By Marcela Sulak:
selections from SOLIDARITY
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?
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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