Thursday, February 16, 2017

With Her Own Hands

from her new home
in her new town
my friend describes the fruit trees
in her back yard

when she's hungry
(she writes)
she picks an apple
or a pear
sometimes both —
with her own hands

i can hear the excitement in her head
as she puts these words on paper —
she underlines them

she imagines this makes the fruit sweeter
and for all i know
it does

i always thought anything my grandma made
with her own hands
was better than anything i made
better even than what
my mother made

a sandwich let's say
layer upon layer
of cheese tomato lettuce

or best of all
French toast
both sides dipped in milky egg
fried and flipped and fried some more

grandma's hands pat-patting the bread
here and here and here
as it browned

okay my friend has pear trees
and she loves the fruit
and i am happy to receive her letter

the envelope has
a postage stamp
i haven't seen before

no one in my entire city has used this stamp yet

and i like this friend
i really do
i like her so much

i'm happy to think of her
lifting her hands to
pull down fruit from trees
in her very own backyard

but now i have to
put on my boots
and my hat
and my gloves

(where is my scarf?

didn't i put it in my coat pocket?
why isn't it there?)

it's time to go out
with the yellow-handled shovel
and move snow from one side
of the sidewalk to the other

i don't want to think about my friend's
warm sun-speckled hands
picking fruit

but i do want to think about
my grandma
and the French toast

the way she cut it into squares
arranging them neatly on a small round plate

her right hand
moving everything closer to me

her left hand resting
just for a second
on top of my head

Saturday, January 21, 2017

January 21, 2017 .... 10,000 people march and gather in Ithaca, NY

Today I had the honor of marching in downtown Ithaca, with HORDES OF BEAUTIFUL HUMANS, followed by speaking/reading at the magnificent rally on the Commons. For all my friends who could not be there in person, if you want to know what I said . . . read on.

Hello all you beautiful people. I'm Zee Zahava and I've been invited to read a poem to you, as the current Poet Laureate for Tompkins County.

First I'd like to share a quote by a woman who was known as the Warrior Poet, the lesbian activist Elsa Gidlow. She said: “We must envision the world we want, make it so real in our hearts that it already exists.... "

People all over the country are doing that today, right now, envisioning the world we want. A world where we stand with our sisters and brothers, with respect and compassion, with fire in our hearts and in our bellies. THIS is real.

When I came into the women's movement, the feminist movement, in the early 1970s, books were a life-line for us. Words we read on the page provided context, they shaped us. Over the years, poets like Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, Sonia Sanchez, and so many others, offered a new vocabulary, a way of thinking about ourselves in the world. And there was the book Our Bodies, Ourselves — life-affirming, life-changing. When women talk about our bodies, when we claim the right to own our own bodies …. that is radical.

A while ago I wrote a poem, it's really just a long list, a collection of associations that popped up at a particular time. If I wrote it today, it would have different words. If YOU wrote a poem like this, YOU would choose different words. It is a good thing, I think, to consider not only what our bodies are, but also what they are not.  

My Body, My Self

my body is not    a tree   an old sock   an accordion

it is not  a railroad track   a second-hand car
or a shiny new penny

my body is not    burnt toast   a splinter   a false alarm

it is not     a loose button   a loose tooth  or a loose cannon

it is not     a see-saw    a tornado    a thimble  

my body is not a lie

my body is not     a barbie doll   or   a heavy metal band 

it is not     a girl scout troop   a pocket knife   a silk kimono

my body is not X-rated

it is not    a puppet   a ripe melon   a map    or a metaphor

it does not  sky dive  play hide and seek  or jump rope

my body is not     pink, petite, polite, or punctual

it is not     on call    checked-out    over-due    assigned
resigned   or re-designed

my body is not     abandoned or under construction

my body is not     grammatical    it is not well-punctuated

my body is not     poetic

my body is not     over

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Coming to Ithaca

Yesterday, January 17, I had the great honor of being named the 2017 Tompkins County Poet Laureate, by the T. C. Board of Representatives. I read this poem at their meeting, and I want to share it here, but I must add this: as with much of my prose, this poem is true but not 100%. I do embellish a bit. I call this kind of writing Family Fiction. I say this now because I would never want to cause any pain to my parents!!!!!!!!!!! I love them so very very much. They have always been incredibly good to me. But I use them as "characters" and I put words in their mouths. So if you know my beloved Eve and Mort, forgive me my exaggerations. It probably only took us 8 hours to get to Ithaca, but 9 is a better number in a poem!

the first drive from the bronx to ithaca took 9 hours

dad was a nervous driver, stopped at every gas station
and scenic overlook

he needed to stretch   smoke   pee   worry

what he worried about was me
his oldest daughter leaving home

he never heard of the place
insisted on calling it "that ishtaka"

mile after mile   hour after hour   he fretted and fumed

every time he saw a peace sign on a bumper sticker
he said "damn it"

i was crammed into the back seat of the green dodge dart
surounded by suitcases   typewriter   stereo  my guitar

i couldn't move   i couldn't breathe

my father's fear and anger took up so much space

my mother, sitting beside him
kept turning around to look at me
her eyes asking  "honey, are you alright?"

my eyes asking "will we ever get there?"

at last we got there   we found quarry dorm
my father couldn't believe it

"where is the college? 
who do i have to see to get you
into a real dorm?"

i loved it at first sight   an outpost refuge 
far from the campus

i said "this is perfect for me, daddy"
mom said "this is perfect for her, morty"

my room was large   there was a window
and outside the window   there was a tree

a tree!
it felt like i was in paradise

mom went down the hall to the bathroom
when she returned she was beaming
"there are 6 stalls," she said, "you will never have to wait"

my parents sat on my bed watching me unpack
we were waiting for my roommate to arrive
she was coming from winnetka, illinois

my father didn't like the sound of that
"oh morty," mom sighed "the girl can't help it,
she didn't ask to be born in the midwest, you know"

inside my head a silent chant
leave leave leave leave please will you just leave

finally   they did   they left

and i stayed

that was september, 1968

i am still here

Friday, January 6, 2017

My Yetta

(I was thinking about my Grandma Yetta today and decided to share this again, even though it appeared on the blog once before)

There is always a wooden bowl on the kitchen table, filled with bananas, apples, oranges, walnuts. There is a nut cracker in the bowl as well. I never see anyone use the nut cracker or eat a nut, we are not that kind of family. Grandma must have read somewhere that nuts and fruits go well together. Sometimes the bananas remain in the bowl too long and they get soft and stinky.

She smells like books borrowed from the small public library down the block, and inexpensive tablets of writing paper for making lists and writing letters to her sisters. The sisters live nearby in the Bronx, except Anna-from-Elizabeth who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Helen is a five minute walk away and Pauline can be reached with a short bus ride. And also, there is the telephone. But the sisters enjoy writing letters and they all have the same handwriting. Yes, she smells faintly of ink. If I lick her, her skin  will release a sweet glueyness left over from envelope flaps and postage stamps.

She has the softest skin. I can sit beside her and rub that tender flap between her thumb and pointer finger and never get tired of it, and she goes into a little trance herself and doesn't shoo me away. One time she catches me staring at the folds of skin hanging loosely from her upper arms and she gets shy and says "don't look" but then she says okay, I can touch, and it feels like warm buttery velvet.

If I am ever sitting on a chair with my legs spread far apart she will catch my eye and then I remember to put my knees together and cross my legs at the ankles and she doesn't have to say a word, I just know.

This is a story she likes to tell: Long ago there was a famous Russian stage actress who was being interviewed for a newspaper and the rude reporter said "Excuse me —— " (insert name of famous Russian actress here) "but do you know your mouth is open?" And the famous Russian actress said "Of course I do, I opened it." I don't understand why this is such a good story but every time she tells it she laughs long and hard.

She has a wonderful laugh.

Our favorite famous American actress is Loretta Young.

When I am reading My Antonia for tenth grade English class she goes to the library and checks out a copy for herself and we read it out loud to each other. She likes Willa Cather but mostly she prefers the writers from her early years: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekov, Tolstoy. She recites long passages of Tolstoy in Russian, from memory, and it sounds like she is singing. 

We go together to hear Odetta perform in a high school auditorium in another neighborhood where we don't know anybody. She loves the name Odetta, maybe it reminds her of Odessa, a word/place/memory from her past. At the end of every song she claps, and on the bus ride home she says she especially liked how Odetta's voice is low and deep, like a man's voice.

She has a deep voice and strangers on the telephone often call her Sir.

We go to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and another time we see The Pawnbroker. We cry at the end of both movies. We always have at least one handkerchief within easy reach. We are always prepared.

She keeps two large boxes of tissues on the dressing table: a full, new one on top of an empty old one. After she uses a tissue she puts it into the bottom box, to keep everything sanitary, and I think this is a very smart thing to do.

She has a haphazard collection of silver hair clips but she does not call it a collection. Some are ordinary bobby pins and some are more complicated than that. She wants her hair to be "neat and manageable" which is something she heard on a television commercial. There is always a tube of Alberto VO5 on her dressing table. In her later years she gets her hair cut by a barber because it's more convenient than going to a women's beauty parlor, but she doesn't like the style, it's too short, too blunt. "I don't want to fuss," she says, "a woman my age has no business being vain." (I know it bothers her a lot to get such bad haircuts.)

There is a sound, one sound, an important sound: it is the sound of Grandma in the kitchen, chopping. There is a wooden bowl, much like the fruit and nut bowl, but larger and heavier. She uses a sharp blade with a red handle to make gefilte fish, which doesn't taste very good and requires a lot of hard, noisy work with little reward. She is busy chopping, every Friday afternoon, because what is Friday night dinner without homemade gefilte fish on the table?

There is another sound, a softer sound, a more beautiful sound. It's  the sound of Grandma humming, always humming, every minute humming. Her wordless songs, her never-ending prayer to God, though she never says the word God, not even God bless you if I sneeze. Gesundheit, she says, interrupting her humming and then, in the next breath, returning to it again.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Why Snakes are Long and Skinny (revisted)

Long, long ago, when the grass was greener and the sky was bluer and the lakes were cleaner than they are today — long, long ago —  snakes were round.
They were as soft and round as meatballs. They rolled up and down the hills, hither and yither, and when they were tired they gathered in little clumps of snake-balls to gossip and giggle and sing together.
Sometimes Pooleeporkies would come along, pick up a soft ball of a snake, and play catch with it.

You know what a Pooleeporkie is, don’t you? One of those enormous purple and green creatures with pink beady eyes and snorting snouts  . . .

What? You’ve never heard of a Pooleeporkie?

Too bad.
Anyway, one day, two Pooleeporkies were playing catch with a particularly squishy, mushy snake — let’s call her Lucille — when all of a sudden Lucille started to recite a poem.
Maybe I forgot to tell you that snakes, back in the days when they were soft and smooshy, were wonderful poets. The thing is, until that fateful day they had never let the Pooleeporkies know it. It was all a well-kept secret until Lucille got confused and spilled the beans.
The two Pooleeporkies were mighty impressed by this poetry-spouting snake.  They wanted to take Lucille home with them so they could listen to her poems anytime at all.
Mishka, the older Pooleeporkie, pulled Lucille toward him. But then Pishka, the younger one, pulled Lucille toward him
I think you can guess what happened next.

There was pulling and tugging and pulling and yanking and pulling and stretching and pulling and pulling and pulling.

And before you could say onomatopoeia, Lucille lost all her lovely roundness.

Now she was l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-n-g and skinny. She didn’t look anything like a meatball anymore. She looked more like a strand of spaghetti.

Poor Lucille.
Ever since that day, snakes have been long and skinny.

And also silent.
Whatever poetry they know, they keep it to themselves.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bengal Spice Tea

This poem was inspired by the painting "Device Circle" by Jasper Johns (it has a lot of red in it) and by snippets of poems from "The Rain in Portugal," by Billy Collins

at ten past twelve
on the reddest day of the year
bundled in layers to ward off winter

you and i
head down a snowy path

it is our choice
no one is making us do this
we go willingly but not

we do it because
it's supposed to be good for us
even in the cold
even if we hate it

we call it trudging
the way we move
one short step at a time

we are not in a hurry
we never hurry
we say we are too old to hurry

ten past twelve
a good time to set out
morning chores behind us
the heart of the afternoon right here
surrounding us

later we will have tea
and buttered toast
we might shell pistachios
i wonder if there are any figs left

that is in the land of future-maybe
and we are practicing being in the

the present-now that shifts
second by second
so if either of us checked our watch
(which we do not)
we would see that it is no longer
10 past 12

it is 15 or maybe even 20
minutes beyond noon

noon is just a memory

now is the cold air of this moment
the wind burning your eyes
my fingertips cold
though i had high hopes for these new gloves

you will not wear a scarf
you simply will not
but you do own a hat with ear-flaps
and you are wearing it

i wear a sweater
and a vest
under my coat

i waddle
you are more sure-footed
not quite as layered

you don't complain that i complain
i have not stopped complaining
since we left the house

i don't mention that you are sniffling
and not using a hankie

i say
we are two odd ducks

you laugh
you don't quack
though i suspect you want to

it is too cold to quack
a quack would freeze midway
in the air between us

when we get to the end of the path
we can turn right or left
if we want to continue

but we do not want to continue
so we turn around
and head back in the direction of home

it is no longer the reddest day
it has become a bluegreen day
with patches of white
that are neither snowflakes
nor clouds

once we are home
wearing only our indoor layers
and our noses have warmed up
you kiss me on my forehead

and i kiss you on your forehead

and then you go to make the toast
i put the kettle on

it will be bengal spice tea today

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Young Woman's Diary, 1916 (as imagined by Zee Zahava)

(NOTE: This is a Long Read. You might want to dip in and out over time, to see what this Young Woman has been writing in her diary)

A quiet hour of reading in the morning.

Mother had a sick headache and did not come downstairs all day.

Very weak sunlight, but not too cold.

I have been thinking about the planets.

The roast was too rare so I ate no dinner.

The good vase broke today, the violet-colored one.

Mother said she wanted to go for a walk but then she changed her mind.

A quiet hour of reading before bed.

Miss W brought over a jar of preserves. I will have to bring her something, but not until next week.

I did not sleep well last night.

A flock of geese, just after one o'clock.

Fluffy caught her paw on a nail. Quite a crisis.

A trip to the library to exchange my books.

The Tapper sisters stayed too long and spoke a lot of nonsense.

No one can locate the largest serving spoon. Much distress.

Miss W asked how we liked the preserves. I said they were very fine. I must remember to try them. I have not yet brought her anything in return.

Mother says she is longing for her garden. I told her "soon" but we both know it will be a while.

Mr D came for tea. Uninvited. He looks sickly.

I have been thinking about the number seven.

The serving spoon has been found.

I did not sleep well again last night.

My embroidery is getting worse, not better.

Mother complained of a sick headache and asked for breakfast in her room. As usual.

There have been strange noises in the pantry.

I wonder if the piano will ever be in tune again.

The light was glorious today but it is still too cold to stay out for long.

A quiet hour of reading before bed.

Mother was humming in the bath. What can that mean?

Where is my little gold locket?

Miss W asked if I baked the scones myself. I assured her that I did.

There hasn't been any sunshine for two days.

Mother stayed in bed all day. She did not each much. I ate two eggs.

I had no trouble falling asleep last night and this morning I was up with the worms.

A quiet hour of reading in the afternoon.

It was impossible to get warm today.

Mr D said there is something very important he wants to ask me. I said "Please don't."

I have still not found my gold locket.

There seems to be something wrong with my left eye.

My eye is completely better today.

I heard Mother humming again but I did not recognize the tune.

Received a letter from L today. She is now in Venice. I try not to care.

Fluffy is going to have kittens. She is behaving strangely but I suppose that is to be expected.

Mr D appeared in the afternoon and I told him to go away.

I have decided never to wear yellow again.

My latest books from the library are all disappointing.

Mother is not pleased with me but refuses to explain why.

I have been thinking about the planets again. And also about the stars.

I will soon need a new hat.

The light was good today. I sat at the window and watched the clouds.

My gold locket has been found! It was in my glove box all along. Mysterious.

I asked Miss G for assistance today when I visited the library. She was gracious and accommodating. I returned with two new novels and high expectations.

A quiet hour of reading this morning and another hour before bed.

I purchased a new bottle of ink this morning and spent the afternoon writing letters that I will not send.

Mr D arrived, uninvited, and offered to read to Mother. I informed him that Mother would not find that to be a pleasurable experience and he departed quickly.

Fluffy has disappeared.

Miss C asked if I would be willing to pose for her. I replied that I did not feel simpatico with the camera. She said perhaps she would ask me on another day.

Miss W brought a small bouquet of flowers from her garden. Mother had a sneezing attack.

Fluffy was found behind the kitchen stove, along with her babies — five adorable kittens.

A quiet hour of reading this evening.

A perfectly nice day. I considered going on a picnic but then decided it was pleasant enough indoors.

I have been thinking about this: what is a good omen, and what is a bad omen?

L wrote from Naples. Her letter was polite and vague.

Mother remained too long in the garden. Now she has a sick headache.

The eldest of the Tapper sisters is engaged. To Mr D. I hope I managed to look pleased when the news was announced.

A quiet hour of reading this morning.

There are many picnics being planned and I am invited to all, but I do not feel tempted.

The relish bowl is shattered. Fluffy is innocent.

There is to be a new post-mistress. She is the niece of Mr B-K.

Miss C asked me to pose for her, once again. Everyone seems to be entranced by her camera, but I am not, not in the least.

I wanted to go for a walk this morning but I could not find my hat.

My visit to the library proved most satisfactory.

It rained all day. I spent a pleasant hour with a book.

Miss W brought a bouquet of flowers, again. There is no need for her to do this as our garden is also flourishing. I found a slug on the underside of a leaf. Fortunately Mother did not notice.

I will scream if I am forced to eat another lettuce leaf. Or even a tomato.

There has been no word from L and I think perhaps there never will be.

Mother has entirely lost her voice. This is puzzling, since she rarely uses it.

Miss W wants to start a reading club. I asked her not to invite me to join.

The doorbell rang at two o'clock, but when I went to answer it no one was there.

Two china cups are missing.

The birds seem frantic. Do they dislike change too?

I wonder if anyone will bring us a pie? I hope not.

A pleasant day: sunshine.

I have been thinking about the moon and the tides.

Surprise! L arrived home and seems to be in good spirits. She brought many sweet gifts. All is well. For now.

Miss C passed by the front gate, holding her camera, but she did not stop in.

Father's old pocket watch appears to be lost. Or perhaps it has been stolen. Mother says it was not valuable but I think it was.

I doubt I slept at all last night.

People are so kind. I wish they would not be.

I told Mother it is time for us to do something about the curtains.

The new post-mistress has watery blue eyes.

Where have my old hair ribbons gone?

Fluffy is missing. So are the kittens. This is all very distressing.

Mrs S has a cold. I wrote and told her not to call on us until she is entirely recovered.

I am trying to be more patient.

I cannot find my ivory comb.

I don't remember the last time I felt young.

L has gone to Boston, suddenly and mysteriously. She left yesterday morning. I don't care.

The younger Miss Tapper wanted to lend me a novel by Mrs T but I told her I already read it, even though I have not. I prefer never to borrow anything from that family.

Spent the afternoon mending. I am in a foul temper.

A murder of crows has set up home in a tree in the side yard. Neither Mother nor I are the least bit pleased.

Mrs S has recovered from her cold. She offered to tune our piano for us, which is a ridiculous suggestion and I told her so.

A very bad night. Hardly slept at all. Dreamed of crows and clocks and spiders.

Miss W brought over not one, but two, pies. What will we do with them?

I wonder: where does the sun go when it wants to hide?

Miss J (a friend of Miss C's) came to tea. She was crying. I offered what comfort I could but I hope she never returns.

It has been two weeks and I have not received a single letter from anyone.

Three small stones were left in a pile on the back steps.

Mrs R broke her toe. I doubt we will see her again this year.

A quiet hour of reading this evening.

Went for a walk with Miss W. She reached for my hand. I told her "No."

The clasp on my bracelet is broken.

Mother is talking about Barcelona. I fear the worst.

There are rumors that the elder Miss Tapper, now Mrs D, is expecting a child. I don't believe this can be true.

Suddenly all my dresses are drab and droopy. It doesn't matter.

Miss F has begun taking French lessons. She is so very earnest.

L has written to announce her engagement. She met him at her cousin's house in Boston. I am shocked. But not surprised.

Miss J is hosting a salon next Wednesday. I told her that Mother and I will be resting that day.

I miss Fluffy and the kittens. I fear the worst has befallen them.

Spent one hour practicing my penmanship, for no reason at all.

Miss W asked me to accompany her to Philadelphia next month. I pretended I did not hear her.

A disappointing visit to the library. There doesn't appear to be a single book I am interested in.

I doubt I will ever sleep through the night again.

I asked Mother if she has seen my beaded bag. She pretended not to know what I was talking about.

I just noticed today: my right hand is apparently slightly larger than my left hand.

Father's pocket watch was discovered under a pile of linen. Relief.

A quiet hour of reading in the morning.

I have replenished my supply of paper and ink.

Mother asked me to air out the guest room but I see no need to do so, as we are not expecting any overnight visitors.

I must have slept for a while last night since I remember dreaming about a lion.

Received unpleasant news this morning.

Mother was exaggerating, things are not as dreadful as I feared.

I saw Miss J in the library yesterday. She was not crying, but still I made a point of avoiding her.

Mr and Mrs D are expecting twins. I have heard it on the highest authority (Dr N). I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I think I will laugh.