OLD WOMAN, NEW POEMS with original artwork
OLD WOMAN, NEW POEMS
NEW POEMS with original artwork
Copyright 2007 by Sondra Zeidenstein
I lay awake for a long time before dawn, restless, feeling despair about my writing: a waste of breath. For all my working at it, my bliss in it, I’m not a poet. And then: no-one has any interest in my being here. No-one cares for me. I’ve felt these feelings before in my twenty-five years of writing poems, but they’ve never stopped me from writing or from making a book or chapbook every five years or so when I had a batch of poems that embodied a period of my life. I’ve always felt a drive to have my poems out in the world, seeing the light of day, like seedlings seeking water and minerals and sunshine. Now, at seventy-five, I have another sheaf of poems. But this time I feel a desire to consign them to a dark drawer where they will lie in the dust of desiccated flies and hornets, never to be received with a pat on the back: welcome, come into the light. I thought I’d got the best of it in years of therapy, this despair from my childhood. But now, again, I find I want to hide what I’m doing. Worse, turn against what I’ve done. It’s the old stuff, believing I have to keep myself to myself if I want to survive. My therapist died two years ago. I can’t go back to her and say: Jean, I’m stuck, the old impulse to draw myself in, to disappear, is getting stronger. This feeling we explored and excavated and, I thought, overcame is back now. Is this what comes with age, this regressing to isolation and loneliness that once led me to therapy? Is this the burden of age, more than back aches, foot arthritis, pinch in my shoulders? I don’t have the stamina I had when you kept drawing me out, breath by breath, to embrace my being in the world. 䡲䡲䡲
Age is a crossroads. I’ve known that for a long time, watched friends come to the four corners, make their decisions. Smugly, I thought I’d already passed through on the right path. Now I feel as if the road forward is blocked, the signal gate jammed. Curiously, this is happening at a time when I feel excitement bubbling into felt-tip-pen drawings, mostly of women in motion, odd faces, arms, hands, hair, lots of saturated color. I don’t know who they are or what they mean, these figures that keep snaking from my fingers, except that they belong with my poems and are pulling me forward, refusing exile.
Yesterday, I had time to read through my manuscript again, this time out loud. I made small changes in some of the poems, cutting out or changing this or that word, getting the rhythm just right. Mostly I felt satisfied. Sometimes I felt transfixed. Yes! That’s what I meant. Always I felt accompanied, as if I’d rejoined the part of myself that feels my life. Today there is ice on all the trees and shrubs on my road, a sickly, gray, unhealthy looking ice that doesn’t sparkle like ice in winter. It’s not winter. It’s spring. A chilly April. The crocuses are out in the cold, dozens of them. They’ve been out almost two weeks but have never had a moment to open wide, waxy and wet, in sunshine. I can’t think of gardening yet, though I’ve ordered seeds. But as soon as it warms, I will start the seven-month-long exercise of cultivating food and beauty from my soil. So hard to imagine in this ice. I forget the sun will invite me outside, the ground will offer my knees a cushion, my joints—wrist, ankle, knee, shoulder—will ache. (I feel them now.) But I will go forward. Sunshine will draw me. 䡲䡲䡲
You, my friends, to whom I send these poems and drawings are sunshine. You draw me out. These poems I’ve written in the last five years are a present to you for my seventy-fifth birthday. By way of saying: This is how I’m doing. This is how the part of me that expresses herself in poems and drawings is doing. The part that I, like many artists, don’t communicate any other way. I have in front of me at the computer a photograph of the beautiful face and smile of my friend. It took a year before I heard the sad news from Oregon. Her husband sent me this memorial photo in which she wears a white sweater, dark blue scarf, her curly hair silvery white. Her smile is knowing. I listen again to her voice in cyberspace reading her ironic, witty, original eight-minute poem about how we are tormenting our beautiful, beloved earth.* So much art, so little time, she inserted in one of her collages. She, Joyce Keener, always wrote encouraging words to me about my work and other older women’s voices I’d published. She lives here in my computer as my dead sister lives in her statues
of a naked woman and man I keep out all summer in the garden, in all winter by the hearth. 䡲䡲䡲
I feel I’ve become old in the last five years. My sister dead. My therapist dead.Friends, close and distant, one after another dead. The terrible war. My body fails me. These are the years of my feet hurting, arthritis making my whole body ache, lament. Fleetness long gone. Last year a woodchuck ate the heads of my carrots and the flowering of my broccoli. I call this collection: old woman, new poems. What else but art can take on this experience of life coming to an ending but lived in the daily? What else can communicate the minute and extreme changes that mark the drama of old age, this strange intensity of absence foreshadowed in presence? These things matter: to keep going, to keep writing, making our art, or what ever brings us all the way out into the world, our print on the consciousness of the earth, on each other. Now another growing season looms. Joy bubbles up with the sunshine. I want to move forward, put my work into a book I can send to you, my friends, in September when earth turns me seventy-five. I am pushing against resistance to gather my work into a gift for you who, over the years, have become a community for me, who’ve responded, kept in touch, done your heroic work, shared it with me. I want to draw my friends around my work, where I come forward to the edge of my being. I want you to know who I am as old woman artist. I want to be in the conversation. It’s as simple as that. That’s what my friend is saying in the photo, her arms lifted, folded behind her head, leaving her chest, her breast, her heart open. She’s looking me straight in the eye. Sondra Zeidenstein April, 2007 Goshen, CT *www.limestonestudio.com
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Spring Delving 䡲䡲䡲
Nakedness In Hiding All the Stops Reading from My New Book for the First Time 䡲䡲䡲
Intention Greyhound Sleeping Vishnu First Zen Michal 䡲䡲䡲
Tristesse Therapy April All I Want My Mother’s Birthday 䡲䡲䡲
Janice’s Album 䡲䡲䡲
Summer Grieving 䡲䡲䡲
Back From My Sister’s Son’s Wedding 䡲䡲䡲
Snow at the Cape Who will remember me as I remember Comma Fault Marriage 䡲䡲䡲
Matthew: A Found Poem June Rain, 2004 Emmett Till On Our Path 䡲䡲䡲
Another Country Bedroom Last Night I Dreamed About Sex Long Evening 䡲䡲䡲
August 29, 2000 On the Summer Porch
By noon one peony budâ€™s irresistible pink, raw as a burn blister, exposes the hussy inside the timid well-behaved body I carry up and down stairs of my ancient house like laundry or a cup of coffee, the hussy who sticks her fingers five inches deep into humus too cold for anything to sprout, who claws a burrow for the seed potato to wait for warming. All morning, a tell-tale stain, dark and oily, lines my cuticles, as if my fingers have tickled the earth, wakened it, drawn out its dark secretions.
In a work called House with an Ocean View, Marina Abramovic, fasting, lives twelve days and nights on a platform raised above public space. Her minimal furnishings include toilet and shower. She pees in front of an audience, takes off her clothes, showers, her arms touching her sides, elbows fitting the indentation of her waist, palms open toward the audience, one breast a little rounder and higher than the other. This kind of art, “without intermediaries,” a critic asserts, “is not separated from the ethical.” When I dream, at least a dozen times, I’m naked, it seems the natural way to be, all my imperfections visible among friends and strangers who are dressed, though I waken full of shame. I am naked in poems: squeezing pimples in front of a splatted mirror, masturbating on the bed post in my parents’ room, fucked in the ass and getting a hemorrhoid, my muse never embarrassed by the body or its acts, not ashamed of telling how I loved kissing Lenny B. in the back of the car, our mouths, noses, a perfect fit, no need to come up for air, a twenty minute kiss, two other couples watching. My muse is not ashamed of being “wet with a lover’s juices,” of “the taste of semen,” of watery blood draining from scraped gums onto a smelly gauze, of everything I ever wanted to hide, no one more secretive, more determined to be invisible than I. Marina, hair pulled tight, clear water sliding her scalp, face, belly, pubis, thighs, feet— everyone sees everything—is my ideal. My poems revel in exposure from every angle: look, nothing to hide, my hands are open, my orifices smuggle nothing.
Thick ultramarine sweater, turtle neck, cabled by practiced Aran Isle hands I told my husband I’d bought for myself when in fact my lover had taken me, shy, to my first boutique—small room, long mirror, does it show I’m his mistress? But I couldn’t think of a likely lie to explain his monogram when my lover gave me an old shirt, cream-colored silk he thought I could wear as a night robe, so I dropped it into the mouth of the city-blue trash bin. Or the silver pocket watch he sent me when I was living in Dhaka— bold hands, large roundness I liked. I couldn’t throw it away—only the servants knew where to empty the waste. I lay it between folds of a thin silk sari. Or the black lace panties— a slit in the crotch, red hearts on the buttocks— I stuffed in the expandable folder where I kept notes for my lectures. Secrets were weighing me down.
When a poem called â€œSunday Morningâ€? is lifted off the table by the wind, an old poem, the first I dared write out plainly about a secret love, and floats toward where my husband is sitting, I watch it in panicâ€™s slow motion: print down at first, thank god, then the breeze turns it over, my husband reaches for it, looks in my eyes, then turns his face, deliberately, from print as he picks it up and gives it into my hand.
ALL THE STOPS
Old photo of me tucked in my journal slips out this morning onto the grass: my ruddy, grinning face, my eyes narrowed to bawdiness, startle me, my unguarded frontal pose, legs open, casually it seems, but nothing is casual here, not the way a bright gold chain snakes across my breasts, or my arm, stretched back, lifts my skimpy sweater to display taut flesh. My best friend Ann is taking the snapshot. I don’t tell her I’m sleeping with the man she’s trying to seduce. He’s there in the room too, tall, white-haired, drinking champagne, the three of us randy. Ann flirts her large black eyes at him, breasts softer than mine. I don’t like him much, but when Ann leaves, I’ll roll my nakedness over his pale skin, risk my children finding us belly to belly. So much boldness in this face. I stare at it under the sun, my cheeks burning, before I slip it back between blank pages.
READING FROM MY NEW BOOK FOR THE FIRST TIME for Roz A flimsy music stand held my book, Resistance, but I didn’t have anything to lean on. I didn’t know who I was letting out words put together once to tell about fear and love. I didn’t know where this naming my father and mother came from, what frogs and serpents streamed from my mouth, what diamonds. My knees locked. I could have crashed like a felled tree, but I commanded my body to hold me upright in the room with its platters of cookies and strawberries. And afterwards four women and a man thanked me, one of them Roz who kept saying she’d never had this experience
of getting to know someone so quickly. I know you, she said, touching my face, I know your smile, your jaw, I know your mouth. I know everything.
INTENTION (at fifteen) To be recognized by the lifeguard for my two-piece yellow bathing suit, set off by very tan skin I bake all day, laid out on a towel to maximize my curves and smooth legs, my toes carefully pointed, not flopping inward toward each other as they would if I relaxed my intention. I stay up late setting my hair so it fluffs out like Jennifer Jones’s or waves like Ava’s—exotic, dark. I smile with my mouth closed over crooked canines, enigmatic, to make him think I’m sultry, smoky, a make-out girl who doesn’t need to speak, just cast her glance sideways, beads of water caught in her lashes making her eyes larger, darker, come hither, if you want me, just whistle. I swim back and forth with a strong flutter kick, do a hand stand in deep water, lay easily on top of the water where he scans for victims. I make him look at me, compel him to ask me out, let him touch me through cotton, on top, where I’m confident I’ve got something.
Coming home from a visit to parents. Coming home ahead of my husband and children to make a Chaucer class on Saturday morning. Leaving Pittsburgh at ten p.m., arriving New York at dawn. Excited to travel alone. I’m thirty-two, a proper wife, raising two children, teaching, getting my Ph.D. The bus is crowded. I’m sitting in a window seat. A thin man in jeans sits down beside me. Lights are turned off. Pennsylvania Turnpike, New Jersey Pike in darkness. I close my eyes, pretend I am sleeping and for hours maneuver my body, stretch, arch, squirm for maximum contact with the stranger. Sighing. My husband a Wall Street lawyer who wears tweeds and chinos on weekends, Oxford button-down-collar shirts to work. As we approach New York, the lights come on. We talk, the stranger and I. No-one’s at home, I tell him. I left them in Pittsburgh. Can I come home with you, he asks. No, I say, wet with conquest, I’m just going home to bathe and make it to class. That was it. Poor, puzzled guy. I don’t remember his face, only my ass rubbing against him all the way to New York. And that when I saw the empty bed made up as my husband and I had left it, with its rich blue Williamsburg bedspread, I lay down on it and slept through class.
Riding my bicycle, a three-gear Raleigh, fifty minutes to the university, from one edge of the small, rice-green valley to the opposite, in a skirt, in sandals, to lecture on Shakespeare three days a week. I turn right, away from Vishnu, flat on his back, sleeping on a pond of water lilies, dreaming the world, and coast down a long, steep hill past garlanded Brahman bull, palace, canopy of blue mimosas, my lecture on index cards in my back pack. My blue Raleigh whizzes past poor men loping down from the hills, bundles of kindling strapped on tump lines to their foreheads, the veins in their calves bulging. Past the curve in the road where the Coopers live—we are convinced he is CIA. Past the embassy where a lover resides. Then into traffic: rickshaws, a few jeeps. Past the central post office where I keep a secret box for another lover’s blue-inked aerograms. Out of town past terraced paddies, Himalayan air on my arms and neck, between my toes. I deliver my lecture about Henry the Fifth and Macbeth to pretty Brahman boys. Then a chili pepper omelet at Chan’s—we say he is CIA too—and a cup of strong tea. Muscle power all the way home, clouds pluming slowly from snow melt on Everest. The bull again, the palace, whose king-to-be will someday be murdered by his son. Toward Vishnu, sleeping.
When I was 37, I attended a weekend retreat called Introduction to Zen. I was slender, tan, gold hoops in my ears, a circle of gold slung low around my waist. I’d lived in Nepal for three years. I had lovers, an “open” marriage. I was miserable. After the introduction, I signed up for the real thing, a week-long sesshin, the atmosphere austere, unsmiling, elusive as anything I’d gotten myself into. I sat zazen facing a wall. When I raised my palms in gassho, and sometimes even when I didn’t, I was struck sharply on the shoulders. I bowed my head in thanks that someone wanted me to katzu, pay attention. We sat until ten, woke at four to start again. We did kinhin, the walking meditation, very fast, almost running on the naked heels of the person in front. Sometimes we were rallied to shout out the mu! of our koan, to breathe like dragons. I breathed hard, bellowed, rasped for two whole days and on the third developed a pain low on my right side that called attention to itself. No amount of “focus on the pain” could lessen it. I told roshi, my teacher. Immediately, one of the long-faced, head-shaven young monks drove me, in silence, to Emergency at a nearby hospital, saw me in, left me there. “Give me something for the pain,” I begged. I was x-rayed, prodded, moaning. Kidney stone? IV and a pill for pain. I drifted to sleep. Discharged next morning, I went back to the zendo, onto the cushion, palms open, thumbs touching, shoulders square. No smiles or recognition, no familiarity. Another smack or two before the sesshin ended. But I carried deep in my hara, where breath arises, roshi’s surprise at my having come back. “Next time,” he said, “when you’re thirsty, drink.”
MICHAL What kind of girl’s name is Michal, I asked. First American Buddhist I’d met, no money, no goods, sick, a thick bronchial cough, first woman on her own, tagged by children begging in the smoky bazaar, to whom she said sharply, fuck off! First woman I’d met who said, fuck off. First woman I’d seen with a shaved head coarse as a stubbled rice field. Huge breasts, a brief cotton blouse to hold them. Michal, San Francisco Jewish, swarthy, like me, smart. Coiling her wrist, wood beads she’d vowed not to take off. This, by the way, was Kathmandu, the sixties, where I lived with my husband, two children, Kanchi, our nursemaid who also cleaned, Juga Nath, the cook, who strangled chickens for us in the dim-lit earth-floor kitchen, two Siamese cats, a German shepherd, Sally, who once, while I was away, ate the cats, their fur, scant yellowed fluff, near the trash. Michal, first woman I met who smoked tiny cigars, beedis, acrid, that smelled like hashish. “I’ve been through it all,” she said, “the sex scene, the drugs, the music, flower power, the far-out.”
Did I mention she was twenty-three? “Nothing left but to kill myself— or take vows.” Poverty. Chastity. This was forty years ago. I wore gold bangles, smudged kohl under my eyes, worked on my tan on the roof where every morning I watched a thin white plume of snowmelt drift off Everest. I envied the plain wooden beads. I wanted something to take vows to beside a lover who sent me pale blue aerogram erotica folded on dotted lines, licked. I invited Michal to stay. I gave her broccoli, guava, a hot bath, honey tea, my blue dress to cover her, deep blue on blue I’d worn when I carried my babies. She stayed for a day and was gone. How far from my self I was then. How far from today, from last week when I sat with my breath in a circle of Buddha-straight sitters. Michal, first beacon, I want to tell you I’ve gotten to the First Noble Truth: consciousness that life is dukka, restlessness— we crave or we push away. I accept that everything changes. I’ve gotten, sometimes, to what a famous guru says
is the core of all the teachings: Darling, how can I help you?
SPELL To my son and daughter, because it is now understood that we, as parents, are likely to pass traumas of our own childhood to our children, who bear their weight unknowingly.
1) If my childhood had been a war-torn country, I would be telling you of shrapnel, killing for crusts, filthy hole of a toilet. But the house I grew up in was spotless. I was bathed and oiled, a bottle was propped beside my face in the carriage, the carriage set in the yard, in a slice of sun. No one touched me, no one warmed my cheek with the flame of her palm. At my birth, Mother, waking to the doctor caressing her hand, calling her name, Sophie, Soph, had to be prodded by the doctor, then by my father, to look in my eyes.
2) As a child Iâ€™d sleep, even on smothering nights, with covers over my head. What terrible fate might wriggle through the open window unless my eyes were bandaged, my wrists pressed under my thighs?
3) When I was raising you, I dreamed and dreamed about losing you, that you slipped through my soapy fingers in the bath, or fell from a pier, black waters I couldnâ€™t see into, or disappeared in a mob that closed to cover your traces. Awake, I was afraid the lock on your double stroller would break
and roll you backward toward the Concourse. I was afraid a truck would swerve up the curb to crush you, the cracked stoop steps where you played would split your skulls. At breakfast, in a cashmere robe, curlers piled high under a frayed hairnet, seeds of sleep in my eyes, I drenched your toast in butter.
4) My mother raised by her mother Lona whose mother died young. Lona who traveled alone at eighteen across the ocean, never heard of her family again. On my father’s side, his bitter mother, Minnie, leaving a soft bed in Romania, leaving a baby behind. The year before I was born, my mother’s brother crushed by a truck. Pregnant, my mother shadowed by her mother’s grief. And me, knotted, mute, toes turned in, damp hands in fists, thumbs inside, looking down or sideways, lost.
5) I wasn’t my mother. I looked into your eyes, hazel, gray-green, changing in the light, read you stories while you leaned into my sides, taught you to swim, to skate on safe ice. My eyes filled with you to brimming. Mostly you would find yourselves there, sheltered. Still, lurking at the edge of my presence,
my silences— this is the part that’s taken me so long to remember, the way I disappeared in front of your eyes. I’d seem to be looking at you, but I was far away, under a spell, hunched like a refugee over her losses. You were desperate to bring me back. You thought my silences were your fault. They had nothing to do with you.