The Arty Semite

POEM: 'Return From Elsewhere'

By Linda Zisquit

Don’t yell at me,
whisper: try to stop

I let him drink from me
I let him speed us up to the end

to extremes I couldn’t imagine—

(these are words
that cannot be written)

At the 7th Avenue station

drained and soiled
I forgot

what any child knows by heart

I couldn’t read the signs
it was late

I panicked

Where do you live, lady?

from the subway tunnel
a deep voice spoke to me

through the bars

dark, in shadows,

it should have scared me

but only an angel could have known
I was lost

I needed a ticket
he needed some change

(or was he there for another reason)

he swiped his card
guided me through the turnstile

I thanked him,
almost forgot to pay him

turned and went in the wrong direction

Where do you live, lady?

he shook his head, pointed up the stairs, across
and down—

he watched as I walked away

waited till I was safe
on the other side

and waved.

From “Return From Elsewhere” (Outriders Poetry Project, 2014)

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POEM:'This City [Jerusalem]'

By Tuvia Ruebner

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

1 Bound on Her Boulders
Bound on her boulders a burnt offering
in flames trampled by light of the daily sacrifice
this teeming city, longing
in its walls within walls
scattered towers
thin outcries
grey wind of the olives
torn among the hills yearned-for city of wings
from her red thicket eternity
blossoming
imprisoned
in gates straying at day’s end
to open and open

She is marked by a branding-iron in the Angel’s black hand

2 Stones Want to Flow
Stones want to flow
The olive tree wants to be stone
Churches long to fly
A cloud sits on the Temple Mount
Suns wandered on her outskirts, became thorns
Wars passed through and became dreams
Shadows walk around with bright faces
Her silence is bells and bells
Her stones flow
The olive tree is stone

He who sleeps and his heart is awake knows how at night
this heavy city ascends to walk with the moon

3 Day Like Night Like
Day like night like
sunfire
like voiceless cries this city where
we live in a dream like sown lights
freezing the stones eternal stones
like rock-eternity this city
caves or homes like
ruins like gravel like unending wind-thin dust
as though we were here
day or night
as though voiceless as in a dream we were really
here wandering through this city remnants
of muted cries like a dark entryway an alley
sunken in the alley wait
wait don’t vanish just one moment one more moment like
Life

4 Quiet and Open Skies
Quiet and open skies
above a City God’s treasured possession
above a City that was God-possessed
above a City that was possessed
above a City that was
open and quiet skies

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected poems of Tuvia Ruebner” (Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014)

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POEM: 'Signs'

By Linda Zisquit

It has to do with seeing. Light.
Or dark. It has to do with
knowing. Speak and prophesy,
darken and move:
But what I see is not what I know.
What I hear is not what I believe.
And now the first light is dark,
the morning has not yet lifted the night sky.
Chirping. At first many. Then few.
A call from a deeper-throated bird
till the others rest, and start again together.
Like a chorus with various parts assigned.
I never heard it this way before.
Rumble of planes.
Bees now. Little sounds.
And flaming purple spikes light the garden.

From Linda Zisquit’s recently published new collection “Return From Elsewhere.”

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POEM: Friday Late Morning Montage

By Shoshana Olidort

baby: in bassinet, breathing loud,
me: on the couch breasts filling up, heavy with milk
toddler’s sweater thrown over his chair,
on the floor: toys, a towel, a Ziploc bag
on the ottoman: blue-and-white polka-dotted boppy — a nursing pillow
on the sofa: baby-wearing wrap
outside: the rain, in the dining corner: shades are still drawn though it’s
nearly midday (but what is time
in the life of a new mother — second time around — ?)
a not-yet-ripe pineapple on the credenza, a bowl of fruit, a piggy bank and toddler’s
most recent paintings
strewn across the coffee table: envelopes and opened books,
(shrine for Amiri Baraka, just dead)
also: a blue suction bulb for baby’s nose,
white tissues in a pink box
baby blue breakfast bowl
my new breastfeeding friendly cocktail: diluted cherry juice concentrate
kids’ books, Marguerite Duras, poetry, a pen, The New Yorker
on the desk: a little American flag, Jake’s welcome gift from the U.S.A. and an unopened bottle of chardonnay
Jimmy Cliff vinyl spinning in silence

Jan 10th 2014

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POEM: 'Untitled, Jerusalem, 2002'

By Rachel Berghash

You are captives of illusion,
experts in eluding truth, you party, drink wine,
pick anemone in spring.

Occasionally you are reminded that life is transient as grass,
that death lies in ambush among green meadows.

Though the wrath of the suicide bomber is daily at your door,
your children bask in your warmth,
and this old earth, this biblical earth
blooming with camouflaged memories, quivers
with gratitude, that such people as you
inhabit it.

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POEM: 'Backseat Mama'

By Shoshana Olidort

my son consigns me
to a knife-less table-setting
he explains: “mama doesn’t get a knife,
she sat in the backseat” — in the car —
it’s true: my husband at the wheel, his mother,
visiting from revolution-ravaged Ukraine at his side
I’m the only one small enough (even post-birth)
to fit between two carseats
surprisingly there’s ample leg room
and my hips aren’t too constricted —
only my arms poke out uncomfortably —
but I feel shut out
of a conversation happening between two adults
in the front seat
in a foreign tongue

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POEM: 'Gaza'

By Rachel Berghash

Scrawny goats limp on heaps of rubble,
the sea — under weights of sorrow.
Nowhere to go, she says, escaping
the bombs with her wounded child.
And the child guarded
by ten silent angels who weep.

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POEM: 'Paste-Up'

By Ivan Klein

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POEM: 'The Great Dying'

By Rachel Berghash

He gathered his friend’s dead flesh,
walked back and sat in a field reciting a psalm.
Kneeling, he signaled the signs of courage
and defeat with his bloody fingers,
each sign for each heart beat before the great dying.
An instinctive act, he ruminates.
He sounds the psalm like a warning bell,
befuddled by what he had done, unexpectedly,
chasing death in an everlasting tunnel,
an unending struggle to choose between
life and death, the blessing and the curse,
bonded like separate and one twin mountains.

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A Delirious Interpretation of the Binding of Isaac for Yom Kippur

By Jake Marmer

Writing of Kafka’s tales, Walter Benjamin pointed out that Kafka’s tangled meanings “do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of Halakah… they raise a mighty paw against it.” Benjamin, ultimately, juxtaposed the Jewish law (halachah) with mythic storytelling (aggadah), envisioning the rise of the latter from the downfall of the former. One can only imagine how pleased Benjamin would be reading Alexander Nemser’s poetry collection “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” released earlier this month from Bookieman.

It is hard to name a genre that would encompass Nemser’s work: these are prose poems with an aphoristic scent, reminiscent of Borges, Kafka, Calvino and Jabes, among others. Each prose poem imagines an aggadah-like talmudic conversation between rabbis, who are struggling to interpret the Akeida, that is, the story of the binding of Isaac. Though framed in traditional Jewish rhetoric, Nemser’s tales are surreal, disturbing, funny, smart and anything but pious. The prominence of the transgressive element of Nemser’s writing is in perfect accord with his spiritual vision and concern for Judaism’s formative and perhaps most inexplicable myth.

“The rabbis floated down the river in an ark containing two copies of each dream their masters had dreamt on the story of Abraham and Isaac,” opens one of the tales. Another starts with: “A group of rabbis gathered at the wedding feast as fiddles and trumpets played faster and faster, until they spiraled into delirium, and guests spilled dark wine across the lace tablecloths. The cantor began chanting the story of Abraham and Isaac.” Both openers set a stage for the speakers to create their interpretations in altered, visionary states, through dream and delirium.

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POEM: 'You Think This May Be How It Happens'

By Janet Kirchheimer

You’re sitting in an armchair,
it’s your favorite, though
beat up from years of use,
and there is a tear in the fabric
covering the seat cushion, and
it’s after noon, and you’re taking
your nap, and you

wake up and ask your daughter
if anyone is there, you feel as if
someone has been pulling
at your arm, and she tells you
no one is there, to go back to sleep,
and you begin to wonder
if someone was there,

perhaps the Angel of Death who comes
to distract you for the slightest moment
so he can take you, and if you concentrate
on something, studying, praying, or
performing a commandment, the Angel must pass you by
but he is cunning, and will do everything

in his power to distract you, and you are
tired these days and are having
trouble concentrating and remembering things,
and you know the Angel will not stop trying, and
your daughter tells you, again, to go back
to sleep, but you can’t, you keep wondering
if this may be how it will happen.

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POEM: 'Neighbors'

By Rachel Berghash

If only I’d climb over the fence
and step into my neighbor’s
grove of almonds, stealthily put
my ear against his window
listening closely to Farid
and his oud, and think
of his ancestors as mine, and
remember him coming
from Mecca with his green flag
for my son’s birth, if only
we’d sit together under
the garden’s broad-leaved tree,
unknowing religion and race,
and worship a nameless God,
crouch, humble like grass,
a seraph on fire, we’d wash
each other’s feet, letting
the hamsin pass over,
and breaking bread without a claim.

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POEM: 'BRUJA'

By Adeena Karasick

From “Salome Libretto”

Through the fercockte gawk-stalkin’ hack stackers
of antiquity trickery lexically-licked sticky flickering

Salomé, you are bringing in the big guns
Opening the sluice gates
with your hyper dramatic excess
Flexed with swishy riffs, pithy spiff grifters
Like a shattered chatter box schadenshow

like a discordant accordion
like manna from mayhem

you are ebullient as you blow
like a feisty
zeitgeist, a forever riviera

and i say hula lily hillbilly, billiard bombast
ho-hum hum de lilah bruja hoo-ha slap trap
of schizmatic revisionism

And take your slinky hijinx, pixie
fixity of prurient lure of twirly whirlers
a contretemp tempestuous extempora & lay me down in
an elixir mixer of lexically robust postulates
which say ce soir bette noir,
of gnarly parlors
in a coughing scoffed cacophony of
acrostic biscuits

a miscued skew of super cinder cendre
slippery ceiling singing
in the flotsam frayed refrain. stay

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POEM: 'I Fought the Law and the Law Won (A study in pronouns)'

By Alicia Ostriker

He defied his dad and got beat up
He worked for the gang and got shot
They wished for war and the war came

She sassed her mom and got the ice treatment
We murdered the whales and our mother is furious
They wished for war and the war came

You falsified the data and the drug killed
She bribed the inspector and the building fell
They wished for war and the war came

We spent beyond our means and went broke
We pissed on Muslims and now they hate us
They wished for war and the war came
I wished for peace and the war came

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POEM: 'Under the Olive Tree'

By Asher Reich

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

The light of the olive in this tree
is thick and dark — 
lost blood flows in it.

When I sat under its leaves
time killed itself in the tree’s shade.
Through all the afternoon hours
a figure on the hill

watched me, her face covered in a veil —
and the sun, like me, searched for her eyes
all the long afternoon,
the flute of silence singing in the rocks
as I gnawed nervously on the heavy air.

Years passed between us in fire —
an abundance of blood did not extinguish it.
With straight-necked weariness
we raised dust in our bodies —
but what connects us
may yet be stitched back together
and heal.

From “With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry,” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

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POEM: 'All This Suffering'

By Tuvia Ruebner

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

All this suffering
all the sorrow
all this suffering and sorrow
in vain
all the fear-clenched
mothers
their eyes disheveled
all this sane madness
in vain in vain
the fathers, all these fathers
hiding their hearts
pretending
in vain
all this blood-crazy
land
in vain, in vain
the young faces a newspaper-grey
oh the colorful faces of youth
oh their faded colors
their photographed laughter, the girls and the young women
the kisses and hugs
in vain, in vain
blood drinking blood
these withering blossoming lives
oh the burnt bodies
in vain
all this destruction
all this blind ruin
Oh, oh

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner.” Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

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POEM: 'Visit'

By Michael Heller

The descendant kings rule over rock-strewn littoral,
banked clouds, hyssop hills of Jordan, a shimmer
that concedes hope, which is bound unto the other,
to the sheer indecipherability of landscape.

Believe — some god behind the edged shrubs, the pebbles,
and near flat glassiness of sea. Human need contracts,
matters little. Curls of viscous foam at shoreline,
tour bus inching between wary-eyed soldiers.

Concede they grew from this hardened land, clad in khaki.
Pre-taped voice is provender: even this body of water excludes.
After the mudbaths of Ein Gedi — here David took refuge
from murderous Saul — conqueror trinkets on sale in the shop.

Martyrdom of Masada, of Herod’s palace further along this road.
Marker: 300 feet below sea-level. Around this lowest point, earth
is mere bowl. Bottom of the world, bottom of language.
Inscriptions in rock, echolalia in the caves of the Scrolls.

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POEM: 'The Necessary Killings'

By Rodger Kamenetz

We have to kill them the President said because they are killing us before we can kill them.

In that case said the other president, why don’t we kill them yesterday, in which case their children won’t have a chance to grow up.

We tried that before said the President, but their children were carrying jelly beans which spilled on the floor and made a mess difficult to clean up. They trampled them so.

What color were the jelly beans asked the reporter.

You know — the President said, his head turning bright red with rage. It is the color of stop signs.

Then why didn’t you stop said the other president.

There you have it, said the President, the jelly beans were delicious!

That’s probably against the law said the giant media head. Her television was full of eyes and ears.

There were many people underfoot clamoring to be heard but their voices added up to a whisper so they could hardly be seen.

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POEM: From 'Portable Folia'

By Carole Birkan Berz

Israel greet me once a month
let every being with a soul praise god
& his spouse
Your wives are your securities
a fuselage to die for
Open air relentless inventive
elation the measure of measure
400 OVERNIGHT
You can have free ovaries
but it’ll cost ya
Can you plan on pleasure or pain?
Earn a degree under happy duress
THE BEST DISH EVER
don’t check too often or not often enough
& don’t multitask in meetings
with the Almighty
Call her as soon as possible
communicating calamitously
alter not your task
i could text you (thy byron or thy goethe)
unfurl the scroll
DISPELL after use

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POEM: It's Summer

in the south where we are busy
slaughtering each other.
There’s no time for flowers amid
burnt bodies and ruins.
Scalding summer will pass, autumn

will arrive unnoticed. If only an early winter
rain would come, send us all indoors, there
to stand at shattered thresholds and watch
the yellow sky weep and weep
for all our dead.

By Rachel Tzvia Back

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