Hair by Judy Kronenfeld 1956: the charged air of the “beauty parlor,” slivered with the acetone of nail polish remover, flammable with mists of hair spray and silver and gold highlighters, heavy wi…
I only have a few minutes to write this, since I’m on my way out the door for a poetry reading at the Ugly Mug, my Wednesday evening go-to place.
So I’m only making a start on this. I’ll return to it tomorrow and complete it.
In my life, I’ve lost a lot of things, particularly places I’ve lived in. Yet I never have felt sentimental about them. Usually, I was glad to go, for one reason or another.
Take the house I grew up in, in Philadelphia. It was not a pleasant place to be when I was a child, for many reasons, and the house itself, at the end, became a nightmare I thought I would never wake up from.
My mother was a hoarder in her late years. That, in combination with her life-long obsession with shopping, created a pretty terrible situation, a house full of rats, roaches, lice, and just plain disgusting dirt, such as two fridges full of rotten food.
And you-know-who was responsible for cleaning all this up (me, since there was no one else). Luckily, some wonderful cousins rallied round and helped me.
But it was bound to cause problems, even after the house was cleaned out and sold. I had to pay someone over a thousand dollars to take out all the furniture and everything, piles of old dried up pen refills, shoes and clothes that had never been worn,appliances, and my father’s beloved tools, which were old and much too heavy to transport across the country, particularly since he would never be able to use them again.
Despite the fact that the price we got for the house would pay for their care for the rest of their lives, they never quite forgave me for doing this, but I didn’t have much of a choice.
I had called charities and tried to donate these things, and no one was interested.
I had been telling my father for years that he needed to allow me to hire someone to help him sort his things, sell what he could, and move into an assisted living home, but he refused, believing steadfastly that he would never be able to afford such things.
But when he had a stroke in 2005, it was left to me to figure out how to achieve all this in less than a week, since I had to return to work after my break was over.
At the same time, Katrina was raging in New Orleans, and I felt as though a similarly devastating psychic storm was dismantling my life as well. This was the thing I had feared most for years, and here it was, confronting me.
With the help of friends and family and a strength I didn’t know I had, I lived through it, just as I had lived through my childhood.
Now when I look back in memory (since I don’t have any photos left from those times), when I look at the house on Google Earth, I feel just a little amazement that this happened, and that it turned out relatively okay, in spite of everything.
Sometimes, losing something turns out to be the best possible outcome for everyone, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
Today I’ve been asked to write about the three songs that have meant the most to me.
Though I belong to a choir at synagogue and love to sing (despite a weak and erratic ability to support my voice with my breath), I am not really one to become attached to music.
As a teenager, like most people of my generation, I had a transistor radio constantly affixed to my ear, and knew every song on the pop lineup, singing along with the rest.
But later on, I grew away from that attachment to music, certainly away from music of the pop variety. And though I’ve attended my share of concerts, appreciate stellar film music, and even find myself caught up in some elevator music because of its connection to my personal past, I don’t have the sort of emotional attachment to most music that I used to.
That said, there are a few songs that retain that power over me, most admittedly connected to my past. Like Proust’s madeleine cookie, which had the power to bring the past flooding back with one bite, these songs pack a wallop for me.
One of them is “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” This song, fixture of the early 1950s, features in a memory I have from infancy. In this memory,I am lying in my crib, looking through its bars, echoed in the long shadows of the venetian blinds on the floor, and this song is playing and playing on and on.
I have a poem about this experience, but I hesitate to put it here (even if I could remember what I called it) because I don’t think it has been published yet.
I didn’t know the name of the song at first, but researched the songs popular during the first couple years of my life, playing them online, until I recognized this as the one I heard that day.
The next song is the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” which brings back memories of me walking the hot summer streets of Philadelphia as a teenager.
Do I have a third song? Maybe not. A lot of tunes vie for this position. No one song wins the prize. Perhaps “My Girl,” by the Temptations, or “Reach Out.” Or perhaps some jazz pieces I’ve admired by Coltraine (his version of “Favorite Things,” for instance) or something by Gershwin.
This is the soundtrack of my life.
And now for something completely different.
We’re used to poetry readings being hosted in cafes, on university campuses, at libraries, even at bars and galleries, but not so much at houses of worship.
However, I will be reading at University Synagogue, at Michelson and Harvard in Irvine, CA on January 9th at 8 PM, alongside poet Judy Kronenfeld, author of several books of poetry, including Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths (Antrim House, 2012) and Shimmer (WordTech, 2012), among others.
The service will precede the readings and will be part of the experience, as will a performance by the University Synagogue choir, in which I am also a member!
Here’s one of the poems I will probably be reading that evening
I just found out I won a contest–Painted Bride Quarterly’s Sidecar 35.
It’s particularly nice because I won their Sidecar contest in October as well. The prize is the appearance of the poem for a month on their website.
It’s up there now, at http://pbq.drexel.edu/
Go have a look!
Here’s a poem called “Another Statistic” that I entered in Poetry Storehouse’s First Anniversary Poetry contest, in response to a video they had posted there.
It didn’t win the contest, but appears on the journal’s webpage, along with another poem I published there earlier, “Fistulated Cow.”
As a poet, I enjoy responding to prompts, and most of all, to works of art, generally in genres other than poetry. In fact, I have written an entire manuscript of ekphrastic poems and collaborations with visual (and one verbal) artists, called Together.
I’ve been looking for a publisher for this collection since I completed it last year. But since then, I have continued to write an occasional ekphrastic poem.
Here is one I wrote in response to a submissions call on Broadsided, a publication that, as its name suggests, publishes broadsides on topical issues. This is my second such publication for the publication.
Now that I have a couple of books to my name and many published poems, essays, and reviews out there on the web and in print, I want to make it easier for people to find and read these pieces all in one place.
I have a writer’s page at rnester.libroville.com (and haven’t updated that very recently!). You are welcome to visit that.
I also have a travel blog on Blogspot that I produced on a trip to Israel last spring to visit family. That is Traveling Home To A Strange Land–trvlhome.blogspot.com.
And there are some recent publications you can check out as well, such as my poem “October Wish,” winner of Painted Bride‘s Sidecar poetry contest for this month at pbq.drexel.edu, and my recent poem “Medusa–An Unnatural History,” published by Silver Birch Press at silverbirchpress.wordpress.com/2014/10/13/medusa-an-unnatural-history-poem-by-robbi-nester-mythic-poetry-series/
Here is another poem, published in my book, A Likely Story (Moon Tide Press, 2014) as well as in the anthology Memento Mori that seems appropriate for this Halloween Season.
I met a fellow at a party who began
between two sips of wine, to tell about
the winter he had rats. “As big as goats!”
he swore, and told me how they pulled the books
off shelves, and gnawed the boiler till it bled
white steam. The cellar steps were theirs, until
he set out poison and the scratching stopped.
They bloated bigger than before. Outside,
they kept till summer on the compost heap.
A woman I once heard of had an awful night.
She lay in bed not sleeping, though the moon
had risen and stars burned clear.
The room seemed wrong—too close
for autumn, and her arms were stiff.
Awake, she pried her fingers from the quilt’s
hard edge, and realized her anaconda,
Sam, was loose and she was in his mouth.
Snake’s muscles only wind one way, it seems.
She pulled the other way,
got out of him as some might shed a skin,
and shut that snake down cellar with the dog.
How about the lake that travelers found?
It’s said to be so deep and clear they saw
one-hundred years of kittens in their sacks,
a cow, and people, fully dressed. So cold
these beings hang as in a dance. The miller,
still wearing his white smock, sifts water
through an open hand. A lady, skirts
around her head, takes one stiff step. The current
falls; I can’t be sure my source was factual.
Some man in Kansas or Dakota swears
his TV’s spooked. As he sat picking figures
from the pine wall’s grain, the set
came on all by itself. He jumped, upset
his sleeping dog. It was the test pattern
from a station ten years off the air.
He wondered if the dead were still around
like that, and tried like hell to switch the dial,
but no success. The signal played three hours
and a half. He called the papers and police,
a cousin in Dubuque. They all agreed:
Matter and energy are never lost.
In Spartanburg, a missing person found
his way back home. The way I heard it told,
a widowed hairdresser in town, who tired
of Saturdays alone, once did the hair
of unclaimed corpses at the funeral home.
She trilled like Brenda Lee, what charity!
An endless line for permanents and lacquer
glaze. But getting up to leave, she met
her nephew, gone since April when he left
for church. They found his car out by the lake.
Those corn-blue eyes were faded, yellow hair
needed a part. She guessed he looked okay—
Memento Mori, as if we could forget.
We like to think we would prefer if life
went on and on. But where would be the shape
we’ve come to know so well? The barometric
plunge, the fire burning all to ash
is half of its felicity. So tell
your stories and avert your eyes.