wears long skirts and a silky hijab that ripples when she prays. I wonder what she thinks of my tight black leggings, my skeptical faith. We’re both former teachers, confident in our voices, older matriarchs who can’t help seeing the big picture yet each hides worries from her grown children, each mutters hopes that they may be safe from harm. How do I know this? Because I know. We often spend the evening without a word, just breathing in each other’s presence. Once we tried using one of those apps that translate from one tongue to another, each of us pecking away on Ayse’s Ipad, spelling out our points of view, tidbits of opinion, but after the novelty wore off, we went back to our beloved silence, the squeeze of the palm, and the quiet veil of friendship.
After her stroke, all droop and slack, her words came out in a gurgle of drowning, as if she were under water. Her grey head, barely visible above the hospital pillows, tended to bob a bit, like a gull on the waves. “You’re looking well,” I’d lie. Then I’d lean in and kiss her moist forehead. Her face would lopside into smile. I’d sit by her bed and listen as best I could. She’d mouth vowels like a fish, the puck of her lips pulled down over the consonants. Her voice would rise and fall, tide-like, but I’d understand almost nothing. Straining my ears, I’d search for familiar sounds buoys of sense, fog horns in a dark cove. Once, I think, she admired my scarf She reached out for the aubergine silk. with her good arm, her blood-shot eye drawn to color Whenever I visited, I couldn’t help feeling as if the two of us were scuba divers, floating like jelly fish, thirty meters under the sea. She’d try to speak, and I’d grab her hands, and we’d submerge deeper, far from the surface of conversation, down, down, to the place where life is purely love and fluid, where survival depends on gesture, the tug of the hose, the fingers talking, oxygen flowing, an unspoken trust.
Eastern Iowa Review and PortYonder Press just produced an anthology called All Things Anne (of Green Gables). My short story Akage appears in its pages. The setting for Akage is Japan, not Prince Edward Island, but maybe you can guess what the title means.
The fertility doctor had told Midori that time was running out. In his opinion, she should try to conceive within a year. Certainly before next summer.
When she explained the facts to
her husband, Masashi, he didn’t seem all that surprised.
“We married late,” he said, “It
stands to reason that we are racing the clock.”
Masashi was a consulting
engineer at Mitsubishi, known for his perfectly knotted tie and his devotion to
the company. He was nearly forty, with slightly stooped posture from sitting
too long at his desk. He assured his wife that he understood the parameters of
the baby problem.
Midori, herself, after hearing the doctor’s opinion, got on
the bus as soon as she finished her job tutoring at the Total Language School
near Shinjuku. She
went all the way to the Kokubunji
Temple, where she stood in front of one of the smaller altars, and
clapped her hands together and bowed her head.
“O, Kami-sama, I
want a baby so bad. Please. This year. As soon as possible.”
She was a petite woman, with pale
skin and beautiful black hair cut in a careful bob. Standing there at the
altar, in her fashionable autumn coat the color of persimmons, she looked
younger than her years. She would be thirty-eight in July.
Later, at the temple store, she
bought a good-luck amulet for fertility.
She was not used to praying,
so, after a few weeks, she wondered if the gods had turned a deaf ear because
she had been so blunt. Perhaps she should have said “please” with a greater
degree of politeness.
Masashi suggested she buy a
She started to confide in a few
friends about her dilemma. How she was now monitoring her body temperature. How
she was obsessing over the calendar.
“I’m losing hope,” she said to
one of her closer colleagues, an Australian woman named Jennifer.
““Why don’t you try a more
relaxed approach?” suggested Jennifer.
She was smiling broadly,
looking as if she were about to tell a joke. The gangly Australian teacher had
two rows of large teeth, like a stallion, and a twinkle around her eyes. Midori
grew very still.
The two colleagues were sitting
in the lunchroom. The air smelled of rice balls, hand-soap, and
felt-tipped markers. In the
background they could hear the voices, in different languages, of other tutors
still working with private students in the cubicles.
Jennifer’s face lost its smile.
She stared at Midori and continued her advice.
“Don’t try so hard,” she
said, “Chill out. Re-live your honeymoon.”
Midori looked surprised/.
“Our honeymoon? You mean return
to Prince Edward Island? That would cost a fortune,” said Midori.
Five years ago, she and Masashi
had taken a once-in-a-lifetime tour all the way from Tokyo to Toronto, then on
to the Maritime Provinces, with their final destination being the home of Anne
of Green Gables. Like so many Japanese, Midori admired the
little orphan they all called Akage
no Anne, the redheaded Anne.
“Oh, you don’t have to go to
the same place,” said Jennifer. “Just re-create the atmosphere.”
But how could Midori and
Masashi recreate the wind blowing along the bluffs of that magical spot? How
could they recreate the Haunted Wood or the wildflowers blooming in August?
“Look,” said Jennifer, who
spoke with an openness that Midori found both shocking and admirable. “You
don’t need Prince Edward Island, you’ve got hundreds of charming islands right
here in Japan. Pick one and go away for a weekend.”
Midori tried to explain. It
wasn’t just that PEI was charming. It was imbued with Anne’s spirit. Both she
and Masashi were able to feel it. It was in the air and in the grass and in the
sky. It was in the little red-headed Anne actresses who replayed scenes from
the books and stood outside the hotels. It was in the carriage rides offered to
tourists. She and Masashi had felt so happy there. For those few days, it was as
if Anne’s way of being was just another commodity in the world, available to
“Well, daydreaming about a storybook is not going to bring
you a baby,” said Jennifer, and she picked up her bento box and excused
On one level, Midori knew that
Jennifer, with her quick remarks and her forthright opinions, was absolutely
Daydreaming didn’t help.
a quiet weekend with Masashi will do the trick, she
said to herself, picking at her tamagoyaki, but
not actually eating it.
A few days later, she brought
up the idea of an island getaway with Masashi. He was reluctant at first,
because he was in the middle of a big project at Mitsubishi. He didn’t want to
travel too far from the office.
They ended up booking a ryokan on the
island of Enoshima, just a short train ride from their apartment in Tokyo. The
inn had crisp white sheets, a beautiful cedar bathtub, and a view of the
Lighthouse. Sagami Bay was not the Lake of Shining Waters, but it was pretty
They passed a perfectly pleasant
weekend there, lingering over breakfast, visiting the caves, standing on the
sandy beach until the sun set.
Unfortunately, in spite of
Enoshima’s attractions, the little marker on the home pregnancy test kit stayed
in the negative zone.
Then, one day, as Midori and
Jennifer were again having lunch in the faculty room at Total Language,
Jennifer casually brought up the idea of adoption.
“There are lots of babies in
the world who need homes,” she said. “Or older children, even.”
Midori didn’t know any
adoptees. Except those called Mukoyoushi, who
were adults adopted by families to protect business interests. Adoption of
children wasn’t at all a popular custom in Japan.
But the Australian friend
“Your little Anne, for example.
Wasn’t she adopted?”
Midori sighed. Yes, that was
true. The carrot-haired girl’s parents had died of typhoid. She had been in and
out of orphanages, living with Mrs. Thomas and later with the Hammond family until
the Cuthberts had taken her in.
But still, Midori wasn’t sure
what Jennifer was suggesting. Midori sat and stared at the tamagoyaki on
her plate, but didn’t make a move to eat it.
Jennifer said, “Ne?”, with her best
Japanese intonation and then waited for some kind of acknowledgement from
“I don’t know,” said Midori.
“I mean,” said Jennifer,
growing feistier, “ I think it must be a beautiful thing to open your arms to a
baby who needs a home.”
Midori raised up her eyebrows
and stared at Jennifer.
“Look how well your Anne turned
out, right?” continued Jennifer.
“Well, my Anne, as you call
her, wasn’t a baby when she arrived at Green Gables. She was eleven years old.”
Midori’s voice was shaking a
“But she was still lovable,
right?” said Jennifer.
The two women sat in silence
for a while.
In her mind, Midori turned over
the pages of her favorite book. She thought about how the saucy little Anne
wasn’t so lovable in Marilla’s eyes. Not at first. Nor did she make a good
impression on the neighbors. And yet, little by little, Anne Shirley won
everyone her over to her side.
Midori thought, too, about the
whole idea of disappointment. How Marilla and Mathew had asked the orphanage
for a boy, not a girl. How sometimes life doesn’t bring us what we want, or
expect, or think we need.
That night she slept poorly. At
one point she even dreamed that Akage
no Anne showed up at her door. The child was wearing a starched
pinafore with purple jam stains all over it; her red tresses were flying away
in six directions. Midori took a brush and said to the dreamy creature, “Here,
let me fix your hair.” When she woke up, the sensation of smoothing down those
long red locks remained on her fingertips.
Midori and Masashi went on one
or two other relaxed weekends during the winter, but after a while, the idea
seemed pointless and Masashi took to returning to his office on Saturday
afternoons and staying late into the night.
Midori decided to put the home
pregnancy kit in the back of the bathroom medicine cabinet. She had grown tired
of checking it.
Every day she went to work, bought
groceries, and came home. She never took the bus out to Kokubunji anymore.
At work, she and Jennifer
talked about the weather in Tokyo, how rainy the spring was, how the cherry
blossoms would be late. There was no mention of babies, adopted or otherwise.
In the quiet of the evening, with
her husband still at the office, Midori would find herself staring off into
space, comforting herself by watching a film, listening to music, or leafing
through books, including her old battered copy of Anne
of Green Gables.
One night, she got to thinking
about all the happiness that had come to Marilla and Mathew with Anne’s
many good things, thought Midori.
Her chin started to tremble,
then she wept uncontrollably. When Masashi came home he found his wife curled
up on the sofa. Her beautiful bobbed hair was stringy and tousled. There were
dozens of balled-up paper tissues at her feet, a half-eaten bowl of soup on the
low table, the television was illuminated, but silenced.
He took her in his arms, and they
It was actually Masashi who
took the first steps. He did thorough research, something he found easy to do.
Then he called an agency and made an appointment for both of them to speak to one
of the adoption counselors.
In his careful, precise way,
Masashi double-checked every page of the complex application.
It was not legal to specify
gender. And there was no box to request red hair.
The Comstock Review is pretty amazing. They’ve been publishing since 1986, as a non-profit organization, devoted to poets and poetry. I’m honored to have my work appear in their Spring/Summer 2019 issue.
If I’m the one to go first, I’ll try to remember to leave something on the edge of the crevasse, my gloves so you can remember the shape of my hands, a small candy heart, that photo of the two of us by the Swiss lake.
But if you are the one who leaves first, how will I continue the climb alone? Of course I can figure out the poles and crampons, the tricky compass. The technicalities are not the problem.
It will be the absence of footprints, the slap of frost, no warm breath.
Red Wolf Journal recently asked writers to create a poem “borrowed” in theme or language from a famous poem. I’m delighted that they chose my poem”Bedpan for Icarus” which was inspired by W.H. Auden’s work “Musée des Beaux Arts“.
You might recognize the opening lines. But the rest of the work is my own take on his theme. Auden’s poem means a lot to me because I kept reciting it in my head as my mother was dying. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that she passed away long before Dancing With The Stars existed. (She would not have been a fan!)
About suffering they were never wrong. The Old Masters. How well they understood its human position, how it takes place when someone else is just scarfing down a burrito, or adjusting their earbuds.
When my mother lay dying, her heart skipping beats, her pulse losing rhythm, the nurses stood in the hallway, outside her room, chatting normally, taking bets on “Dancing With the Stars”, ordering Mexican food for dinner.
Mother could have been Icarus, falling from the sky, Icarus needing a bedpan. I shook my fist at the nurses through the hospital curtain.
And yet, I should have known, we all turn away, quite leisurely, from disaster, just as Breughel drew. We run our eyes down the screen, clicking even as the typhoon hits, the mosque is bombed, the small child drowns in the Rio Grande. We hear the splash. We gulp and shake our heads, maybe mutter a prayer. And then, quite calmly, we move on.
Red Wolf Journal also recently accepted another one of my “borrowed” poems. “Grounded:Seventh Day” was inspired by Wallace Steven’s famous “Sunday Morning.”
Complacencies of the sweatpants, and a late latte, and those really good blood oranges from Trader Joe’s. Stretched out on the couch, pecking at the tablet like a cockatoo, in the holy hush of NPR, with the news shrunk and week-end withered, and then, later, after the laundry’s done, a few hours along the river, barely a job, the day like wide water without sound, not even church bells or a call to prayer, disinterested in sacrifice or sepulcher, just grounded on the soft moist earth holding the entire bickering planet in the Light.