SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: MOTHERHOOD POETRY


"Arab Motherhood" by Georges Sabbagh, c. 1920. Public domain image.

“Arab Motherhood” by Georges Sabbagh, c. 1920. Public domain image.



Editor’s Note: In honor of Mother’s Day, I have gathered together some of my favorite poems that I’ve featured on this series over the years that consider motherhood from a plethora of perspectives, for motherhood is such a multi-faceted experience. From the perspective of the child: memories of mothers, good mothers, bad mothers, absent mothers, mothers we have lost. From the perspective of the mother, of the would-be-mother, of the once-was mother: pregnancy and childbirth, love and fear of and for our children, the kind of mother we are or are not, the kind of mother we want to be, the children we never had, the children we have lost.

Today’s selection is in honor of motherhood itself and its many faces, in honor of that imperative person without whom none of us would exist and who–for better or worse–so deeply affects who we come to be.

Today’s post is dedicated to my own mother, who has always been one of my most dedicated readers and faithful supporters, who has shaped my being from zygote through womanhood, and whose legacy as mother takes on its newest incarnation on this, my first Mother’s Day as a mother.


Mother, I’m trying
to write
a poem to you

which is how most
poems to mothers must
begin—or, What I’ve wanted
to say, Mother
…but we
as children of mothers,
even when mothers ourselves,

cannot bear our poems
to them.

–Erin Belieu,
“Another Poem for Mothers”



MOTHERHOOD POETRY
FROM THE SATURDAY POETRY SERIES ARCHIVES:

“Elegy for a Mother, Still Living” by Elana Bell

“Cultiver Son Potager / Growing Vegetables” by Dara Barnat; translated by Sabine Huynh

“Prayers Like Shoes” by Ruth Forman

“We Speak of August” by Valentina Gnup

State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies by Alexis Rhone Fancher

“A Poem for Women Who Don’t Want Children” by Chanel Brenner

“Baby” by Jaimie Gusman

“Psalm to Be Read While My Daughter Considers Mary” by Nicole Rollender

Hemisphere by Ellen Hagan

“Labor Pantoum” by Leslie Contreras Schwartz

“Depression” by Terri Kirby Erickson

“Dinner for the Dying” by Jen Lambert

Decency by Marcela Sulak

Little Spells by Jennifer K. Sweeney

“The Invention of Amniocentesis” by Jen Karetnick

“The Sadness of Young Mothers” by Richard D’Abate

“Mom’s Cocks” by Jenna Le

“The Balance” by Danusha Laméris

“The Committee Weighs In” by Andrea Cohen

“Mother-In-Law” by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

“Change of Address” by Ruth Deborah Rey



Want to read more Mother’s Day poems?
Mother’s Day poetry from the Academy of American Poets
Poetry about mothers from the Academy of American Poets

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: DECENCY


Decency


From DECENCY
By Marcela Sulak:


selections from SOLIDARITY

vi. Virginity

It’s not that you get tired, it’s that it starts to be the only thing,
starts to disappear you.

Your parents phone you at college to ask: how is your virginity
doing? Did your virginity have a good day?

What does it want to be when it grows up? Your virginity sounds
a little sad this morning. What kind of cake does your virginity want

for its birthday? your girlfriends saw the most amazing shoes
that your virginity would look terrific in!

Want to go shopping? your boyfriends—would your virginity like to see
a movie? What about dinner?


ix. witches

My daughter is named for my grandmother, a midwife
who attended the births of 90 babies in rural Texas

before they had cars and after they finished having witches
but before there were doctors. Now you may understand

what I mean when I say another woman
gave my daughter a book called “The witches and the rabbi”

for her birthday. Here is the plot: a village is terrorized by a plague
of witches who fly from their cave when the moon is full,

on brooms through the sky except when it’s raining. I’m not sure
what the witches actually do to the village, since no one

actually goes outside on those nights. Gary, Indiana, could use
an infestation of witches—no stabbings

or gunshot wounds on evenings of full moons.
But one full moon when it is raining the rabbi shows up

with twenty townsmen. The witches
are so delighted they make them a feast of all the good things

they have. The rabbi tricks them into dancing with him and
the vigilante men, out into the rain,

which kills them. I knew her father’s mother was secretly
glad when I started to hemorrhage. She didn’t want me

to have a homebirth with a midwife.
“What kind of rabbis are these?”

Says my rabbi, stopped by for a quick hello. My daughter
wanted to show him that we had a book about rabbis. “They’re

engaging the poor witches
in mixed dancing and leading them astray,” he says.

This is the broom which sweeps the sky of the stars you have
to be too drunk to write about, as Daisy put it.

This is the housework the princesses do disguised
as village maidens. These are the constellations that form

in the shadow of the stars.
Silent are the women in the village

who took their cloth packets of herbs and were silent
when their husbands rushed off to kill the witches in that story.



CHOCOLATE

The day I won the custody case my lawyer gave me a bitter chocolate
in black and silver paper. Once I saw cacao pods
drying in a Venezuelan village square

during Easter week; through the open church doors, peeling saints sniffed
        and were carried
like colicky children through night streets. The local hot chocolate
was thickened with cornmeal and canella bark

somebody tore from the trees. To reach that village we found a fisherman,
        plowed
through rows of porpoises, then hiked five kilometers
inland through banana and cocoa trees,

which like shade. Once only men could drink
chocolate. Women were permitted cacao beans as currency,
to buy meat or slaves or pay tribute. It feels good to imagine a single seed,

hidden in the forbidden mouth, the tongue
curled, gathering the strength to push. The Aztec king discarded
each gold-hammered cup after its initial use; his chocolate was red as fresh
        blood.

He was a god to them. It was frothy,
poured from great heights. When we bathed in the village river, girls
gathered around me, whispering, why is your skin so pale? Why is your
        hair so straight?

Can we braid it? Dime, eres blanca?
The judge, our lawyers, her father, and I decided the fate
of my child. The dark liquid we poured was ink, initialing our little
        negotiations.

Who can know the heart of another, the blood
spiced with memory, poured from one generation to the next
over great distances? The Mayan word for chocolate means bitter. The
        village

used to be a plantation; now it is a co-operative, owned by descendants
of the former slaves. At Easter Vigil the women lined up
behind the most beautiful, in a long sky

-blue dress adorned with gold stars. Between the decades of the rosary she
        called out,
while we shuffled our feet in merengue beat, bearing the saints
through the streets, someone shot off a Roman

candle. The men’s procession paused for rum. I know I’ll be paying for it
        the rest
of my life. The Mayan word means bitter water. The cacao
tree was uprooted from paradise.



HOW TO USE A NAPKIN

Understand the napkin
has been unnecessary
for most of human history.

Understand the world is filled with people
eager to bend
things to their will.
We shall practice on the napkin.
When you have finished eating
place your napkin loosely
next to your plate
.

It should not be crumpled or twisted,
which would reveal untidiness or nervousness;
nor should it be folded,

which might be seen as an implication
that you think your hosts
might reuse it without washing
.
.
It is a delicate affair.
Don’t argue with me
said my husband

who had called for my advice
about the apartment he was renting
when he didn’t want to live with me.

It is largely
symbolic today
except for barbecues.
Lightly dab the lips.

I suspect the word
argue is the space
in the mouth for things
to come apart in.

The napkin must not be left
on the chair, it might seem
as if you have an inappropriately

dirty napkin to hide
or even that you are trying
to run off with the table linens.

It takes great trust
to use a napkin.
It takes an act
of faith to leave
the table.



Today’s poems are from Decency (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), copyright © 2015 by Marcela Sulak, and appear here today with permission from the poet.



Decency: Poetry. Jewish Studies. Women’s Studies. Decency celebrates the spunky wenches, the unfortunate queens, the complicated translators, the wistful wives who have been hustled off the spotlit stages of history. Through the lens of Victorian manuals of etiquette, through the unfolding of religion from the Middle East to the American Southwest, Decency thinks through the brutal things we do to one another, recording the ways the individual operates in relation to society’s mores and harms. From the Sumerian queen Puabi to contemporary female recruits to the Israeli intelligence’s “Honeytrap” operation, Decency is a mix of the documentary and the lyrical, the wrathful and the joyful.


Marcela Sulak‘s poetry collections include Decency (2015) and Immigrant (2010), both with Black Lawrence Press. She’s translated four collections of poetry from the Czech and French, and, most recently, the Hebrew: Orit Gidali’s Selected Poems: Twenty Girls to Envy Me (University of Texas Press, July 2016). She’s co-edited the 2015 Rose Metal Press title Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Sulak directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. ​​


Editor’s Note: If there is a question driving the poems in Marcela Sulak’s sophomore collection, it is a question of the ways in which we are and are not decent to one another. As individuals and as countries. As intimates and strangers. Both within and across the (real or artificial) divides of race, creed, culture, and nationality. Sulak pursues the answers to this question with the keen eye of an academic and a researcher, then relays her observations and discoveries with the skilled and deliberate abandon of an artist. These questions of decency are considered and depicted through the lenses of history, relationship, and etiquette. The result is a brave yet dainty collection. A powerful yet vulnerable collage. A work that charms the reader with its quaintness so that its harsh truths and difficult revelations go down like chocolate–bitter yet sweet, delicate yet bold.

Among the many long poems in this collection is one that stopped me in my tracks when I heard the poet read it aloud at the book’s New York launch last year. “Solidarity” is a stunning inquiry into rape–its ramifications and its afterlife and the endless experiences that collide with sexual violence in concentric circles. Today, for example, are Sulak’s reflections on misogyny and witch hunts, virginity and agency. Of virginity she writes, “It’s not that you get tired, it’s that it starts to be the only thing, / starts to disappear you.” Determined that her daughter know the truth about the history of hysteria, misogyny, and women healers, she considers witches through the skewed twin lenses of history and scaremongering: “Silent are the women in the village // who took their cloth packets of herbs and were silent / when their husbands rushed off to kill the witches in that story.” If I could have, I would have reprinted this long poem in its entirety. But then, you really ought to buy the book so that you can read this breathtaking work for yourself.

Throughout this masterful collection the poet’s own experiences are coupled with the larger lenses of the book–history and etiquette, for example–so that what is gleaned by the reader is at once deeply personal and delightfully educational. “The day I won the custody case my lawyer gave me a bitter chocolate,” Sulak writes of her unique experience, then later, in the same poem, writes of the history of chocolate: “Once only men could drink / chocolate. Women were permitted cacao beans as currency, / to buy meat or slaves or pay tribute.” Yet these ideas are not disparate; they are finely woven together by the poet’s skilled hand. The genius of this interrelation is beautifully evidenced by moments like this, in a poem that appears to be about the history of the napkin, but is equally about the poet’s leaving her husband: “It takes great trust / to use a napkin. / It takes an act / of faith to leave / the table.” The art of the poem–like the collection that houses it–is enriched beyond experience and information by a powerful lyric: “It feels good to imagine a single seed, // hidden in the forbidden mouth, the tongue / curled, gathering the strength to push.”


Want to see more from Marcela Sulak?
Marcela Sulak Official Website
“Jerusalem” in the Cortland Review
Decency” and “Raspberry” in Haaretz
Buy Decency from Black Lawrence Press, Book Depository, or Amazon

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: MARCELA SULAK

me.avoda str
By Marcela Sulak:

THE CASTING OF LOTS

1.

Dear Ahasuerus, it is eleven-thirty am and my number is one hundred and eighty-six. I feel the lack of communion striving for a higher purpose in this government assistance office, and it is beyond sadness and feet and the distance of aircraft and tires and inner-tubes on turgid rivers in midsummer with aluminum cans of beer. It’s not just the ones who pick discarded numbers from the floor and say they missed their turn. The flower-selling prepubescent children sniffing glue in paper bags outside the margins of the magazine I’m reading remind me of the laundry I hung up that must be dry by now, filled as they are with warmth and wings and snapping.

This office is a fine line. The wind from the open window rustles the pages of my magazine, pumps the lungs of paper bags, lifts the plastic shopping sacks discarded in the fields, fills the vacant sheets.

When God withdraws, we all must breathe a little harder.

2.

Are these hosts the kind of people who refrigerate red wine? I wasn’t breastfed, I smelled different. I never learned to desire consolation prizes. The water hisses from the tap, sliced by the tips of lettuce leaves. The cut-crystal conversation turns on the tiniest incisions. So little of it is about you, you have to address yourself as one of your second persons. At the click of one of our host’s glances, each woman at the table presses forward, like a bullet into the chamber. It goes without saying, this is how I see myself among the women, Dear Ahasuerus, you fuck.

3.

One of the trafficked prostitutes in the Tel Aviv shelter always carries a book with her. When she’s fucked up she reads it upside down. It’s a best seller, a thriller, a romance, so it doesn’t really matter the order of the events. She can describe them in detail afterwards, which she’ll do for you when you ask about her life.



HEBREW LESSONS: LESHALEM
To pay, to bring to a conclusion, bring to perfection, to make peace.

i.

I am not a piece
of cake—sometimes
the eternal á
la mode, which is
to say, I am
your mouth, not your whole
mouth, just the part
that, when full, worries
about its next meal.

ii.

The eggs must first come
to room temperature,
which is to say for
everything there is
time. While the cotton
opened white fists at her
window, one by one
my grandmother beat
six eggs by hand till
they were stiff. The hands
of the kitchen clock
tapped each fat minute,
the ready spoon curved.
The frothy batter
she poured herself into
the tube pan steadied itself
in the wood-fueled oven
and lifted. Those who ate
a single bite were filled
with an inexplicable
happiness. Sometimes
that was enough.


(Today’s poems originally appeared in The Bakery, and appear here today with permission from the poet.)

Marcela Sulak is the author of two collections of poetry and has translated three collections of poetry from the Czech Republic and Congo-Zaire. Her essays appear in The Iowa Review, Rattle, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, where she is senior lecturer in American Literature.

Editor’s Note: While living and working in Israel for the fall semester I have become inspired by the local English-speaking writing community, as well as the plethora of work being done in translation. I hope to be able to share some of the gems the local writers and translators are creating here with you on this series, beginning today with Marcela Sulak.

Of course I am interested in Sulak’s work, in part, because of its biblical interests and midrashic tendencies. Ahasuerus, for instance, from today’s first piece, was a Persian king and husband of Queen Esther. He chose Esther for his queen after kicking out his first wife, Queen Vashti, for refusing to display herself naked before his guests. The process of choosing Esther as Vashti’s predecessor was more like a casting call; all of the eligible virgins were gathered together, put through months of rigorous beauty rituals, then paraded around for Ahasuerus to choose his favorite from among them. Today, Sulak’s bent on this tale has her channeling these young women on display, noting the lack of communion among women under such competitive circumstances. Sulak eloquently sums up the experience: “It goes without saying, this is how I see myself among the women, Dear Ahasuerus, you fuck.”

But beyond the biblical explorations lie moments of brilliant lyric and philosophy. Moments that stop you dead in your tracks: “When God withdraws, we all must breathe a little harder,” “I am / your mouth, not your whole / mouth, just the part / that, when full, worries / about its next meal,” “which is to say for / everything there is / time.” Sulak’s is writing that considers the historical, the human, and the astronomical through the lens of the day-to-day. Her vivid imagery brings to life the scenes she paints, while the ideas she plants take the reader from the microscopic to the telescopic.

Want to read more by and about Marcela Sulak?
Marcela Sulak’s Official Website
Guernica Mag
Drunken Boat
The Cortland Review
Verse Daily