Poems by Sandra Kohler, 61′

Sandra Kohler’s third collection of poems, Improbable Music, (Word Press) appeared in May, 2011. Earlier collections are The Country of Women (Calyx, 1995) and The Ceremonies of Longing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003). Her poems have appeared in journals over the past 35 years. Born in New York City in 1940, Kohler attended public schools there, Mount Holyoke College (A.B., 1961) and Bryn Mawr College (A.M., 1966 and Ph.D., 1971). She’s taught literature and writing in venues ranging from elementary school to university. A resident of Pennsylvania for most of her adult life, she moved to Boston in 2007.

Felicity

There’s a parrot named Felicity in
the novel I’m reading, so in a dream I give
my sister Midnight and Felicity: the black cat
she owned years ago, when her husband
was still alive, the scarlet parrot
she’d never dream of owning.
I don’t know if she dreams
about happiness now. Perhaps I’m
the sister who cannot imagine
owning Felicity. The bird of
happiness not blue but scarlet.
Real happiness is like that,
startling as a parrot’s
sudden cry.

Life Interrupts Life

The porch at seven, still, the air barely astir.
There’s a new rose blooming: April Moon?
Hawkeye Belle? The belle, pale pink, ablush.
When this garden’s made, I will have a walled
garden, hortus conclusus. To wall is to end:
conclude. The pale sky billows, foamy cloud.
A cry that could be cat or bird. Life interrupts
life. A fat fly lands on the chair opposite mine.
Out here he’s in his element, legitimate; indoors
I’d kill him. I need to start imagining this yard
as walled garden. What time will we need to
leave for the airport? Life interrupts life ….
Decisions, hesitations, progress and regression,
arrivals and departure. Language carries me,
whether I will or no. I will. Yesterday at the
Neponset River reservation we watch swallows
bring food to a nest in the concrete overpass,
taking it in turns. Here, now, it’s my turn:
dribbling, bouncing a ball of thought, making
small moves, practice for the game. The game’s
afoot. How shall I play it? The possibilities
are not endless. Body, soul, day: tell me what
to do. No answer: the body’s ambivalent,
the soul ambiguous. The day is indifferent:
sunlight blooms a moment on my neighbor’s
garage wall, fades. The birds keep chanting.

 

 

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Poems Translated by Barbara Goldberg

Barbara Goldberg is a poet and also a translator of poetry. Her most recent work in the latter field is Scorched by the Sun, a book of poetry by the Israeli poet Moshe Dor that she translated from Hebrew into English. Goldberg and Dor have translated and edited three anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace. She was graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Philosophy from Mount Holyoke College. She went on for an MA from Yeshiva University, MEd from Columbia University; and an MFA from American University. She has authored four prize-winning books of poetry, including The Royal Baker’s Daughter, recipient of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. The recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as awards in fiction and speechwriting, Goldberg’s work appears widely, including American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry and the Paris Review. Currently she is Visiting Writer at American University’s MFA program. The following poems are translations from Scorched by the Sun.

Smells

Spring hasn’t arrived, but in my dream my nostrils fill
with your smell, lost motherland, the smell of eucalypti
on the banks of the Yarkon on a sunny day,

the smell of oil from gas stations along the coastal plain,
falafel browning in frying pans, pine resin wafting
down from the hills, wine foaming in the presses…

I inhale avidly, my eyes smarting. Capricious fate
has overturned all maps. I awake befuddled,
not knowing where I am, groping for a warm

body to define the boundaries of my life. Spring
hasn’t arrived, but in my dream my nostrils fill
with your smell, and all seasons bloom in my heart.

Linguistics

And he beat down the city and sowed it with salt.
Judges, ch. 9, v. 45

Mine eyes have been enlightened because I tasted a little
of this honey.”
Samuel I, ch. 14, v. 29

Hebrew and Arabic are blood relatives –
perhaps even cousins. Salt in Hebrew
is melakh, in Arabic, milkh. Honey
in Hebrew is dvash, in Arabic, dibsh.
Whether salt or honey will prevail has nothing
to do with linguistics. The dark heart
shall decide: either the salty desolation
wreaked by Abimelech, or Jonathan’s honeycomb.

Siege

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an ax against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down for man is the tree of the field.
Deuteronomy, 20, 19

It’s not true that the hand of he who cuts down
an olive tree trembles when lifting the ax.

Let’s dispense with symbols. This
is not literature. This is life diminishing
with every thud of an ax, every screech
of a chainsaw, but it does not cry out
because it doesn’t have a voice.

Every day faces blush anew, not
from shame, but from blood spilling
on both sides of the invisible border,
staining olive leaves and the flesh
of man because he is
the tree of the field.

And if among the trampled branches a bird
drops dead in the night, it is not
from flying over the land in search
of an olive leaf, but from West Nile
fever, known for killing humans as well.

There Are Just Wars

and there are wrong wars
but every war is
anguish and untimely death
and cripples and smitten souls.

There are wars that break out
in daylight and wars that begin
at night but every war
is darkness even on sunny days

and even when flares
turn night into day.

Spring has also arrived here
and walking along our street
I heard the song birds and asked,
“Birds, why are you singing, don’t
you know it’s war?” but they didn’t
heed me and kept on singing.

Fingers

When you entwine your fingers
in my fingers our strength doesn’t multiply
or grow three fold, it doesn’t become stronger
at all, as fables would have us believe.
Nothing happens except warmth flowing
from naked fingers to naked fingers.

And yet
when you entwine your fingers in mine
I know it was worthwhile to take
my old knapsack, pack it with the motherland’s image
and other basic necessities and set forth, middle-aged
and scarred by my past, towards a confused dawn,
with no guarantees, from an airport with signs
reading, “Beware: freshly waxed floor.”

By the Rivers of Babylon

I want to clasp you to my heart
but my arm doesn’t move.

I want to tell you words of love
but my lips don’t move.

The love in me
has let my right hand forget
its cunning and my tongue cleave
to the roof of my mouth.

What shall I do?

I’ll hold you with my left arm
and keep silent until
you hear me.


Divisions

This morning the train crossed the Continental Divide.
From here on the division is clear: On this side all rivers
flow eastward, on the other, westward. Over the long
years of our love we have been rushing in our own
direction, you westward, I eastward, twisting and
turning to pour ourselves into each other. Still, in dreams
and poems that stream from that source we merge
into one steadfast river, its mighty waters coursing
through a persistent channel until emptying into the last sea.