Two Poems

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