.
Phillis Gershator



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POETRY




I grew up on A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, and Edward Lear, not to mention Mother Goose and the songs sung by singers like Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. How could I not try my hand at verse myself, both silly and serious? I found a little verse I wrote among some papers my mother saved. I must have written it about the age of seven, judging from the printing and the crayon decorations “illuminating” the text: 

I like to play, when I can play
with anyone I choose
but I’m not happy when friends say
“Oh, we mustn’t play with Jews!”
Black or white or red or tan,
everyone’s my fellowman.
I like it when my play is free
and I’m with whom I want to be!

Yep, those great Pete Seeger songs had an impact! And I notice a love of exclamation marks, which I still retain and really must learn to curb!

Verse gave way to more authentic poetry when I was in college.  I remember writing a poem about a supernova I’d studied in Astronomy class--and I was proud of it, though my grades in astronomy were less than steller. (I did pass, however, thanks to the tutoring help of my good friend, Sumner Starrfield, now a noted astonomer.)

In the early 1970’s, I first got into small press publishing ventures funded by NEA grants and the cooperative, labor intensive participation of other poets, including David Gershator, Don Lev, Enid Dame, and Fritz Hamilton. My poetic contribution was a little chapbook on a Caribbean theme, in some ways an answer to Anne Waldman on the same theme.

In 1976 I also published a reference book, an extension of a project begun as a graduate student in library science at Pratt Institute: A Bibliographic Guide to the Literature of Contemporary American Poetry, 1970-1975 (Scarecrow Press). It was an annotated overview of books on North American poetry--reference sources, critical works, textbooks, and anthologies, published between 1970 and 1975. Compiling it, I was giving myself an education and becoming something of a detective to boot. I wanted to keep searching for books to include in my own book, but at one point the publisher said, “Bibliographies are never ending. You have to say DONE at some point.” He was right, and we did get good reviews,
thank goodness, even though I must have missed a few books.

I find myself writing poetry at high and low points in my life. I sometimes write when I’m inspired or challenged by what other poets have to say. And I often write poetry as an outlet when I feel angry about things I read or see on the news--I haven’t lost that early political impulse!

If I were to describe my work, I’d say it’s straightforward, plainspoken, and reflects my interest in art, food, nature, and politics.

I’ve published poetry in small magazines and anthologies, including Atenea, Home Planet News, The Caribbean Writer, Paterson Literary Review, Jewish Currents, Spelunker Flophouse, Scribia, Confrontation, Sea Magazine, The Newspaper, What’s a Nice Girl Like You..., The Limits of Miracles, Yellow Cedars Blooming, and Knowing Stones.

Here is a sampling:

In Paper Boat:

BROWN BREAD

The loaves are hard, compact
I leave them in the unlit oven to rise
pregnant bellies on my mind
after the party last night
and that milky Irish girl
with curly red hair, her belly taut
about to burst, four weeks to go
The baby will be black or brown or golden,
an Island baby.

The bread rises
softer as it expands
but her stomach’s growing tighter, harder
and bobs as though it’s breathing on its own.

One woman says,
“That’s my favorite state”
A man says,
“I like to see woman with fat belly
It make me feel good you know.”

I can’t remember how it felt
It seems like I was always in a hurry,
and bread takes so long to rise.

When I bake bread
there’s a reason
Maybe this time it was the big belly
I touched last night
with both hands
and the thought of the baby to come.

The loaves in the oven
will be dark, healthy bread,
a mix of flours,
and the smell when they bake
an aphrodisiac.

In Collage IV:

BEES IN THE JERUSALEM THORN

In the fragrant hour
after a morning rain
I stand under the humming canopy
of green needles, yellow flowers,
knowing it is an hour
that has everything and nothing
to do with itself,
an hour that will become transformed
into words on paper,
color on canvas,
sounds on tape,
transformed into something else
with its own weight and substance
in the way that perfume and gold dust
become honey

In The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, the latest version of this Camille Pissarro poem:

NATIVE SON, FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM
      Camiille Pissarro (b. 1830, Virgin Islands; d. 1903, France)

The light of the islands
may not light your canvas with a light
as close to the sun as you can get,
a blinding light
sparkling on the sea,
bouncing off sand
and whitewashed walls.

After all, you left our tropic sun behind--
abandoned iridescent hummingbirds
and frayed, breezy palms
for city sparrow songs,
for dark and stately poplars.

    Ah, Paris! 
So far
from the oppressive
shadows of a closed-in island
trapped by an endless sea.
    Ah, Paris!
Escape
from narrow Main Street’s
thick warehouse walls,
family store,
family.

But the light was still with you--
a child of light.

In the San Fernando Poetry Journal:

PRE-ELECTION POLL

I’ve just read that flaxseed
ground into meal
will alleviate depression
Should I run out and buy some
so I can get through this season
when people call at all hours
also depressed
Another four years, they say
Another four years of the same
war in Central America
ozone and ocean down the drain
Another four years
for the starving in Africa
and malnourished at home
Another four years
of white bread and circuses
and idealists in retreat
debating the latest health food fads
flaxseed for one

The campesinos don’t have beans


In the anthology 2000: Here’s to Humanity, a poem from 1995, in six sections:

WEI JINGSHENG

“China’s most prominent dissident....seemingly the only spokesman for human rights and democracy in the country”--
                            The New York Times

           I
                        
                         “Building Shanghai Railway Station
                          into a Window of Socialist Civilization”
                           (sign in the "Soft Seat Waiting Room")

After admittance to a tea garden
with restricted entrance
and a public toilet
"For Visitors and Overseas Chinese Only,"
the park we stroll through now
belongs to the government
as distinct from the people
It is private and deserted
behind gates and guard posts,
reserved for guests of state
and gardeners
pruning trees from bamboo ladders

"No Dogs and Chinese Allowed"
the signs once said
before the Revolution
I haven't seen any dogs around
but there are still Chinese
looking through forbidden "windows"
It seems the Revolution
got off on the wrong foot 
however unbound


             II

             “The people must be able to pursue real happiness,
                 to enjoy advantages at least equal to those
                that are afforded to foreigners."
                                                               Wei Jingsheng,
                   sentenced to 15 years in prison in l979 for his
                   call for "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy."

                      
Special privilege makes me uneasy
I'm always in the other fellow's shoes
or thongs or slippers
Equality for Some?
But I'm a guest here,
a foreigner,
I don't say much
I look through the window
and the bamboo fence
of special privilege 

Besides, Wei Jingsheng said it
He said so much
about Socialism,
Equality
and Democracy,
it's unlikely that he has
a window in his cell at all
I hope he does and that
if he's still alive
he's allowed to exercise
once a week
like the demonstrators
who followed him to jail
ten years later

                                                          
            III                               
                                 
      ...he has refused to reform himself,
     and he does not regret his crimes."
                                            Official report on Wei

Back home I learn 
that Wei Jingsheng is alive
losing his teeth and hair
kept in solitary confinement
no window  no exercise  no family visits
I contemplate the letter I must write
flattering his jailors
asking for mercy
for one small fish in the sea
asking: why create a martyr
out of one small toothless fish?
Will they be impressed
or take offense
at the implied criticism
between the lines of a letter
from the U.S.A.
Finding the right line
is the hard part
as Wei Jingsheng knows
I'm afraid to argue for his life
when his life's at stake


         IV

It’s front page news!
Was it my letter?
Was it the last straw
the camel that broke...?
No, I suspect more tactical considerations:
tariffs, trade, favored nation
China’s hopes to host the Olympics
in the year 2000
But Wei isn’t the last left
to loose his teeth in jail
And China isn’t chosen
for the games

           V

Wei’s still speaking up
between still loose teeth
still on parole...
I saw him on TV
He’s free!
He won
those “heaven-given human rights”
as he calls them,
“the right to live and the right to strive”
I saw him on TV
Wei is alive!

         VI

He has the right to visit a park
He’ll see the autumn leaves, the snow,
not in the garden reserved 
“For Visitors and Overseas Chinese Only”
but the blossoms in spring are a start
even in a crowded public park
Let the flowers bloom

Is this a hopeful message?
Is there another?

      


                                                                                                                                    

My husband, being something of a haiku master, encouraged me to try my hand at that form of poetry. When I was young, I loved the Peter Pauper books, intimate little collections of haiku. Now I know that these small poems are more complex than they seem at first glance, not simply collections of seventeen syllables, which is something of a fallacy to begin with if one is attempting to emulate the Japanese (according to William Higginson, one of the foremost American scholars on the subject of haiku and author of The Haiku Handbook).


Here are two of my published haiku:


in the morning
her pillow on his side
of the bed

*

managing nature:
plucking grass from the stones,
plucking stones from the grass

*

And three more for the crickets:

drip-drop of water
in the bathroom...no
a cricket!



old fashioned crickets
still using
Morse code



closing in
on the sound
the sound stops

 


These last couple of years, thanks to the encouragement and collaboration of my songwriting husband, I've tried my hand at song lyrics. We've come up with some wonderful musical projects, the first being "This Is the Day! Storysongs & Singalongs." "This Is the Day!" was produced by our daughter, a singer and pianist, and her neighbor and friend, Dave Hall, a composer, guitarist, and songwriter known for his own original and unique work for both adults and children. For "This Is the Day!" lyrics, click here.