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.