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Anatomy of a Poem

(c) 2011 Jeanne Powell
"Anatomy of a Poem"
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In those halcyon days before I discovered coffee actually was drinkable, I used to relax with a cup or two of freshly brewed tea -- frequently  the Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong from China.   On such afternoons I read the book review sections of various newspapers, which were piled in a solid oak captain’s chair waiting for my perusal. 

Acts of uncommon valor often occur during the madness of war.  I recalled this reality as I read a review of  I Remember Nothing More by Adina Blady Szwajger (1990).  Later I found two more reviews and read those.   Adina’s courageous moments were extraordinary and included serving on the medical staff in the Warsaw Ghetto and becoming a courier for the Resistance.  As a courier she “brought money and papers, arranging apartments for hidden Jews, dealing with extortionists, betrayers and Nazis.”  Later Adina “performed abortions to save the lives of women in hiding.” After World War II, she completed her medical training and became a prominent pediatrician in Warsaw.  When she wrote this memoir, Dr. Szwajger was in her 70s.
[the enemy is coming, tearing through lifetimes]

You never know when something you read will strike you with such force that you feel a piercing of the heart.  I was affected in this way when I read of a particular decision she made while she was a 22 year old medical student in the Warsaw Ghetto.   How does one do this?  How does one find the courage?  And how does one go on afterward?
[the enemy is coming, burning up memories]

For days I went around with this searing image in my mind, unable to put it on paper.  Then I telephoned  fellow writer Mark Falstein in distress;  I visited his office and we had tea.  In detail I described the scene from the Sunday book review.  Yeah, he said, triage, with irony which does not need description.  That’s it, that’s it, that’s my title! I said, jumped up from the chair and literally ran home.  Within 30 minutes, the poem had shaped itself on paper.
[the enemy is coming, crushing defenses]

What comes out in this poem are the courage of a 22 year old student when options no longer existed for her, and my intention to honor that courage.  I read the poem “Triage” at various open mic venues during the early 1990s and response was strong, especially at the Coffee Mill in the East Bay.
[the enemy is coming, slicing through reason]
I shared the poem with Tamar Kaufman, and she liked it but wanted it to end with an Old Testament quote, instead of a line from the New Testament.  Tamar, I said, give me a break, I don’t know the Old Testament.  So show me a line and I’ll see if it fits.  She had a full schedule as journalist, wife and cancer survivor, so we never found time to look over the testaments or any other religious text.   When we got together to lunch and talk, there were so many other issues to discuss.  The last time we did this, she met me at a BART station and we drove to her home.  Head swathed in a white turban (were those bandages?), she was as energetic and enthusiastic as ever.  We could not have been more different, but got along so well.  There are times, still, when I want to talk to Tamar about Harold Bloom’s The Book of J and Yizhar Smilansky’s book, Khirbet Khizeh  (now in English).  I miss my friend.

Someone, possibly Mark, suggested I send “Triage” to Tikkun for possible publication, and I did so.  When I did not hear from the magazine, I telephoned to inquire.  Rabbi Michael Lerner answered the phone himself; I was shocked and said so.  Don’t you have people to do this, I asked, thinking  there were other matters more deserving of his time?  He chuckled.  I explained my curiosity as to whether my poem had been accepted, and Rabbi Lerner said the poetry editor was Marge Piercy.   I promptly fell on the floor and nearly screamed in the poor man’s ear.  Marge Piercy!  I love Marge Piercy!  I have read every one of her novels!  The Marge Piercy?  And similar irrelevancies.  Once I began breathing again, we continued our discussion, and he said in due time, etc.

All I could think of was that Marge Piercy would review my poem.  Would she be bored?  Irritated?  What was I thinking when I sent it anyway? 

When the rejection letter came, it was loving and warm and clearly written by her, not an assistant.  Two paragraphs.  She was not bored or irritated.  More importantly, Marge Piercy  understood what it was that tore at my heart and made me write “Triage” in the first place. 

We are approaching the holiday season, the end of autumn, the beginning of winter, when we think of situations and people who have gone before.   “Triage” has been on my mind lately, especially since the madness of war infects the entire world still.  Each time I think of Adina Blady Szwajger, tears come to my eyes.  Not the usual tears, but ones of admiration and awe for the courage beyond courage it takes to be God in a situation where options have run out.
[the enemy is coming, piercing through hope]

Her courage offers hope for all of us.

"Triage" appeared in February Voices (Jukebox Press 1994) and also was included in WORD DANCING (Beatitude Press 2008).  I sometimes use Dr. Szwajger's book in my memoir class.

(c) 2011 Jeanne Powell

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Body and Soul

Although the anatomy of a poem is a complex, joyous and difficult process—how do we anatomize art?—you described the journey of every poem and reminded me of the beauty of the process.

Words are the body of a poem. The thoughts and experiences that shape the poem's infancy are its soul. When poems make it through adolescent and middle age storms of revision to a peaceful age when their creator leaves them alone; they're transformed into art.



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body and soul


Thanks so much for reading.  I appreciate your confirming the process, reminding me of the beauty as well as the gently remembered pain.


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It can also be akin to a flashback of one's own journey.

"You never know when something you read will strike you with such force that you feel a piercing of the heart."

Perhaps the heart had known it all along. It is like hanging what is yours on a peg. Did the peg find you or did you find the peg? Were you looking for it? Had it not been there, where would you keep what you have?

Our emotions are often regurgitated when we see mirrors.

As always, you have a wonderful way to explore.


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Thank you for reading.  I like this image very much -- one journey mirrored in the experience of another.  We face what we have to face, down through the ages, and so one soul salutes the courage of another because she remembers.