Poetry / Susan Rich
:: Salt Crystals in Cape Town ::
Always it was the men involved in such minutia— which prayer to recite first: table salt or kosher, while the women chopped carrots for the cholent, added tomato paste and kidney beans that would begin to simmer and flake before sundown— indestructible slop dating back to the second temple. In Cape Town I met my only orthodox boyfriend whose lovemaking leaned towards devout. Please your woman in bed on the Sabbath, the Torah reads—my favorite part of the teaching—a religious obligation to pleasure the woman solely for pleasure’s sake, Exodus 21:10. Regularly, if he is a husband of means, or once a month for camel drivers and long-haul truckers. We made love under orange scented trees and above mountain tops. We salted our lips with each other’s sweat, and still he hid his grapes fermenting in their improvised machine. The dozen wine bottles uncorked and sequestered in the hall closet among suit jackets and ties because I wrote on Saturdays, flicked light switches, loved shrimp. My body would remake his wine into something impure. So many rituals, so little time— prayers for a healthy shit, another one for the car keys before they magically reappear. When my mother died, we covered the mirrors, thought to tear our clothes. No easy listening, no rock & roll, no show tunes for a year he ordered. But listening to the Red Sox on the radio? Allowed. I wonder if God cares for team sports or salt crystals—if a woman’s pleasure in the Scriptures is a directive slipped in from some lost holy book? Is there a verse there for fair wages? Equitable lives? When the orthodox scholar left me he said he said he wanted to make love to everyone else. His own kabbalistic interpretation of tikkun olam. He assured me it was kosher because Jewish women aren’t allowed to create law. Is there a prayer to tell ex-lovers to fuck off? A prayer to regain belief in orange groves—for transforming what we are told?
:: Kerchiefs of Yellow Linen ::
During World War II, 91–95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population were killed— the highest casualty rate of Jews in any nation in the Holocaust.
Somewhere in Lithuania, my grandmother’s sisters, parents, cousins, aunties, in-laws, and everyone else die during the Holocaust and before that, in pogroms. I wonder if the women tracked the soldiers’ path from the hills, watched them with binoculars as they frog-marched through fields of pomegranate and rye. Did the women foretell danger, the cold wave cresting on the edge of their skin, their skin intuiting door to door searches, ditches, death? Scientists say our bodies remember trauma like footsteps from one generation into another. The pathogen of the physical fear planted in infancy that festers and expands—not like wild mint but more like a grove of stinging nettles that surrounds my sleep. The house where I grew up—I’m there alone and then —you’d think they were delivering flowers the hard knock, followed by the doorbell, such politeness—until the door breaks open— and I exile myself from myself— watch as the militia takes over, helmets to boots readied for an ever-present war. Recently, the scenario reconfigured with tech execs and hedge fund entrepreneurs with slick hair. The men drone on: foreclosures and stock ops. Do they occupy my body, my land? I wake on high alert bathed in the breath of terror, a haunting that thrives across continents, and further. What happened to my women— the Jews of Lithuania— raped, taken, tossed into the deep unknowing until perhaps now— when maybe if I learn to listen, they’ll speak.
From the writer
:: Account ::
For many years I avoided writing about family— not because it seemed too difficult, but because it seemed too ordinary to me. I grew up at the far edge of the post-Holocaust generation with relatives who had hidden in garbage cans to survive and escaped rape by being bandaged to pass as lepers. The old-country stories always ended with the same piece of implied advice: Don’t trust anyone that isn’t Jewish. I rejected this wholeheartedly and spent several years in Niger, West Africa, perhaps the only Jewish person in the country. (At least I never met another.) Therefore, it was a strange surprise to me when, a couple of years ago, I wrote a poem where my Jewishness took front and center. Since then, more poems of otherness, pogroms, Holocaust survivors, and racism have appeared. My perspective, I believe, is more irreverent and surreal than what one thinks of when they think of Jewish poetry, if they think of it at all. These poems are irreverent, surreal, and most definitely in the lineage of Jewish writing. There is no one way to be Jewish just as there is no one way to be a poet.
Susan Rich is an award winning poet, editor and essayist. She is the author of four poetry collections, including, most recently, Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press, 2014) and The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine Press, 2010), and co-editor of the anthology The Strangest of Theatres, published by the Poetry Foundation. Rich has received awards from PEN USA and the Fulbright Foundation. Recent poems have appeared in the Harvard Review, New England Review, Poetry Ireland, and World Literature Today. Her 5th collection, Gallery of Postcards and Maps: New and Collected Poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry, Ireland, in 2022; Blue Atlas is forthcoming from Red Hen Press, 2024. Susan is on faculty at Highline College outside of Seattle, WA.