Sometimes the world forces us to stop for a moment, to be still, reflect. Maybe it’s the holidays. Maybe it’s being sick in bed. Today, for me, it’s both.
For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my very early attempts at writing. The first time a teacher vaguely complimented a poem I wrote was in high school. Mr. Larry Scanlon. The poem was about a tree that had been cut down outside our house. He told me I should keep writing, but I didn’t, not for years.
I took a creative writing class during undergrad, but it wasn’t my time. I barely did the assignments, and might have slipped away with a B. I’m sure the teacher wouldn’t have guessed that I would keep writing, let alone make a life of it. I wouldn’t have guessed that, either.
Only a few years later, during my MA, did I start to feel a calling towards poetry, reading it, studying it, writing it. It was in this period that I took another workshop, and the teacher, Rivka, in a typical blunt, Israeli way, told me that most of the poems I’d written were “not really poems.”
I remember feeling stung and confused, but as a teacher myself now, I know it’s crucial to tell students the truth about where they’re at. It’s easy to give out As, but then the students who will turn that criticism over a hundred times, and use it to improve, won’t have the chance to do so.
However, Rivka did say that one of the pieces was a poem, or at least, more like a poem.
A Brilliant Fish
We must choose each other
again and again.
The feeling is a brilliant fish
you catch a thousand times.
We must carry each other
like smooth stones
in the palms of our hands –
a familiar feel,
I took this piece home and studied it. What made it different? Though it’s far from perfect, she probably saw a general cohesion, and that the language and meaning reinforced one another better than in the others.
The poem continues to ring true in my life, I think.
Here is “A Brilliant Fish” translated to Hebrew by Gili Haimovich in YNET.
Here is the poem translated to French in the “Taut” collection by Sabine Huynh.
Un poisson moiré
Se choisir l’un l’autre, s’y reprendre
à plusieurs fois.
Cet émoi ressenti face à un poisson moiré
qu’on pourrait attraper des milliers de fois.
tels des galets lisses
dans le creux de la paume –
So I’ve been writing new poems, with some (yay) forthcoming in the Yew Journal.
I’ve been wondering if these poems are going to end up part of THE BOOK. Perhaps I’ve been writing them for the book without even realizing it. That can be an effective way of working – avoiding the pressure of setting goals.
I have review essays in the works, which will hopefully be appearing over the next few months.
I received proofs for a research article on Muriel Rukeyser and Walt Whitman, which is forthcoming in Studies in American Jewish Literature.
On Gili Haimovich’s new Poetry International site, her work is featured and my translations are up there as well.
Gili is now choosing some poems of mine to translate into Hebrew.
There are other projects, as usual, on the horizon.
I don’t know why I’m feeling nostalgic. I suppose, in this moment of forced stillness, with the new year days away, I’m putting some love out there for this work I do, for the privilege of being part of a dialogue with poets and writers, along with all the successes and disappointments. The work has been a tremendous blessing in my life. I’m grateful to Rivka for telling it like it was.
What is anyone to do? Just keep on.
I recently had a poem, “At Least Forward Now,” in Ha’aretz English. With many thanks to Vivian Eden, who selected it, brought up an important edit, and gave it context with her commentary. And to the writers in my workshop who helped me fix it!
At Least Forward Now
A human being can bear almost everything
and no one knows when and where
happiness will overcome him.
– From “Wonder,” by Tuvia Ruebner
I’m on the subway,
and everyone is staring at the gray floor,
as if in mourning
for what’s lost under the tracks.
I’m reading a poem that’s insisting
on happiness, grasping for it,
saying happiness finds you,
despite wars, illness,
and the world’s unforgivingness.
I don’t believe the poem, because we’ve stopped
at a station that seems to be no one’s.
Then the doors are inches from closing,
and a man makes it through,
turns his face upward, moving
towards a destination,
below ground, yes, but not beneath
the ground, at least
at least in motion.
* Translation of Tuvia Ruebner by Rachel Tzvia Back