Editor’s Note: In response to last week’s feature, Saturday Poetry Series favorites Erin Lyndal Martin and Elana Bell introduced me to two more fabulous mermaid poems. These poems have been swimming through my mind all week, and are too fantastic not to share. Get a taste here, then follow the links below to read each of these stunning poems in full.
from FABLE OF THE MERMAID AND THE DRUNKS
By Pablo Neruda, Translated by Paul Weinfield
But having come from the river, she understood nothing
She was a mermaid and was lost
Their insults flowed down her perfect, smooth flesh
Their filth enveloped her golden breasts
But not knowing tears, she did not weep tears
They think it is the young girls singing
you see, we pull them to us as smoothly
as oiled rope uncurls into golden braids.
It only takes a few minutes before everything
they see is woman. The pale skin of the sails
spreading like thighs, the thick knots
that tie the anchor turning to strands
of dampened hair held by a lover
before she shakes it free. The salt tastes
as sweet as sweat and soon the ship’s thrust
into the sea becomes unbearable.
This would be enough for galley slaves,
soldiers who tattoo fortunes on their scars,
the simple, parched sailors. But they are not
the ones we want. When we see the heroes
whose fierce deeds fall like hammers, we lay
aside our nocturne of desire. We sing instead
as a mother holds a dying child until
the horizon is the circle of our arms, the wind
a cloth wrapping them in its whisper, the waves
a gentle hush upon each creaking of the deck.
“Do not be afraid. You will be remembered and reborn.”
There is a cable and it reaches
from the side of loving kindness
to the cold window across the room
taking over the function of your heart
which is tired of trying to make blood
out of air. Some days it’s just too hard
to keep on lifting, to appear in a robe
which keeps on falling, exposing
all sorts of intimate matters and the
little whispers beneath. Do not worry.
You are the hand, the page, the white fire
and you cannot be erased. The black letters
will burn and sing and declare themselves
but they are nothing without your silence;
which is not the absence of words, empty
as the howl of a bowl, but the promise made
between all words before they are spoken,
that they will reach across the black lines
and know each other again, even
if they no longer recognize themselves.
LEAVING A NOTE AT THE WESTERN WALL
There is a splintered door leading
nowhere and a lot of women crying
today I can’t even get near the wall.
Luckily I have my own tricks.
I place my arm over a young girl’s shoulder,
sigh sympathetically as she bends
her head in prayer, then edge myself
into her space. Everyone wants to touch
God’s face, to press their forehead
against his slippery cheek and brush
the pitted marks beneath, thank you
for my eyes, my legs, my arms, my breath.
Herod did a good job, the ancient stones
hold solid. They outweigh the base
of the great pyramids and nothing moves
them, perhaps they are even held up
by pleading, since every crack is filled
with scraps of blue-lined paper, torn
index cards, a piece of yellow legal pad,
a folded napkin, sealed envelopes, airmail,
express, please, listen, thank you for my eyes,
my legs, my arms, my breath, excuse me,
a woman pushes past me, excuse me please,
when she reaches for the wall a handful
of notes loosen and fall at our feet.
The chair behind me is piled with prayers
as morning, evening and darkness
make their requests, songs from the sons
of Korach even though their father moans
in the earth thank you for my arms,
my legs, my eyes, my breath, women beg
the matriarchs and children press letters
into fists of stone while God sends back his answers
– No and no and no.
Olam, Shana, Nefesh: “‘Olam, Shana, Nefesh’ is a Kabbalistic phrase used to describe the three dimensions of Place, Time and Person. Olam is most commonly translated as ‘world.’ But in Hebrew olam comes from the root of the word ‘hidden.’ This implies that place always has an unrevealed element to it; that we are surrounded by a reality beyond what is immediately visible. Shana literally means ‘year.’ It invokes an image of repetition, re-visiting, return, a never -ending cycle of months. In the Jewish calendar time is not a passive backdrop to human endeavor, but an active force whose windows of opportunity open and close, blossom and die just like the seasons. Nefesh can be translated as ‘person’ but it refers to the spirit as well as the body; the infusion of the divine into the physical. This is an inherently volatile combination, since a human being always contains a push and pull between the material and the spiritual, the body with its appetites and fears and the spirit. This is ‘person’ as the container of the animal and the divine.” – From Olam, Shana, Nefesh (Finishing Line Press, 2014)
Jane Medved is the poetry editor of the Ilanot Review, the on-line literary magazine of Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv. Her chapbook, Olam, Shana, Nefesh, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2014. Her recent essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Lilith Magazine, Mudlark, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly and New American Writing. A native of Chicago, Illinois, she has lived for the last 25 years in Jerusalem, Israel.
Editor’s Note:Olam, Shana, Nefesh is an absolutely stunning collection. A rare assortment of meditations on myth and history, religion, spirituality, sensuality, gender and place. The questions posed are epic, the answers as small and as critical as breath. The poems themselves are absolutely gorgeous in their own right; lyric delights that any reader would feel indulgent slipping into, with moments like “The salt tastes / as sweet as sweat and soon the ship’s thrust // into the sea becomes unbearable,” “The black letters // will burn and sing and declare themselves / but they are nothing without your silence,” and “Everyone wants to touch / God’s face.” But this book is even more rewarding for those readers familiar with the rich landscapes the poems call and respond to. How rewarding is “Sirens” for those well-versed in Greek mythology, how brilliant “White Fire” for those who know and love midrash, and how masterful “Leaving a Note at the Western Wall” for students of religion and history, for Jewish women, for those who have been to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, who have “press[ed] their forehead[s]/ against [God’s] slippery cheek and brush[ed] / the pitted marks beneath, [saying] thank you / for my eyes, my legs, my arms, my breath.”
The baby carriage on top of the roof is too much. The husband says to his wife, it has to end here. Years before they were in love, the kind of love that was quiet but infectious. The kind of love that made their friends feel all the complexities of love with great jealousy and excitement. Now, the baby carriage is on the roof again, even though he brought it back inside just yesterday, after 13 hours of work at the shed. He was driving home when he saw it – navy blue with periwinkle-ruffled trim.
She sewed that trim herself. He remembered her pregnancy, her sewing. She made sure the detail was just right for their little boy. Her friends all said ooh and ahh and complimented her dedication and creativity. He remembers being proud of his wife, how that pride filled him, heated him up and up where the atmosphere was tempered by a soft breeze.
When they lost the blue baby she held him close. She sang him the lullabies she practiced late at night when she couldn’t sleep. She put him in the carriage and showed him off to the other mothers in the ward. And after even that, she did not want to let her blue baby go. Friends and family were worried. She sang lullabies all the time.
One day, her husband came home to a dozen watermelons swaddled in a bright cerulean celestial covered fabric. Our blue baby is safest at night. His wife put her head against the cloth of one melon. She looked bright. Sweet boy, she sang, dissolving into the fabric. And he thought that was enough, this tone, this textile. That she could be happy with this.
I hold my wedding dress tight,
the bottom, like tissue paper
prepped for plastering to a mannequin.
All the other brides, too,
hold white birds
against their thighs.
When we get to the altar,
the men pour forth.
They step up, one by one,
and point to a dress. A dress!
The man then opens his mouth,
and a bride crawls right inside it.
None of the brides are terrified,
but I can’t help but be disturbed.
These are swallowed women,
women that cling to rhinestones,
while layers of organza and silks
sway with an effortlessness numb.
When a man chooses me
I blush, but try not to.
He grabs my hand, lifting me
to the altar. I know what’s next,
I know I must get in position
and drop the dress so the train
makes a trail of feathers. I do.
What happens inside the mouth?
Nothing! A dark wet corridor
leads to another dark wet corridor.
I find a cool bench and listen
to his echoing thoughts.
I love this man, I begin feeling
and then saying out loud.
Where are the others?
Where are the glistening waistlines
that so briskly walked down
aisles before me? History?
I search my own wet echoes.
Hello, is this thing on?
Jaimie Gusman’s work has appeared in The Feminist Wire, Moss Trill, Sonora Review, B O D Y, Trout, Mascara Review, Unshod Quills, LOCUSPOINT, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Hearing Voices, Hawaii Women’s Journal, Tinfish Press, Spork Press, Shampoo, Juked, Barnwood, DIAGRAM, and others. She is the 2015 Rita Dove Poetry Prize winner, and has three chapbooks: Gertrude’s Attic (Vagabond Press, 2014), The Anyjar (Highway 101 Press, 2011), and One Petal Row (Tinfish Press, 2011). She lives and works in Kaaawa, HI.
Editor’s Note: What I love about today’s poems is the stories they tell. The lives–both inner and outer–they reveal. Stories reminiscent of beloved favorites like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Story of an Hour.” Brimming with social commentary and strong with the struggles we don’t always speak of, these are the stories that must be told. And how brave, moving, and enchanting they are when Jaimie Gusman tells them.
ST. EUGENIA DECLARES HER ALLEGIANCES
By Sara Biggs Chaney
The girl said: I am not skin,
She said: I am not spoke,
My rib bones, how they burn
for the Son.
For Him, I will suffer
this harmonic ache–
I will pin my maiden head,
a moth wing,
I will bear the shames
of a thousand men,
I will wear the hands
of a healer.
Today’s poem was originally published in Thrush and appears here today with permission from the poet.
Sara Biggs Chaney received her Ph.D. in English in 2008 and currently teaches first-year and upper-level writing in Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Her most recent chapbook, Ann Coulter’s Letter to the Young Poets, was released from dancing girl press in November, 2014. Sara’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO, Sugar House Review, [PANK], Juked, and elsewhere. You can catch up with Sara at sarabiggschaney.com.
Editor’s Note: Today’s poem, like the famous Walt Whitman quote, contains multitudes. Relaying an epic history in a few swift couplets, the interplay between referentiality and alliteration is as precise as it appears effortless. Discreet moments—brilliant vignettes—are carefully pieced together to reveal the story of a life: “The girl said: I am not skin, / but sackcloth;” “I will bear the shames / of a thousand men, // I will wear the hands / of a healer.” As readers, we are as transported by the world of the poem as we are transformed.