Tag Archives: grief

The Poet Receives A Tool Box

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in his book, My Rebbe, about a holy person, “…we see the connection with the beyond or hear it more in the spaces between sentences…. As they speak we understand that there is more above the line and below the line or between the lines.”

Poetry and holiness are intertwined. Poetry lives in those spaces between the lines: in the layout on the page, the white spaces, whether it is formal or free verse, what the poet says, hints at or doesn’t say, the grammar and punctuation, the connotation(s) of each word and so much more. It’s what makes me come alive when I write and edit. There’s that initial impulse, a word or line pops into my head or something startles me and lurks or most times haunts me until I write about it. Like the time I was sitting on the M104 bus going down Broadway in Manhattan. I saw a man with one leg shorter than the other, wearing a black leather shoe with a tall heel to make up the difference. I started writing about the man and the wife who loves him, makes his breakfast and kisses him goodbye each morning as he goes to work. I missed my stop.

It’s only in the last months that I feel poetry lurking. My father died three years ago, and I wrote four new poems during the first year. Then I stopped. I couldn’t and didn’t want to write anymore; I just wanted to be quiet. I didn’t want to talk most of the time, never mind try to write.  Then I stopped thinking about it. And then I stopped caring about it. I kept in mind something my poetry teacher, Mary Stewart Hammond, told me, “Sometimes you need to live your life, not write about it.”

Recently, I watched an interview with Sarah McLachlan where she talked about losing her father in 2010 and releasing her new album in 2014. “I don’t think anybody gets to this point in their life unscathed,” McLachlan said. “I’m 46 years old and this is the time when parents die, when big changes happen.”

“When you were dealing with all that, where were you musically?” asked [the interviewer]. “Nowhere …. I would play music, but I didn’t have it in me to write anything,” she said. “My father passed away almost four years ago, and it kind of took that long for me to recognize what I’d lost and what that meant to me moving forward, but also what he’d given me.” I know exactly what she was feeling. After my father’s death, it was not a time for writing; it was a time for grieving, for mourning, for reflecting. I was observing the traditional year of mourning, saying Kaddish, not going to movies, not listening to live music or buying new clothes. Like Sarah McLachlan, I didn’t have it in me to write.

At first, I didn’t care if my poetry came back. But after two years, I thought it might actually be gone. I tried to write a few times, but had no inspiration. I began to realize that I needed to wait for it to come back.  About six months ago while visiting my mother, I went to the basement and into my father’s tool room. After he died, we couldn’t clean it out. There were too many memories. He was a tool and die maker. I looked at jars filled with nails, screws, washers. On his workbench were micrometers, screwdrivers, levels, hole punches, two blue cotton aprons and other tools I couldn’t identify. I opened my father’s wooden tool box, and right there in the top drawer was a beige tin with “Revelation, the perfect pipe tobacco” written in red on the cover. When I opened it, I saw several short, round pieces of metal with sharpened ends. They looked like silver crayon tops. The tin had been in there for over thirty years but I never really noticed it. Until now. Poetry was swirling so fast in my head that I could barely keep up. I ran upstairs and started writing; a few minutes later, I had filled up two sheets of paper.

My father always encouraged me in my writing, was so happy when my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published and was always interested in my teaching and readings. There was my father, in his tool room, helping me to move forward. Encouraging me to write again.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

This essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Best American Poetry Blog (http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/), where this essay first appeared.  

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How To Bury Your Mother

by Leslea Newman (Holyoke, MA)

Slip out of the dark limo
into the bright light of day
the way you once slipped
out of your mother:
blinking, surprised, teary-eyed.
Turn to your father
and let him take the crook of your arm
like the crooked old man
you never thought he’d become.
Feel your heels sink into the earth
with every sorry step you take.
Weave your way through the graves
of strangers who will keep your mother
company forever: the Greenblatts,
the Goldbergs, the Shapiros, the Steins.
Stop at a small mountain of dirt
next to a hole that holds the plain pine box
that holds what’s left of your mother.
Listen to the rabbi mumble
prayers you’ve heard a hundred times
but this time offer no comfort.
Smell the sweet honeysuckle breeze
that is making your stomach buckle.
Feel the sun bake your little black dress.
Wait for the rabbi to close
his little black book.
Bring your father close to the earth
that is waiting to blanket your mother.
Watch him shove the shovel
into the mound upside down
showing the world how distasteful
this last task is.
See him dump clumps of soil
onto your mother’s casket.
Hear the dull thuds
of your heart hammering your chest.
Watch how your father plants the shovel
into the silent pile of dirt
and then walks off
slumped over like a man
who finally admits defeat.
Step up to the mound.
Grasp the shovel firmly.
Lift it up and feel the warm wood
between your two damp hands.
Jab the shovel into the soil.
Toss the hard brown lumps
into that dark gaping hole.
Hear the dirt rain down upon your mother.
the shovel to your brother.
Drag yourself away.
Do not look back.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages, including the poetry collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard (novel-in-verse) and the picture books A Sweet Passover, My Name Is Aviva, and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.

If you’d like to take a look at the book trailer for I Carry My Mother, visit:

“How to Bury Your Mother” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA 2015). Used by permission of the author.

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Worms in the Flour

by Jacqueline Jules (Arlington, VA)

The sweet smell of baking bread
widened your nostrils, then your eyes.
“A girl who bakes bread!” Your face,
a nomad finding water in the desert.
It was the seventies.
Men were afraid to open doors, afraid not to.
You were ten years my senior.
“Challah,” I corrected. “Sabbath bread.
An expression of faith.”

When time allows and mood demands,
I still set out bowls and measuring cups,
yeast, eggs, and flour on the kitchen counter,
determined to knead a sticky white mess
into something smooth and solid.
It’s a noisy process. The first time
you heard the sound
of something being punched and beaten,
you ran to the kitchen to watch.

It requires more strength now,
in the house alone.
Finding the cabinet empty of yeast,
I can’t ask you to put down the newspaper
and run to the store. I almost quit today—
opening the flour tin, finding worms.

But there were empty bowls
on the counter, waiting
beside sugar, yeast, and eggs.
They taunted me, dared me to continue.
I grabbed my coat and keys.

Not long after, I came back
with new flour, ready
to start over.

Jacqueline Jules is the author of many Jewish children’s books including The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Sarah Laughs, Miriam in the Desert, and Goodnight Sh’ma. Visit her at www.jacquelinejules.com

“Worms in the Flour” appears in Stronger Than Cleopatra, a collection of poems about going forward in the face of loss. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. For more more about the book, visit: 



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Crash Victim’s Father

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“God is punishing me for my sins.”
Oh, father, are you sure?
Or is this your valiant attempt
to understand what cannot be understood?
A daughter is dead, so is a son,
as is, tragically, an unborn child.
A whole religious community now mourns.
What evidence, I ask, suggests it was your fault?
You load your shoulders with the pain,
to make sense out of the senseless,
but why carry even more sorrow by contributing
the additional burden of perceived sin?
Surely, God in His wisdom does not wish to pile on.
It would seem He has better things to address –
why the accident in the first place? –
as He dons His Old Testament robes of wrath.
Nothing can make the night day for you,
but what value is it to extend the darkness,
by throwing a believed culpability into
the incomprehensible celestial mix?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Remembrance of a Shabbos Past

by Robert J. Avrech (Los Angeles, CA)

The arrival of Shabbos is a time of awe and delight for observant Jews.

The Kabbalists in Safed used to dress in white and singing with joy they would greet the Sabbath Bride in the mountains.

Here in Pico Robertson, Los Angeles, we too greet the Sabbath albeit with a less romantic gesture.

The Sabbath is a time when the ordinary burdens of the work week are left behind and time becomes consecrated. Every man becomes a king in his home and every woman a queen.

When our son Ariel ZT’L was alive he would spend a great deal of time preparing for Shabbos. He put on his best suit and hat saying: Would you meet with a president or a king dressed as a schlump?

It was something of a running joke in the house that Ariel, no matter how early he started, was almost always late. By the time I was ready to go to shul, Ariel was still awkwardly struggling with his cuff links or wrestling with his tie, trying to get the knot just right. Ariel moved slowly. His weakened lungs made it so, but it was also the pace at which he moved through life. Slow, deliberate, thoughtful. Ariel moved like a man from another century. None of the frenzied 21st century movements for Ariel. No doubt he would have been entirely comfortable in medieval Europe, in the Yeshivas of Provence, studying in the house of Rashi. That was his temprament.

Ariel and I walked to shul together, three short blocks that are as familiar to me as the architecture of my wife’s lovely face. We waved to the other men on their way to the various shuls. We said hello to strangers walking their dogs. Sometimes we talked, but often there was a companionable silence. Ariel was preparing to pray, adjusting his state of mind for a holy dialogue.

In shul, Ariel was often asked to daven for the minyan. He had a beautiful voice and his pronunciation of the Hebrew was perfect. Often, Ariel was the last to finish davening. Here too, he took his time. He spoke to God: a true I and Thou relationship. Frequently, I had to wait for him to finish davening. Everyone else was already gone, on their way home, but Ariel was still shuckling, eyes closed, totally unaware that we were the only two left in shul. I sat and watched him daven and said to myself: How did this saintly young man spring from my loins? How did this happen for I am less than good, far from pious, never close to God; just another struggling schlemiel.

I watched Ariel daven in the empty shul and I remembered when I was a child in Brooklyn, in shul with my father. I gazed in awe as he davened. I felt that here was a man in touch with something I could not even glimpse.

And so, I am watching Ariel, I am watching my father, past and present merging and I say to myself: Let this moment never end Let this moment never end Let this moment never end…

Robert J. Avrech is a screenwriter and producer in Los Angeles. Among his best-known films is the thriller, Body Double, directed by Brian DePalma. His script for the modern Hasidic tale, A Stranger Among Us, directed by Sidney Lumet, was an official selection of the Cannes film festival. Robert won the Emmy award for his adaptation of the young adult classic, The Devil’s Arithmetic, starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy. Robert was also nominated for The Humanitas Award for Within These Walls, starring Ellen Burstyn and Laura Dern. Robert writes an award winning blog, Seraphic Secret http://www.seraphicpress.com/. He also writes a regular column for Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/author/ravrech/.

This piece is reprinted here with permission of the author. It first appeared on his blog, Seraphic Secret, in 2004.

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