Showing posts with label Poems. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poems. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

The Sister from Below

is delighted to announce

Your Face in the Fire

is an Amazon Bestseller!

Cover art by Kathleen Russ

This happened because so many of you joined the book launch and
ordered a copy on June 1. A beautiful community effort.
Thank you, thank you!

If you haven’t ordered your copy yet it’s still available on Amazon.

Here’s another poem from the book:

Only the Blind

You have always belonged to the moon
Though sometimes it leads you astray

Past willows across the swinging bridge
To somebody’s grave by the river

Stuck in the cave of your skull
You grope for the disappeared moon

Down where it’s blue so blue
Only Blind Willie Johnson

Can sing your way home
Only Isaac the Blind can see

The banshee has got your bones
She’s beating her drum with your bones

And you’re stuck in the cave of your skull
No willows no swinging bridge

Who will plant you deep in the earth?
Who will water your toes?

When the banshee has got your bones
When she’s beating her drum with your bones

You have always belonged to the moon

Only Isaac the Blind can show you
That glow beyond the bridge

Only Blind Willie Johnson
Can sing your way home

Moon Goddess
Jemma M. Young

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Sister from Below is delighted to announce the publication of

Your Face in the Fire

Launch Date: June 1, 2024

Watch this blog for more information

* * * *

News from the Muse of the Double-headed Axe*

*The Double-Headed Axe or labrys was sacred as a tool and a weapon. It belonged to the Minoan
Goddess. It is associated with the labyrinth—“house of the double axe.”

Roi Faineant

an online literary publication
has published four of Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s recent poems.

It is difficult to find literary magazines which will publish long poems, and/or poems that take on the difficult issues of our terrible times. Hats off to the editors of this brave publication. You can find all four poems here:

The Muse of the Double-headed Axe

insists on sharing Her poem, below.


Pilgrimage in the Shape of a Prayer

You never know    where    you’re going
                                                until you get there
You never know    what    you’ll stumble into
                                                until you’re in it

so said the Labyrinth       one afternoon
                                                in late November
as your feet faltered     round the sudden     twists and turns
                                                 of the double-headed ax
When at last    you emerged    from that pilgrimage
                                            in the shape of a prayer
ruby red and gold trees    flared up    into a glory
                                            and you suddenly remembered    the Dream

The Dream knows you    are a wandering Jew
whose bones ache    with the agony weight
of the world    forever    seeking sanctuary
forever    on a pilgrimage    in the shape of a prayer
you stumble    into    a small    Black Hole    A temple?
A trap?    A desecration of the Holy Land?    Can’t see a thing
but the bony labyrinth    of your ear hears    demonic chanting
The One and the Only    Mr Security
The One and the Only    Judge and Jury
rousing your ancestors    to warn you
This double-headed ax blow    to the stomach
this manic metronome    with its hypnotic spell
means to render you    powerless    or is it
a call to witness    how swiftly sanctuary
                                                can turn    treacherous?

Nova Music Festival


The Dream knows you    will stumble
    into this damp and gloomy     spider web of tunnels
        a double-headed ax    a labyrinth of passageways
            You walk    with the walkers    who can’t see
                                                    you    seem to be    a spirit    in this underworld
                You come at last    to a well-lit room
                    a group of young people    wounded    bandaged
                        dazed    confused    held prisoner
                            Are you called to witness    the abducted?
                        Are you called to hear    what they remember?
                     Just yesterday    they were ecstatic    trance dancers
                a synchronized flow    of mandalas    within mandalas
            spheres beyond spheres    in the company    of Great Buddha
        on a pilgrimage    in the shape of a prayer    for peace    for joy
    between Jews and Muslims    loving the land they share    all day
all night    in the desert    until suddenly    at sunrise    Nirvana cracks

    gun shots    hand grenades    terrorists are hunting them    running
        running    weeping     shrieking    corpses scattered    everywhere
            and they    the survivors    abducted
                Where was the army?    We served our time
                    We would have saved us    Now we’re stuck
                        in this hell hole    without our phones
                            How can we text    our terrified mothers?
                                What would Buddha say?

Destruction in Gaza

Eye and Child

The Dream transports you stumbling    into a temple    or is it a mosque by the sea?    The Dream
shows you    the spirit of a girl who reveals    I am the “Unknown Trauma Child” of Gaza
Did anyone survive under the rubble that terrible night   when the bomb crashed into our home
like a double-headed ax?    All I could hear was    shrieking    shrieking    Then nothing a tunnel
of darkness    a sudden bright light    as the ancestors gathered    fragments of my soul
so I can visit with you    in your dream    so you can see me whole    a radiant loving child
of radiant loving people    May they come to me    as ghosts who walk the labyrinth
a pilgrimage    in the shape of a prayer    May you greet them    here in this sanctuary
made sacred by your sorrow    Sit with us    Meet my mother who was tender    Meet my father
who was playful    Meet my older brother    the joker    Meet my younger sister    the dreamer
and that unknown unborn one  in mother’s womb  who never will see   the light  of the new day
This is my family   broken pottery  shattered lineage  cast away flesh and bones  No one is left
to identify   our bodies   No one is left   to grieve   May you be our witness   our weeper
                                                                                     May you gather  and treasure  our souls


The Dream knows   you are weary                still stumbling   on difficult terrain
    This pilgrimage  in the shape of a prayer    has not yet revealed the  Temple of your Soul
        The Dream is a labyrinth   in motion            in the shape of a butterfly
            in the shape of a double-headed ax              it cuts through tumult  and you find yourself
                ascending a Rock   given a hand up            by kind people   who know   sorrow
            “This Rock”   they tell you                       “is our Sanctuary   without walls
           where all who love this land                call it Palestine  call it Israel  may gather to pray
        that the Rock will hold us   know us     help us face   the hard truth   of our history
    the hard truth   of our geography           the hard truth   of our kinship   in catastrophe
        We bring prayer rugs   and prayer shawls       We prostrate ourselves   we daven

We’ve come to hear    the Stone speak”

I am the voice    of the land you love
Hear O Israel    Hear O Palestine
I am your Mother
I say    “Enough Already!
Salaam is Sholom    Sholom is Salaam

Make Peace!”

Sacred Rock

Monday, October 30, 2023

The Muse of the Promised Land

News from the Muse of
The Promised Land

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
Jerusalem  Sliman Monsour

A Dream of Jerusalem 
Jerusalem sits in mourning.  She’s sitting shiva.
Yehuda Amichai  Open Close Open  p. 136.

Isaac Frenkel Frenel
This blog piece was inspired by a dream: 

I am in Jerusalem, standing among others outside an imposing structure—part city hall, part synagogue. But this is not a sanctuary for the living. It reverberates with spirits who seem trapped within it. They lament and they clamor. They beat their spectral heads and hands against the walls and windows, demanding the Jerusalem we always said we would return to, next year—as part of the Passover ritual. It is as though the building itself is possessed—writhing in an agony of dead Jewish souls. This almost living being is trying to contain the torment, the longing, the sorrow, the rage of generations of ancestors railing at the living, demanding the Jerusalem of their souls. My paternal grandparents, who died in the Shoah, tug at me, as though they want to join those inhabiting “The City of God,” a protest tent city that sprang up after tens of thousands of Israelis hiked in 95 degree heat from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to protest Netanyahu’s Judicial Coup. One sign reads: “Bibi, haven’t the Jews suffered enough?” This cacophony of suffering invoked in me the Muse of the Promised Land—that shining angel of hope in Jewish history—which seems to lurch from catastrophe to miracle and back. But history had other plans.

Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
—Psalm 60:12 Translated by Robert Alter

By the Rivers of Babylon - Gebhard Fugel, c. 1920

On October 7th—a Saturday as well as the holiday, Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end and the beginning of the annual cycle of reading the Torah—the Jewish world was blind-sided by a brutal, entirely unexpected attack on Israel by Hamas, which invaded its southern border with Gaza by land, by sea, and by air. How could this happen to a warrior nation, famous for its masterful military and cunning intelligence capabilities? How could terrorists have crossed the border of Gaza, entered Israel, killing and taking hostage Israelis in their homes, towns, kibbutzim and at a night long music festival held near that border? Three thousand mostly young people danced and sang in the Negev desert until dawn to celebrate Peace, Unity, Love and Sukkot—the Jewish harvest festival. Suddenly, at sunrise, sirens clamored, rockets and missiles fell from everywhere, hundreds of terrorists shot at the revelers from every direction. The children of Israel were slaughtered, raped, stolen away on motorcycles—hostages to be taken over the border to Gaza. Survivors keep saying: ‘It’s the Shoah, all over again.’ What happened to Israel’s vaunted Defense Forces, its Iron Dome, its Pegasus spyware?

That refrain, ‘It’s the Shoah all over again’ is a trauma response among Jews that sends us whirling downward into a pit of despair and agony—there seems no way out of it.  I lived much of my childhood in that pit.

                                    In the Wake of the Shoah
                                    when my father’s fierce fingers made Bach flow
                                    our dead came in and sat with us    a ghostly visitation
                                    and my grandmother sang lieder     from long ago
                                    —Naomi Lowinsky Adagio and Lamentation p. 27

Haunted - Unknown artist

As a child I lived in the dark undertow of the Shoah. The dead were an unspoken presence. I felt them in my father’s rages, in my mother’s depression, in the sense of dread that emanated from the dark corners of the house; I saw them in my Oma’s haunted eyes. We were a family of Jewish refugees from Hitler thrown back and forth between catastrophe and miracle. There was nothing in between. The catastrophe that had befallen the Jews of Europe was just behind us. Daily catastrophes assaulted our household. My brothers chased each around the house, disturbing our father’s work on a musical score. He came roaring out of his study, looking and sounding like Hitler, grabbed each little boy by the ear and knocked their heads together. They wailed. My mother, who had married a distinguished thirty-year-old scholar when she was eighteen, had no authority over him—no gravitas. She wept. And I, terrified of father’s Hitlerian furies, hid out in a corner, said nothing. That was my catastrophe.

                                            Justice and law are the base of Your throne.
                                            —Psalm 89:15 Translated by Robert Alter

Promised Land

But there was redemption. The Muse of the Promised Land visited us often and cast a spell of hope and joy. She was a shapeshifter, answering to different names: Palestine, America, Israel. When She arrived, often on Shabbat, I watched my father’s face light up, I heard his language become mythopoetic, as he told us miracle stories of how he, our family, our people were saved from Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews by those three Promised Lands which took in Jewish refugees. Father told a magical story of how, in the clutch of history’s brutal fist, his path opened before him, and he was shown the way to sanctuary. 

I and the Village - Marc Chagal

My father was born in Stuttgart to a family of impoverished Jews who fled the brutal pogroms which targeted Jews in the Russian Pale. They found refuge in Germany, in the early years of the 20th century. Father was the only son among six children. He was destined to be the chosen one, the one who would bring the glories of German culture and the patina of knowledge and success to the family. He was well on his way, pursuing a doctorate in Musicology at Heidelberg University in 1932, just before Hitler came to power. I can hear father now, in the spellbinding tradition of Russian Jewish storytellers who leap gracefully from the everyday to the mystical and back:
A Stuttgart policeman—not a Jew—was the first miracle. He warned my family that we were under suspicion because my sister had a communist boyfriend. He told my mother to flush the left-wing pamphlets down the toilet and flee the country immediately. Word got to me in Heidelberg and I—again a miracle—was able to complete my dissertation in six weeks and—another miracle—cross the border to Holland at dusk, while the guards were looking the other way. And wasn’t it a miracle that my dissertation was about a Flemish Renaissance composer, Orlando di Lasso, who was of great interest to Princess Juliana of Holland whom I happened to meet on the street one day, which led to my becoming the royal piano teacher, which led to my becoming the piano teacher for the Hoffman family, which led to my marrying the youngest daughter—your mother—just before the Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. We knew Holland would soon be invaded. 

The Promised Land was calling all Jews to get out of Europe. My father-in-law saw it clearly—no place in Europe was safe for the Jews. He was a miracle maker who had the means and the intelligence to figure out how to get people out. He helped to get three of my sisters passage to British controlled Palestine years before it became Israel. What a miracle that they found refuge and community, that they were able to marry and raise families in the Jewish homeland. Your Opa would not have thought it a miracle that he helped my sisters emigrate, or that he found passage out of Holland for his family and new son-in-law. He was a practical and ethical man who would consider it the only thing to do under the circumstances.  
Father never spoke about the difficulties of the family’s long passage. The Promised Land of America was calling. But America was in no mood to take in Jewish refugees from Hitler—anti-Semitism was widespread, and the country was recovering from the Great Depression. The Hoffman–Lowinsky family had to wait in Cuba for 20 months before the miracle of entering the Promised Land could happen. How my Opa managed that was never clear to me until well into my midlife, when a relative’s death brought letters into my possession that explained what had happened—Opa had purchased Haitian passports. No wonder my family identifies so strongly with people of color. The passports worked to get the family into America but were no help when it came to getting visas, or citizenship. I gather, from the letters, that Opa had to go through a difficult legal struggle. A few months later, shortly after I was born, Opa dropped dead, while playing chess with himself. He’d had a stroke. He had devoted himself to helping many members of our family immigrate to America. I heard the Muse of the Promised Land in the stories my mother’s cousins told of how Opa had saved them. Whenever I hear news stories about the difficulties refugees from dangerous situations face when they try to enter our Promised Land, I feel grieved and furious. But for luck and Opa’s skilled perseverance, none of my family would be here.
      I reviewed Arab history
      found no dream to borrow…
      the tortured homeland infiltrated me

     Siham Da’oud The Poetry of Arab Women p. 92
Olive Harvest in Palestine - Maher Naji

My ancestral rememberings are constantly interrupted by news from Israel and from Gaza. I feel suffused with the news. I remember when my husband Dan and I visited Israel in 1987, just before the first Intifada—Arabic for Uprising—every Israeli home we visited had the television news on constantly. They lived in a state of perpetual vigilance. These days I feel like an Israeli, caught up in my own Shoah trauma vortex. But of course, I’m not living in the horror of today’s Israeli reality. I’m not hearing sirens and rockets go off many times a day. I don’t have to drop everything I’m doing and run to the bomb shelter. I’m not getting news of dear friends or family who have been slaughtered or taken hostage. I’m not going to funerals. But I am flooded with the agony of the moment. My moral compass keeps spinning.  My heart hurts for the Palestinians in Gaza who are being brutally bombarded day after day. They have no bomb shelters. My heart hurts for the mother in Jerusalem whose beautiful 23 year old son was at that music festival. His left arm was blown off by a grenade attack before he was taken hostage. Is he alive?  My heart hurts for the mother in Gaza City, where the siege of Israeli bombing has begun. How can she find food and water for her little ones, without risking her life? Israel has stopped the transport of food, water, fuel and electricity. How will she and her little ones survive? My heart hurts for Tony Blinken, our American Secretary of State, who has a Shoah history much like mine. His grandfather fled from Russian pogroms. His stepfather survived Auschwitz and Dachau. He’s engaged in indefatigable shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, trying to calm the fevers of war. He too must be in a trauma vortex. 
Always there is hope
always one is born to pay off
an old debt…

—Anat Zecharia A Winding Line p.145
Zvi Adler - Judean Hills

Back in 1950, the Promised Land of Israel, opened its doors to my mother’s sister Ilein. She chose to make Aliyah rather than remain in America with her parents and sisters. She married, became a chicken farmer, selling eggs on the outskirts of Haifa. Unable to bear children, she adopted them. My Oma, an accomplished painter of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, visited her Ilein often and returned with glowing canvases—the beach at Haifa, the azure blue of the Mediterranean Sea. The Muse of the Promised Land spoke to me through those paintings, gave me a vision of Israel as a land of light blessed by its ocean port. Many of these trips happened in the 1950s, before people traveled by air. Oma must have seen the Port of Haifa often, as her ship approached The Promised Land. 
The Muse of Israel added trees to this vision. She spoke through my father on Shabbat, who loved telling stories of “The Miracle that turned the Desert into Paradise.” How had this been achieved? By the planting of trees. At Sunday School the Muse took the form of small blue and white metal boxes with slots for coins. We were urged to make offerings to the “Miracle of Trees in the Promised Land.” 
The Muse of Israel spoke in the voice of my Tante Ilein, who came to visit every few years, bringing laughter, joy and music to my mother and our family. We had chamber music evenings. She played the cello, Mother played violin and viola, Father played the piano. Tante Ilein told stories of the wonders of this new land. She told us about a Kibbutz near her home. She marveled that these intentional communities revolutionized family and gender roles based on egalitarian and communal values. In the Kibbutz she knew, children lived together, played together, studied together, and worked on the land together. Maybe their parents would visit them on Shabbat. Maybe not. Maybe they’d grow up to continue in the community, work on the land, keep the traditions. Maybe they’d leave, go to a university, learn a profession. The Muse of those times in Israel was not interested in whether you studied Torah, or kept kosher, or observed Shabbat. She was a free thinker, agnostic, progressive. But I never heard Her speak of what happened to the Palestinians whose houses and lands were stolen in the mass displacement of indigenous people that occurred during the 1948 Arab Israeli war—despite the United Nations resolution calling for two states—and continues to this day.

Catastrophe versus Catastrophe
My longing weeps for everything. My longing shoots back at me, to kill or be killed…
I am from here, I am from there, yet am neither here nor there.
—Mahmoud Darwish Unfortunately, It Was Paradise p. 4

To Where? - Ismail Shammout

Many say that the painful history of the Palestinian people is behind the horror of the October 7th attack. Palestinians lost their homes, their land, their way of life when Jewish refugees from the Shoah—which means catastrophe—took over what Palestinians believe belongs to them. Israelis, however, see the land as their ancestral homeland. Palestinians call their mass displacement and dispossession during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war The Naqba—which also means catastrophe. The agony in Israel and Palestine has its roots in these competing catastrophes. Israel’s 75-year history is filled with attempts to negotiate a way for both peoples to live together peaceably, interrupted by wars, uprisings and the intrusion of Jewish settlers into Palestinian areas under Israeli Occupation—notably the West Bank.

The recent attack on Israel came from Gaza, a narrow strip of land into which 2 million Palestinians are crushed—commonly referred to as an “outdoor prison—because the Israelis on the northern and eastern side and the Egyptians on the southern and western sides control the borders. Though Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 many consider it an occupying power due to its continuing blockade of the territory. The Israeli government doesn’t agree. At this point Israel is at war—the fifth Gaza war since 2007. It is also the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, when a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria crossed ceasefire lines and entered the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Again my moral compass is spinning. The Hamas terrorists committed horrendous atrocities. Israel needs to fight back. But if the Israelis, and their allies don’t consider the context out of which these catastrophes emerge, they will continue to repeat this catastrophic history. Some say Hamas is also responding to the normalization of relationships between Israel and other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia which Netanyahu is promoting. They feel squeezed out, forgotten. 

                    Mister, Prime Minister
                    you must be very proud of your country
                    as you observe what’s going on with your eyes shut…
                    Which gives us a reason to stand for years
                    in the square and sing.
                    —Anat Zecharia A Winding Line p. 131

The Spring that Was - Ismail Shammout

On October 8, the day after the attack, an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz laid the blame for what happened on Prime Minister, Netanyahu, and his policies concerning Palestine. In Haaretz’ view the catastrophe was the result of Netanyahu’s “fully–right” coalition of Ultra-Orthodox, racist ministers who took “overt steps…to annex the West Bank and to carry out ethnic cleansing” in areas the Oslo Accords had protected, including the Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley. The editorial holds him and his cronies responsible for the “massive expansion of settlements and bolstering of the Jewish presence on Temple Mount, near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as boasts of an impending peace deal with the Saudis in which the Palestinians would get nothing.” Haaretz expressed outrage about the “open talk of a ‘second Nakba’ in his governing coalition.” They point out that a Prime Minister who has been indicted in three corruption cases will hardly have time and energy to attend to matters of state.

Before the Israeli–Hamas war broke out, I thought I was writing about a different catastrophe, one that has also been attributed to the Prime Minister—his treacherous Judicial Coup. The autocratic, self–serving and criminal Netanyahu has made common cause with extreme right wingers in a plot to strip the judiciary of its power and independence. This would mean no judicial checks and balances on government power. In response to this there has been a mighty wave of protests. Of course, as soon as Hamas struck the demonstrations stopped. Israelis rallied to the war effort as they must. Army reservists who had threatened not to serve because they were angered by the Prime Minister’s assault on democracy, rushed to protect their country. 

This story is fast–moving, changing every hour. As I write a ground war against Gaza seems to be the next step, putting two million civilians at risk. The Israeli government is warning citizens of Gaza City to leave. Where are they supposed to go? They have already been denied food, water, fuel and electricity by the Israeli government. Hospitals are running out of power, just as thousands of civilians are being bombed. This is punishment of non-combatants, considered a war crime, just as the Hamas brutality against civilians is a war crime. My ancestors, always with me, are lamenting-- “Oy veh is mir”. 

In what feels like a ray of light in all the chaos and misery of war news, my favorite former American president, Barack Obama, makes a significant statement: “Thoughts on Israel and Gaza.” No longer constricted by the politics of his former role, Obama tells a truth that calms the clamoring ancestors in my soul, who have been crazed with worry about the very danger Obama names. After expressing his outrage at the “horrific attack against Israel” Obama goes on to argue that the way Israel is conducting the war is likely to backfire. My ancestors say, “That’s right. It is very bad for the Jews”! Obama says:
The Israeli government’s decision to cut off food, water and electricity to a captive civilian population (in Gaza) threatens not only to worsen a growing humanitarian crisis, it could further harden Palestinian attitudes for generations, erode global support for Israel, play into the hands of Israel’s enemies, and undermine long–term efforts to achieve peace and stability in the region.
Obama, you may remember, made a valiant attempt to achieve such a peace in 2010 and was undermined again and again by Netanyahu’s refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories in the West Bank.

                                  Catastrophe   American style
                                  My family had a Sabbath ritual
                                  We lit the candles sang Go Down Moses   sang Swing Low 
                                  Sweet Chariot   sang slave music   freedom music   secret signals 
                                  in the night music   My father said   you never know
                                                                                                  when Pharoah will be back

                                  —Naomi Ruth Lowinsky Death and His Lorca p. 16

Moses with the Ten Commandments - Rembrandt

As the first-born child of refugees I saw the Muse of America as a guardian angel. I heard her in my father’s voice, extolling the virtues of the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence—“liberty for all.” He knew full well that America had not lived up to those ideals, that Black people were discriminated against, as were other minorities including Jews. But because we had been lucky enough to find our way to the Promised Land he was grateful, and believed devoutly that America would fulfill its promise. He was a Martin Luther King liberal. On Shabbat and at Passover we sang “Go Down Moses” because for us Black Moses and Jewish Moses were the same.

The Muse of America as the Promised Land lit a passion for the Jewish ethical tradition in my father as it did in me. I clearly remember my first experience of the Great American Shadow—the Army McCarthy Hearings of 1954. I was 11, recovering from eye surgery, which freed me to stay home from school and listen to the drama on the radio. I can hear McCarthy’s noxious voice to this day, shouting: “Point of order, point of order Mr. Chairman.” McCarthy was a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, a bully, a demagogue, a virulent anti-communist who saw communist infiltration everywhere—the government, universities and the film industry. He chaired the subcommittee on Government Operations which accused the Army of harboring communists. In the dramatic story I followed day after day the Senate was investigating the conflicting charges made by McCarthy and by the Army. Joseph Welch was chief counsel for the Army. I took pride in reporting the events of the day to my father when he came home. I was filled with righteous indignation until the day the tables turned. McCarthy had accused a young lawyer on Welch’s staff of Communist sympathies. Welsh responded with words I will never forget: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Let us not assassinate this lad further senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” That phrase—no sense of decency—proved the downfall of McCarthy. The American people in 1954—glued to their TVs—could see what a bad actor McCarthy was. The Muse of the Promised Land won that battle. 

Most of a lifetime later, it grieves me greatly to see a similar bully, provocateur, and criminal—currently facing 91 felony counts— who trumpets his anti-democratic and autocratic attitudes as he leads the charge against justice and ethical behavior in our land. He led the attempted coup against his own government on January 6th 2021. I hear “Have you no decency?” as a subtext of the myriad indictments made against our former president who wants to be president again. It disturbs me profoundly that the question of decency, of telling the truth, of not being cruel, of being ethical seems to have little power over a renegade politician these days, at least in America.

But in Israel, before the attack by Hamas, the story was different. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem shouting “Busha!”—the Hebrew word for “Shame!” It comforted me that Jews in the Promised Land were standing up for our ancient ethical tradition. I was moved by an urgent and devastating request for support by Mika Almog, of She is an Israeli writer, journalist, political activist and the granddaughter of the late Shimon Perez—former prime minister and former president of Israel. Here is some of what she said:
Israel is facing the greatest threat in its 75 year history…We are literally fighting for our survival, not just as a democracy but as a homeland for the entire Jewish people. The ground is burning beneath our feet…The Judicial Coup is not an internal Israeli matter…This is about shaping the future and the story of the Jewish people. Israel is the glue that kept us together for millennia, our homeland is a safe haven for a people without a home.
Reading this I was in tears, reminded of a story my father never told his children—though he was born in Germany in 1908 he was stateless because, in those days, Germany had no birth-right citizenship. I learned this recently, when my nephew, Hillel, moved to Germany to marry Aurelia, a German woman he met in Israel. He petitioned to become a citizen under German laws that allow for the renaturalization of Jews whose ancestors were victims of Nazi persecution. But he needed to show proof of German citizenship. My mother’s family fled a few months before Hitler came to power. And my father, it turns out, was a citizen of nowhere—not Russia, not Germany not Holland. No wonder the Promised Land was so essential to him. It hurts my heart now, generations later, to imagine how frightening it must have been for him and his kin to be stateless and unprotected. Hillel has created a Café in Hamburg, which he calls Lowinsky’s. His logo is a photo of his grandfather’s face. He has brought his Opa, my father, back to a very different Germany than the one from which he fled.

Lowinsky’s NY Coffee and Tea in Hamburg

As Almog said: “No war is as dangerous as a government attacking its own people.” Isn’t that what happened in Germany? Didn’t a version of that happen here in America on January 6, 2021, when the outgoing president provoked an attempted coup? Isn’t avoiding that the whole purpose of the Promised Land?

“Where There is Much Light There is Much Shadow”
Emma Hoffman

The Ghosts - Miki de Goodaboom

That is what my Oma used to say to me, when I complained to her about my father and his rages. At night, deep in the pit of my Shoah trauma, I hear her voice saying: “That is true of countries as well as people.” I don’t know if Oma ever read Jung. But she was an artist who worked with shadow and light. She used shadow to delineate the shape of what she drew and painted. As I think about her wise words, heroic stories coming out of the agony of the war come to mind. I marvel at the Muslim medic who stayed to take care of the wounded after the attack on the music festival. He thought speaking Arabic would protect him. Unfortunately, it didn’t. I marvel at the doctors and nurses at the hospital in Gaza City who do their best to care for the sick and wounded despite Israel’s blockade of medications, food, water, fuel and electricity to the suffering population. I marvel at the son whose mother, an Israeli peace activist, is believed to be a hostage. He said: “Vengeance is not something to build foundations on. It is not a strategy. How many dead Palestinians will be enough for us to feel safe?” (Quoted in Nicholas Kristof’s column, October 27th 2023.)

The Camel  Carrier of Hardships
Sliman Mansour

Shadow and light, catastrophe and miracle seem to take turns on the stage of Jewish history. Consider the Psalms, to which we turn for comfort and support when we feel overwhelmed by suffering and grief. Judaism gives us a deity who can be ruthless and cruel as well as just and loving—which, of course, is true of us all. The Psalms move from shadow to light and back. Sometimes it is the Lord who puts us “in the nethermost pit,/in darkness, in the depths” (Psalm 88:7), sometimes it is other humans: “How long the Wicked, O Lord,/ how long will the wicked exult? (Psalm 94:3). But Psalm 89:1 sings “the Lord’s kindnesses forever.” And Psalm 95:1 invites us to “sing gladly to the Lord.” 

Robert Alter—whose translation of the Psalms is the one I quote—points out in The Art of Biblical Poetry:
The God of biblical faith…is not a God of the cosmos alone, but also a God of history. A good many psalms…are responses to the most urgent pressures of the historical moment. (p. 121)

Perseverance and Hope - Sliman Mansour

I wanted to sing gladly to that God of history on the morning of October 18th when Dan and I woke to hear the voice of our President, Joe Biden, speaking from Tel Aviv—the only American president who has visited Israel in wartime. I wept, listening to his empathic, strong and ethical response to the atrocities:

Shock, pain, rage—an all-consuming rage. I understand, and many Americans understand

You can’t look at what has happened here to your mothers, your fathers, your grandparents, sons, daughters, children—even babies—and not scream out for justice. Justice must be done.

But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.

The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas. Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.
And Biden, who is so familiar with sorrow, spoke to the Israeli people about the nature of grief:
To those who are living in limbo waiting desperately to learn the fate of loved ones, especially to families of the hostages: You’re not alone … 

To those who are grieving a child, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, I know you feel like there’s that black hole in the middle of your chest. You feel like you’re being sucked into it.

The survivor’s remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.

Starting at—staring at that empty chair, sitting shiva. The first Sabbath without them…

For those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They’ll never be truly gone. There’s something that’s never fully lost: your love for them and their love for you…

Read full text: transcript of U.S. President Joe Biden's remarks in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. 

Jaffa (A Palestinian City before 1948)   
Juhaina Habibi Kandalaft

Biden also spoke passionately about the humanitarian issues raised by the siege on Gaza and declared it time to return to negotiating a two–state solution! I wonder how that went over with Netanyahu? I say to my inner Oma, ‘isn’t this also a miracle?’ We have a president who, in our angry, unstable, cruel times, has the courage to speak out for justice and compassion. The shadow is, he gets so little credit for his valor, his moral compass, and most of all for his decency. These virtues are not, it seems, in vogue. The shadow is that, as I write, the people of Gaza are still being bombed. The count of Palestinian dead keeps rising and rising. Many who obeyed the Israeli command to evacuate Gaza City and go south have been struck by bombs in what they were told would be safe areas. Most of Gaza City is debris and death—appalling, unbearable.

I began this blog piece thinking I was telling a story about courageous protests by Israelis against their government—which has gone seriously awry. But on October 7th the story shifted into a hell realm—the Jewish-Palestinian trauma vortex. As I come to the end of this piece, with the story still changing every hour, it strikes me that the second story is actually an outcome of the first. The Haaretz editorial I quoted earlier makes the connection. As President Obama knows all too well, the catastrophe in Israel has everything to do with the Netanyahu government’s consistent undermining of a two–state solution. They have thrown gasoline on the fires of Israeli and Palestinian conflict by their support of the settlers in the West Bank, who are encouraged to be violent with their Palestinian neighbors. And they eased the way for terrorists to invade Israel, by their lack of a military presence at the Southern border. Netanyahu, I’m told, dislikes the kibbutzim and small towns in what is called the “periphery”—because they are inhabited by progressive people who don’t vote for him. Some say Hamas was surprised and a bit shocked by how little resistance they met. As the protesters have shouted at their government for many months of marching in the streets: “Busha!” “Busha!” “Shame!” I am moved to quote the words of Nir Avishai Cohen, author of Love Israel, Support Palestine, and an Israeli reservist in his way to join the war (published in the Opinion Section of the NYTimes, Sunday, October 15th, 2023):
At the end, after all of the dead Israelis and Palestinians are buried, after we have finished washing away the rivers of blood, the people who share a home in this land will have to understand that there is no other choice but to follow the path of peace. That is where true victory lies.
Many years ago, during another time of terrorist attacks in Israel, when the ground was burning beneath Israeli feet, I wrote a Psalm to the God of history that is, sadly relevant again:

Unnamed - Ahlam Al Faqih

Your Face   in the Fire

Descend upon me   you who are source
before source   fire in the sky   gleam
in the back of my skull     Come in the wind
with wings     Come in my breath    I cling
to the luminous stair     Sing me your names
spirit    void    darkening sea    world
tree      When thunder speaks      come into my heart
where terrible stories are told
                                                                             The woman
whose womb has cast pieces of flesh   all over the streets
of Jerusalem   that son of your prophet     whose light
splintered   into thousands of dangerous

              I gather it all for the altar
                                        the blood    the rage    the weeping
                                                                            Show me your face
                                                                                                    in the fire

                                                                           (forthcoming in Your Face in the Fire)


Alter, R. trans. 2007. The Book of Psalms. W.W. Norton.
______ 1985. The Art of Biblical Poetry. Basic Books

Amichai, Y. 2000. Open    Closed    Open. Trans. Chana Bloch, Chana Kronfeld. Harcourt, Inc.

Darwish, M. 2003. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. University of California Press.

Handal, R. ed. 2001. The Poetry of Arab Women. Interlink Books.

Keller, T. trans. 2023. A Winding Line: Three Hebrew Poets. Zephyr Press.

Lowinsky, NR. 2007. Adagio and Lamentation. Fisher King Press.
_________, 2021, Death and His Lorca. Blue Light Press.
__________, (forthcoming) Your Face in the Fire.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Muse of the Psalms

Mainz Book of Hours 
Save me O God; 
For the waters are come in even unto the soul. 
I am sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing; 
I am come into deep waters, and the flood overwhelmeth me. 
(The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1917)
In the Valley of the Shadow
you are the last living generation 
of the six that went before you 

passing that invisible medicine basket 
from one generation to the next… 
Anita Cadena Sánchez 
from her poem “Medicine Basket” 
in Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow p. 6 
Medicine Basket

On June 12th of last year, the Sister from Below celebrated the publication of Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow with a blog called: The Muse of Deep River. We of Deep River—the poetry circle I lead at the Jung Institute—had begun to feel the shadow of the pandemic lifting and the political scene brightening as the Biden administration vaccinated the willing and passed the American Rescue Plan which stimulated the economy, sent money to families with children and helped out state and local governments. That upbeat mood did not last long. New variants of Covid 19 attacked us, and the political will continue to support families with children, to protect voting rights, to protect our Mother Earth, seems to have ebbed away.

We’ve recently passed the one-year anniversary of the day Lady Liberty was roughed up so badly at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The question, now hanging in the air is: “Are we losing our democracy?” On the first anniversary of that infamous day, President Biden accused the former president of “holding a dagger to the throat of democracy.” The New York Times Editorial Board warned us that we face “an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends.” Republican lawmakers are passing bills that “would make it easier for lawmakers to reject the votes of their citizens if they don’t like the outcome.” (The New York Times Sunday Review Jan. 2nd, 2022) At this writing, the news is unbelievable: the Republican National Committee has decided that what happened on January 6th 2021 is “legitimate political discourse!” Excuse me? Have you watched the horrifying videos of that coup attempt on YouTube? Where are we? In Germany, 1933? In Mandelstam’s Soviet Union? In Milosz’ Poland? It’s not just the virus that hangs heavy in the air, but a terror that our elections are about to be undermined, and that the hopes for real change kindled by the victory of Biden and Harris, by the Black Lives Matter Movement, by the Green New Deal, by the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill, by the Build Back Better bill, are in deep trouble. “What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people?” asks Czeslaw Milosz in his famous poem “Dedication.” He answers this impossible question in another poem, “In Warsaw:” 
My pen is lighter 
Than a hummingbird’s feather. This burden 
Is too much for it to bear. 
And yet, poems have been written about this unbearable burden since the psalmist took up his lyre and sang: 
Why, O God, has Thou cast us off forever?
Why doth Thine anger smoke against the flock of Thy pasture?
(Psalm 74:1 The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1917.) 

In troubled times many of us turn to the Psalms, as we did in Deep River when, after the 2016 election and the assaults of climate change and the pandemic, we found ourselves writing poems about a world turned upside down and inside out. Like the psalmist, Deep River poet Daniela Kantorová pleads for help from the divine in her poem “The Ship:” 

Dear God, please turn the ship
that floats in the rain above Foothill Blvd.
It lands in an apple orchard
The back merges with the land
(p. 65)
Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow became the name we gave our process of reading and writing. Eventually, it became the name of the book of poems we gathered as a bulwark against the looming catastrophes of our times. The origin of the name is in these famous lines from Psalm 23: 
He restoreth my soul; 
He guideth me in straight paths for his name’s sake. 
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death 
I will fear no evil, 
For thou art with me 
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. 
(Psalm 23: 3-6 The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1917) 
In his book, Keeping Faith with the Psalms, Daniel F. Polish refers to the profound idea that the “I” in this psalm is the soul on its life journey (p.171). In this way, making a poem is “making soul.” As I wrote in the Introduction to Soul Making: “The Muse is the voice of the soul, speaking in language that blends reason and mystery, She makes meaning of the incomprehensible.” (p. vii) 

Many of the poems in our collection are about this process. Kent Ward Butzine opens his poem “Pandémie Hypnagogique” with a description of soul loss: 
Everything is receding    darkening 
there is sadness    as the trees go 
the river    birds and birdsong    the sky 
all beloved 
Psalms are both poems and prayers. Many poems meander into prayer. They mix the stuff of everyday life with invocations to the divine. In Sheila de Shields’ poem “Flight of the Mind,” she prays for herself in old age: 
in my last days 
may I sit by the black basalt fountain  wild blue 
and hooded orioles among my redwood trees 

let me recall the names of my children… 
In my poem “Birth Day Poem 2017” I pray: 
Carry me back   through the laboring dark 
into first light   first cry   first touch 
of mother’s hands 
Later in the poem I refer to political events as “those evil spirits” and as “the furies” who “rave/ and mutter,” who “spooked// my cradle” as my parents began to learn of “the trains the chimneys” in the Europe they had recently fled. What spooked me all over again was the anti-Semitic chants we heard from the right wing in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, 2017, when a "Unite the Right" rally turned deadly and the hate was palpable. 

There are those who argue that it’s not kosher to mix poetry with the political—they are different spheres—just as the Jews separate the everyday from the Sabbath, just as Jung made a distinction between the Spirit of the Depths and the Spirit of the Times. But in Deep River we found we needed to mix the political with the profound themes that are poetry’s usual domain for the sake of our very souls. Poetry was our way of walking through the Valley of the Shadow. Despite the title of our book, it hadn’t fully come to me how much our path is influenced by the Psalms. As Robert Alter points out in The Art of Biblical Poetry
The God of biblical faith…is not a God of the cosmos alone, but also a God of history. A good many psalms…are responses to the most urgent pressures of the historical moment.
(p. 121)
It is moving to realize that this poetic tradition—which speaks to the Divine from the overwhelm and panic we feel when in the grip of history’s violent fist—is as ancient as the Hebrew Bible. There is a lovely Jewish myth about King David, the Psalmist, which tells us that he wrote the psalms with “The Holy Breath” (Tree of Souls p. 279). In Judaism, Ruah, meaning breath or spirit, is one of the levels of the soul. Similarly, the word inspiration, which comes from the Latin word inspirare — meaning to breathe—came to mean divine guidance in Middle English. Thus our very language speaks to the spiritual nature of making poetry. 

David and his Lyre

The Sister from Below is Delighted to Announce the Publication of “Songs from the Deep River: Selected Poems from Soul Making in the Valley of the Shadow” in the Jung Journal 
The sibyl breathes deeply 
The vapors from the fire below 
She is no longer herself 
She from a respectable family 
She who is reliably self–possessed 
Is unhinged by the smell of death 
      Virginia Lee Chen from “Sibyl” p. 27 

Deep River is honored that a selection of poems from Soul Making has been published in the latest issue of The Jung Journal (Volume 15, Number 4). Jeffrey Moulton Benevedes, the editor of The Jung Journal, doesn’t seem to worry about mixing the Spirit of the Times with the Spirit of the Depths. He writes eloquently of our crazed times in his introductory essay to this issue: “To the Reader:” 
These days the dizzying pace and sheer ferocity of changes in our world leave us little to no time to recover from one catastrophe before the next hits. A pernicious pandemic and intensifying climate change events surge like tsunamis over the globe, leaving us roiling in existential crisis and economic, political and social instability… 
How much can we take? 
What do we do? Where do we go to find refuge, solace, healing, a way forward? 
Doesn’t this sound like the psalmist’s cry? “My soul is sore afflicted;/And Thou, O Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:4) Or like Dossie Easton’s lament in her poem “With my Pink Pussy Hat On”? 
How will we open our hearts 
                                      to each other 
in a country where half the voters are in love 
with their hating  
of people like me: like for instance: 
            women they can’t own, or men who can  
love other men, 
                       or those who belong to other cultures 
                               part of Humanity’s far flung treasure… (p. 17) 
Benevedes continues: 
Depth psychologists, spiritual leaders and healers of all kinds strive to help heal the World Soul, one psyche at a time. 

And artists make art. Out of the spirit of the depths, they engage with the spirit of the times in a way that anchors us, expressing our suffering and our light. (p. 1) 
I agree with Benevedes that it is the very mingling of the Spirit of the Depths with the Spirit of the Times which helps us locate ourselves and cast light on our emotions. It describes a number of poems in the Soul Making collection, among them Raluca Ioanid’s “Bucharest Sestina” about her “vanished grandparents”: 
In our pact never to forget 
the momentum of loss 
is greater. Have our night–vanishing grandparents 
opened the door for dreams 
and days and meals and adventures sweetened by our 
kinship to this family of ghosts? (p. 47) 
or Clare Cooper Marcus’ poem “Ann Frank’s Tree” 
In spring, chestnut flowers 
like ghostly candelabra 
lit her days, as they did mine 
not much distance west, across 
the channel… 

For her, the tree beyond her grasp 
stood achingly alive, dear daily reminder 
of leaf–birth,  
                   leaf fall… (p. 52) 
Flowering Chestnut tree

or Connie Hills’ poem “Time to Come” 
If you visit Van Gogh’s grave 
go after the gust of summer… 

The quaintness of the place 
so placid you can imagine 
standing at Vincent’s burial 
that July midi 
surrounded by lemon sunflowers 
battered dahlias 
Hallelujahs oozing 
from their thousands of 
amber throats… 
                   (pp. 41-2) 
Benevedes goes on to write of Deep River and quotes the beautiful telling of our story by Poetry Editor Frances Hatfield: 
For the past fifteen years, here at the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute, something extraordinary has been quietly unfolding. Poetry editor Frances Hatfield provides the origin story of the poems you will read: “At the instigation of Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s “Sister from Below,” poets, nascent poets, and poetry lovers have gathered in the library of the Gough Street building…each month, immersed in the ghosts and spirits and deep soul of that holy place, and cooking together in the power of mythopoesis to express grief, beauty and love. Out of that profound communitas, a group of poets emerged who call themselves, aptly, the ‘Deep River Poets.’ This issue’s poetry section features a selection from a new book they have published as an offering to the institute and to the Extended Education program under which they have met. One can sense how these nine poets nourished each other as their voices of witness, grief, praise, awe and exuberance emerged in the presence of great poets, considered in the light of our extraordinary times. (p.3) 
We are deeply grateful to Jeffrey Moulton Benevedes and Frances Hatfield for their generous response to Soul Making and to Managing Editor LeeAnn Pickrell for the beautiful layout of the poems. 

 Slave Ship: Wood Engraving by Smyth

“A Light So Terrible” 

In the Psalms, as in many of the poems we turn to in terrible times, we seek access to a higher power, a deeper wisdom, a more expansive way of understanding, when the world as we know it cracks open, spilling out our firm beliefs and our grasp of what we think of as truth. When things we never thought could happen in America, or things we ignore or deny, are flung at us in a light as terrible as nightmare, what is our responsibility as poets? When we learn that the former president had draft executive orders drawn up involving the Department of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense—in a plot to seize voting machines after the 2020 election—what can we do or say? (My father, a refugee from the Nazis and a passionate believer in American democracy, is turning in his grave.) What scares me more than anything is how little outrage and furor I hear in the collective. Psalm 94: 3-6 comes to mind: 
Lord, how long shall the wicked, 
How long shall the wicked exult? 
They gush out, they speak arrogancy; 
All the workers of iniquity bear themselves loftily. 
They crush Thy people, O Lord, 
And afflict Thy heritage. 
They slay the widow and the stranger, 
And murder the fatherless… 
We who have put our faith in the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, feel fatherless. We who have fought for Women’s Liberation, Racial Justice, Equality and the well-being of our Mother Earth find ourselves still in the thrall of the Patriarchy—bereft of Mother Power. Orphaned. Terribly afraid. 

Amanda Gorman at Inauguration

But there is help and wisdom among the young and among poets. Amanda Gorman, who gave us her beautiful Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb,” continues to inspire us. In an opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, (January 20, 2022)—“If You’re Alive, You’re Afraid”—she reframes the meaning of fear. She had almost decided against being the Inaugural poet because of her fear—amplified by friends and family— that she might lose her life on that very visible platform. She suffered with insomnia and nightmares as she wrestled with her decision. “Was this poem worth it?” She writes: 
And then it struck me: Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear but listening to it. I closed my eyes in bed and let myself utter all the leviathans that scared me, both monstrous and miniscule. What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem might have achieved. There was only one way to find out. 
If Gorman was praying to a higher power in her dark night of the soul, it strikes me she includes the power to strike fear as an aspect of the deity. This resonates with the Jewish view of the Divine who is not only about goodness and kindness, but about wrath and trouble. Her breakthrough came when she could listen to what her fear taught her. 

In the year since the Inauguration, Gorman has written a new book of poems, Call Us What We Carry. I want to quote from sections of the opening poem in that collection—“Ship’s Manifest”—in which she speaks to the role of the poet in our awful times. Like the Psalmist who urges his people to “Depart from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:15), Gorman clearly sees the poet’s function as ethical as well as spiritual. It is worth noting that a ship’s manifest lists the cargo, passengers and crew of a ship. It is an accounting of what the ship carries. Ship’s manifests for slave ships are one of the few places historians of slavery can find the names and some details about the people who were stolen from Africa and brought to the New World against their will. The poem never mentions the Middle Passage, but its dark waters, its ghosts and demons flow deep below the surface. Notice she holds poets accountable, as though our work requires the tools of an accountant making lists. In fact, much of her poem is a list. Her passion is contagious. Her word play is brilliant—for example, “An ark articulated?” or “Our greatest test will be/Our testimony.” Her use of the word “testimony”—which in Black Churches means telling how the Divine has interceded in our lives—brings us deep into the realm of the psalms, as does the line “A light so terrible” which makes clear how difficult, soul wrenching and essential is the work of the poet. 

Here is a section of Gorman’s poem: 
The poet’s diagnosis is that what we have lived 
Has already warped itself into a fever dream, 
The contours of its shape stripped from the murky mind. 

To be accountable we must render an account: 
Not what was said, but what was meant. 
Not the fact, but what was felt. 
What was known, even while unnamed. 
Our greatest test will be 
Our testimony. 
This book is a message in a bottle. 
This book is a letter. 
This book does not let up. 
This book is awake. 
This book is a wake. 
For what is a record but a reckoning? 
The capsule captured? 
A repository. 
An ark articulated? 
& the poet, the preserver 
Of ghosts & gains, 
Our demons & dreams, 
Our haunts & hopes. 
Here’s to the preservation 
Of a light so terrible. 
                 from Call Us What We Carry, “Ship’s Manifest.”
Miniature from Hafiz-i Abru’s Majma al-tawarikh