April 4, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
Alexandra Socarides of The Los Angeles Review of Books’s has a lovely and informative piece on “New Colossus,” the Petrarchan Emma Lazarus sonnet that famously adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. We learn about the poet and the poem’s formal and political import; Socarides frames “New Colossus” as a bold statement for immigrant reform and tolerance, Lazarus herself as an engaging figure worthy of study.
My own history with the iconic poem is less exalted. I remember distinctly the first time I heard it: I was three years old, in bed with one of the migraines that had arrived with the news of my mother’s pregnancy with a new brother. My father read me the poem, his voice choked with emotion, explaining that it had heralded my great-grandparents’ arrival in New York. Then he left me to sleep, drugged with pain and the red liquid children’s Tylenol that always stained the sheets.
When I woke up a few hours later, cautiously better, the words were still in my head. “Yearning to breathe free …” I thought.
I wandered into the other room, where my parents were sitting on the bed with my new baby brother, hideous and red-haired. My father was making a videotape with his Betamax camera, not that the baby was doing anything interesting. I casually stripped off my cotton underpants, lay down on the bed, and began kicking my legs in the air.
“Look at me!” I said. “Look at me!”
“Sadie, put on your underpants,” said my mother.
“But, Mama!” I cried. “I’m yearning to breathe free!”
The baby rolled or something.
“MY VAGINA IS YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE!” I shouted, in case they’d missed it.
“Today, Charlie is four months old,” my dad was narrating. “We are on Seventy-Sixth Street. Sadie, would you like to say something to the camera?”
“Camera!” I screamed. “MY VAGINA IS YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE!” I waved my legs in the air vigorously.
“Enough with the vagina, Sades,” said my dad.
This is all on videotape. I recently saw it when I took a bunch of Beta tapes to be digitized. I apologize to Emma Lazarus.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
December 12, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
... we bring you an excerpt from Russian Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok’s 1918 poem The Twelve. “Today I am a genius,” he wrote after completing the twelve-canto chronicle of the October Revolution. The opening lines are amongst the most famous in Russian literature.
The wind, the wind!
It will not let you go.
The wind, the wind!
Through God’s whole world it blows
The wind is weaving
The white snow.
Brother ice peeps from below
Stumbling and tumbling
Folk slip and fall.
June 13, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
September 29, 2011 | by Jane and Jonathan Wells
“A poem is never finished, it is abandoned,” said the sculptor Jaume Plensa, quoting Paul Valéry on a sunny September morning in New York City, as he watched Echo, his forty-four-foot sculpture of a female head, being dismantled piece by piece.
My husband Jonathan Wells and I are Flatiron residents. We had lived alongside Echo since she arrived in May and, for Jonathan, she had become an object of fascination and reverence. He had been working on a poem about her for months but found himself unable to conclude it. He had refamiliarized himself with the myth of Narcissus and Echo; he had learned all he could about Plensa and the nine-year-old neighbor in Barcelona who had inspired the piece, a child who had taken shape in the statue with the timelessness and serenity of a Buddha. On this, the statue’s last morning, Jonathan recognized the Catalan sculptor standing between the cranes and the crew.
“I always hoped my work would inspire other artists,” Plensa told my husband, as they discussed myth, marble dust, art collectors, and teaching schedules. “Please send me your poem.” After watching Echo come apart, Jonathan knew he had an ending. Here is what he sent to Plensa:
White as x ray bone she rises through
The trees in stone as if she were sublime,
As if she knew what this grace was
And she was only nine, framed
Between her errands and her games.
Her nymph’s body surges underground
Not knowing what this buried love
Beneath her neighbors play Frisbee
On the grass and strangers take her
Photograph. The final sun pours
Into her sealed eyes and mouth as though
She were the saint of radiant stillness
Who says this marble flesh is a prison
Stone yet the mind flies with
The confetti of birds, soars into
The beliefs of summer.
Silence succumbs to air and the blossoms
Sail down, the clocktower’s fretted hands
Notched against her ribs.
Questions flood her blood
And darkness, flee and then she’s gone,
Taken from our vanquished arms but
She still speaks in the autumn leaves,
In the furrowed bark, in the singsong
Of the childrens’ swings.
Jonathan Wells’s collection, Train Dance, will be published by Four Way Books in October.
September 1, 2011 | by Lucy Tunstall
Lucy Tunstall’s poems leaped out at us from the slush pile for their fresh, unfussy takes on the vagaries of contemporary life; she is one of those poets whose voice already seems familiar. “Remembering the Children of First Marriages” invokes the structured repetition and close observation that make Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” (“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey”) so extraordinary; here, Tunstall, a British poet, turns her gaze not to a winsome cat, but to children of divorce, as if they, too, could be held up to the light and anatomized. An irony, of course, is that there is nothing singular about children of divorce. —Meghan O’Rourke
August 25, 2011 | by Jennifer Michael Hecht
It’s Thursday, as good a day as any for an incisive and surprising poem by Jennifer Michael Hecht about a hangover. We liked it because of the way it evokes the light mantle of head-clouded shame that follows too much bourbon or rum; its wrapping, self-analyzing lines convey the cloudiness and the strange clarity that come the day after drinking too much. Who hasn’t vowed that “nothing that ever happened/ will happen again?” —Meghan O’Rourke