The Arty Semite

Ghazal for Thanksgiving

By Jake Marmer

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Admittedly, not everyone sitting down to their Thanksgiving dinner is going to be recalling Yiddish-speaking immigrant ancestors, ranting about social injustice, or invoking Allen Ginsberg — and doing all of that using an ancient Arabic poetic form. That’s why we need Alicia Ostriker, a great American poet and thinker who was awarded the Jewish Book Award in 2009.

Using the “ghazal” form of Arabic poetry, which strings together pithy two-line meditations with a common refrain, she covers the vast territory of what America means to her. Curiously, Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America,” mentioned here in the fourth verse, also uses the poem’s title as a refrain, but Ginsberg’s approach is Whitmanesque, perhaps biblical. Ostriker ventures further out of the Western world. However, a certain comic strain is common to both poets. Happy Thanksgiving!


Ghazal: America

My grandfather’s pipe tobacco fragrance, moss-green cardigan, his Yiddish lullaby
when I woke crying: three of my earliest memories in America

Arriving on time for the first big war, remaining for the second, sad grandpa
who walked across Europe to get to America

When the babies starved, when the village burned, when you were flogged
log out, ship out, there was a dream, the green breast of America

One thing that makes me happy about my country
is that Allen Ginsberg could fearlessly write the comic poem “America”

My grandfather said no President including Roosevelt would save the Jews in Europe
I adore superhighways but money is the route of all evil in America

Curse the mines curse the sweatshops curse the factory curse the boss
May devils in hell torment the makers of cluster bombs in America

When I video your rivers your painterly meadows your public sculpture Rockies,
when I walk in your filthy cities I love you so much I bless you so much America

People people look there: grandpa please look: Liberty the Shekhina herself
Welcoming you like a queen, like a mother, to America

Take the fluteplayer from the mesa, take the raven from his tree
Now that the buffalo is gone from America

White man the blacks are snarling the yellows swarming the umber terrorists
Are tunneling through and breathing your air of fear in America

If you will it, it is no dream, somebody admonished my grandfather
He surmised they were speaking of freedom in America


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