Maurya Simon

2011 was a year of profound losses for me--the deaths of my mother and father-in-law, and of my dear old dog--and a year when I revisited and commemorated in poetry several other important rites of passage, such as my wedding anniversary. Even the poem about the anti-Semitic Estonian lawyer was an awakening of sorts for me, a passage toward more understanding of myself and the world. I used the tradition of the epistolary poem for these works because it gave me an intimate entry into the poems, and this approach, with the elegies, in particular, allowed me to tell all the Truth but tell it slant, to paraphrase Dickinson.




Dearest Mother,

Your amber eyes stared with astonishment
at us who encircled your death bed, your lips
mouthing unfamiliar sounds, your thin chest
wracked by its struggle to breathe through
destroyed lungs; your heart, and ours, bursting
with such sorrow that I felt the room shudder.

You died minutes later, after we'd left your bedside,
and then Pearla cried out to us: "Oh, Tamara,
Maurya, Leah-- She's gone, she's gone..."
So we rushed back to your beloved body, sobbing
in bewilderment, with stupefied grief and despair--

But then, amazingly, you gasped back to life,
inhaling a huge breath, your eyelids fluttering open,
dazed and wet--such superhuman strength it took,
Mother, such terrible will to stall the Reaper--
and Tamara said, "It's okay, Mom, you can let go,"
while we wept our chorus of avowed love--

And then you sighed out your last difficult lungsful
of air, sinking back into the pillows and dying
a second and final time.  Now your room's silence
was as austere as the ocean bottom, far emptier than
any black hole, deeper than the steepest lunar chasm--

and there was a clarity I'd never seen before
on your face, your fine bones relinquishing, at last,
our worldly hold upon you--as you entered
that doorway through which you'd never return.
It closed behind you with a barren chill, raising
the hairs on our arms, part of us dying with you...


Dear Husband,

Those vows we took thirty-nine years ago
came back to me last night in a dream:
the rabbi, black-bearded and barefoot,
davening unconsciously, a wreath of daisies
in his flowing hair-- But his words drift off
into the sea-salted air like dandelion tufts.
Brilliant sunlight pours down in filtered rays
through U.C.L.A.'s lush Botanical Gardens,
while the Renaissance quartet tunes up--
and four men carry aloft our homemade chupa.

A wreath of tiny roses and baby's breath
decorates my coiled hair; you're dressed
in a white Armani suit. Your blonde beard
and mustache glisten in the mid-June air.
My chest is thundering with my love for you--
I'm trembling, too, with fear, joy, and dumb
amazement that I'll soon be bound to you
for the rest of my life. Can fate entangle us
permanently, I wonder.  Then we're kissing softly
while all the guests cheer, and you crush

the crystal wine glass under your shoe--
ancient symbol of virginity or hardship.
The dream is as real as this day itself,
rife with the fragrances of ten thousand
blossoms opening all at once, with a sky
so blue it looks like a giant Delft platter--
with Naomi's tiny heartbeat shuddering
in my womb, and your beloved face
shining, your eyes turned towards mine
as they are right now, when I awaken.




(for my father-in-law, Martin Falk, b. August 1, 1921 - d. July 15, 2011)

Old soldier that you were, with your love of Spam,
your Army rifle, your WW II emergency kits stashed
around your apartment, with your gallows humor--
I long suspected that you'd excised God from your life,
though you dreamed you'd embrace your wife in heaven.

Martin, four years of war turned the rest of your life
into a survival manual: in the 50s how to evade snipers
hiding around seedy Bronx corners; where to keep knives,
flashlights, flares, brass knuckles; how you taught your son
to avoid assailants, though you raged at him, forced him

to do your bidding, knocked him down to size--
just as you'd been beaten in the streets of Vienna
in your youth by brown-shirted kids, fellow classmates
before Crystal Nacht. Through the months & years of
nightmarish occupation, your terror even then hardening

your arteries, preparing your body for the heart attacks
that you'd survived, one after another, over fifty years--
But I get ahead of myself, & time is as fickle as fate.
I want to toast your courage, not your violence, nor fear,
nor timidity, for you were a man of strange complexities,

and though I loved and respected you, I'm angry now,
too, because of your cruelty to him: my husband,
your burdensome son, whom you branded with
your war wounds & scars, whom you terrorized & beat,
whom you loved with a gloved hand & harsh words.

Still, when we lit your yahrzeit candle tonight,
I was flooded with grief & love for you, Martin, you
who became my close friend, my confidant before dying,
whose last, whispered words were "I love you, Leah,"
blessing your granddaughter who, all alone, endured

your night-long deathwatch with you, sobbing while
you slept your last, and morphine-benumbed, sleep.
The day before, still conscious and smiling, your courage
was so astounding-- You said to us, "I'm ready to go.
I want to die. If I'm lucky, I'll find my Margit again."



Letter to My Sister

I listen to Arvo Part's sacred music
and think of his native Estonia,
which leads me to that Estonian
lawyer and historian whom I met
one November at the American
Academy in Rome. She wore
an outlandish costume for our
communal dinners (mauve taffeta
suit with matching hat), and she
had a flat face and a cold affect.
Ingeniously, she found ways to
direct any conversation back to
jaw-dropping stereotypes: Jews
were stealing all of Europe's wealth;
the unclean Jews from her home-
town, "stink like horse shit," and
"Jews are taking all the good jobs."
I was as shocked by her lack
of social and political awareness
as by her deeply rooted hatred.

So I conclude that Estonia, like any
country, is capable of producing
both enlightened men like Arvo Part
and highly intelligent hate-mongers.
The body, too, produces joy machines
like endorphins (absent right now),
and cells bent on destroying their
neighbors. We always inhabit or
contain at least two worlds



Maurya Simon is the author of nine books of poetry including The Raindrops Gospel (Elixir Press), Ghost Orchid (a 2004 National Book Award nominee) and Cartographies. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright/Indo-American Foundation, and the American Academy in Rome. She has also been a fellow at the MacDowell colony.