Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Where the poem comes from: Esther Schor

Monday, September 21, 2009

I first met Esther Schor when she was in Boston to talk about her biography of Emma Lazarus. The book was fascinating and I enjoyed meeting Esther and being introduced, as well, to her poetry collection, “The Hills of Holland.”

Here is a poem of hers that was published in Southwest Review. It is a poignant tribute to a friend. Interestingly, for me, the poem also has faint echoes of Emma Lazarus’s own most famous poem, “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.


La Rambla

In memory of SB

Astride a globe atop a column
precisely where he disembarked
a precious haul of six Caribs

whose dark backs the sisters scrubbed
with boar bristles, whose pale souls
the bishop biscuited and claimed

for Christ, Columbus hails
the funicular, a spider’s belly
dangled over stevedores

glutting a ship’s dark hold
with cava. Whose idea, to string
this filament from Barceloneta

to Montjuic, to tip up to the sky
empty sarcophagi
incised with alephs and acanthus leaves,

reborn as rustic troughs?
Three hundred sixty-four days a year,
when we’re not here, parakeets

in cages held aloft by fishing line
taunt ocellated geckos,
vitreous, appalled,

behind each stacked terrarium
a muraled predator.
You’ve found another way

to be afar, after making the best
of a bad situation and getting on
in years, having kept all options

open, like the errant river
leaving a mudcaked rut of a bed
to Moors who called it ramla,

meaning bed of a seasonal river,
and never returned, bent
on a life undersea, shimmering,

inconsequent. On Catalunya’s flags,
Wilfred the Hairy’s four bloody fingers
tell his sons to avenge him, not telling them

how. You’ve found another way
to stay afloat, like a crescent of lime
in icy claret, laid with your girl

whose death no one thought to avenge,
a way not to hear the cloister geese
hymn the virgin martyr Santa Eulalia,

the white doves hatched from her throat
pecking the ears of men
who tore her flesh with iron hooks,

torched her cornsilk hair, a way to prove
nothing at all, so like these human statues
poised for coins--gilt and kohl-rimmed

Cleopatra, cycling fly, Che in olive drab,
his thrust fist unfatigued – still lives so like
your own, lived hand to mouth,

one flash at a time. Let me
carry you off, in pixels, in a tiny silver box.

I was traveling in Barcelona when I received the sad news that my friend, the poet Saul Bennett, had just died; he had had a heart attack while taking a glass of water from the tap. I had two immediate thoughts. First, leave it to Saul to die standing up. Second, I knew that Saul would be buried with his beloved daughter, Sara, who died just as suddenly--but of an aneurysm and in her early twenties. Until his mid-sixties, Saul had been a Madison Avenue advertising executive; witty, charismatic and generous, he had spent decades living in Great Neck and commuting to New York. Sara's death changed all that. He abruptly retired, moved with his wife, Joan, to Woodstock, N.Y., and started to write poems. His first book,  ”New Fields and Other Stones,” both chronicled his grief and brought him back to life; through it, he was reborn as a poet. As I wandered down La Rambla, the pedestrian thoroughfare full of living statues and petshops, Saul wandered with me, along with his great loss--Sara--and his great choice--poetry. In the Cathedral, I was overwhelmed by a painting of the violent death of the virgin martyr Santa Eulalia; unlike the death of Wilfrid the Hairy, hers was, like Sara's, unavenged, perhaps unavengeable. Or perhaps Saul knew better; as understated and muted as his grieving poems are, they take a swipe at death and leave a mark. The poem is an elegy for both Saul and Sara, and an homage to his Saul's new life in art, "lived hand to mouth/one flash at a time."

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