Beginner's mind
Enjoying Vayikra

Reading aloud

The reading was slated for 1pm in the social hall of Knesset Israel synagogue in Pittsfield, following the regular free senior citizens' hot lunch, so though I wasn't sure what kind of audience to expect, I figured "Jewish" and "retired" were a safe bet. At the lunch I sat at a table of ladies (and one gentleman) who talked with me about mah-jongg  -- the consensus seemed to be that I should get my mother to teach me to play -- and why more women than men come to events like these.

Perhaps predictably, two-thirds of the crowd left after lunch. They were there for the kugel and chicken, not the poetry! Just before I took the podium, a forty-something African-American man (aside from me, easily the youngest person in the room by some decades), sidled in shyly and asked, "Is this the reading?" He sat in the front row, alongside a lady who turned out not to be able to hear me even when I used the microphone.

The Jewish Federation's "Reading Aloud" program is designed to allow people to read their own work or work by others, and I wanted to do some of both. I opened with the first few pages of Stone Work by John Jerome. I'm a longtime admirer of John's work, and was lucky enough to count myself among his friends in the later years of his life; of all of his books, this one is my favorite, and I reread it almost every year. Stone Work is an extended meditation on building stone walls, writing, and work. Though John actually rebuilt a stone wall while writing the book, I think the stonework also serves as metaphor for the writing life, or for any longterm practice. It's organized according to the round of the year, and begins with "Equinox: Snowfall." Since the spring equinox is right around the corner, I figured it was a good place to start.

After that I read a sheaf of poems, picking and choosing as I went. I skipped a few which I had thought I might read: the Tu BiShvat poem which is only funny if I tell the story about Bitch magazine, for instance. (Just didn't seem right for that crowd.) The poems that got the most response were Judaic ones, unsurprisingly: a couple of Passover poems, the one about bagels and Texas (apparently I'm not the only person whose family schlepped New York bagels to the ends of the earth), a couple of the morning prayer variations I've been working on.

This wasn't the audience I'm used to seeing at readings; no wine-drinking hipsters here (except maybe the forty-something guy, though he slipped out as soon as I stopped reading, so I didn't get the chance to chat with him and find out). But there's something especially warming about reaching people who might not be into poetry per se, who might just want something to do at the synagogue on a slushy March weekday afternoon. Two people fell asleep; one lady piped up repeatedly to tell her neighbors what a nice voice I have. Afterwards one fellow came up to me and quietly told me my poems had touched him, and one lady told me that she'd never felt she understood poetry but she'd enjoyed mine.

The poem that got the most response  -- hums of agreement, nodding of heads, even a smattering of applause -- was a Passover poem called "Day After," which I first drafted some years ago during a stint when (inspired by David Lehman, William Stafford, and Robert Bly) I wrote a poem a day. It's a small poem, and I included it in the lineup almost as an afterthought. It follows behind the link; maybe it will resonate for you, too.


The day after the seder,
reality shoves back in

like a football player
with lowered shoulder.

Dishes to wash:
the browned kugel pan,

wine glasses, water goblets,
two dozen silver forks,

chopping knives, the eggbeater
that whipped the whites

for Eppie's matzah balls,
the gravy boats that held

haroset, the glass bowls
encrusted with salt.

All day humming
another list: the Holy One,

Praised be He,
the angel, the butcher,

all the way down
to the fire, the water,

the stick, the dog,
the cat, the one lone kid.


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