Outside the curtained windows across the darkened street
orange lights flicker between gauzy decorative spider webs
In the living room my husband sits in front of his computer
singing, “Who is like you, Lord, among the gods?”
I tune out the slightly off-key praise
as I place bowls of vanilla ice cream on the dining room table
I call the kids up from where they shout and run in the basement
so they can slurp whipped cream by the fading Shabbat candles
The floor is sticky from spilled grape juice. Dirty plates line the kitchen counters.
The kids are pretending to be kittens, sticking their noses in the bowls.
In the living room my husband pauses for silent prayer.
The kids meow and purr. The curtains billow from a passing breeze.
My son pauses the game to say, “One time the wind was blowing so hard
you could even see it. It was gray, and it pushed against you when you walked.”
“Is this for pretend?” asks my daughter. “No,” says my son. “It was real, and you were there.”
My daughter closes her eyes. “Yes, and there was no thunder,” she recalls.
My son nods. “No thunder, but you could really see the wind. That’s how I know the wind is real.”
My daughter meows. “Spread a shelter of peace over us” my husband sings in the living room.
All this simultaneity, there’s not room for it all, in one house.
It’s a surplus of meaning, an abundance of feeling, when my sleeping daughter shares a wall with my husband comforting mourners from the glow if his screen.
Or when my son learns about whales in online school while in the next room I lead students in conversations about Gilgamesh’s diving to the bottom of the sea in search of eternal life
I’m not a poet, but lately, now that there’s no time to write them down, words spill out of my fingers
at the oddest moments because there’s no time to hold them in and nowhere else to put them.
I’m writing this poem on a scrap of paper I found in the bottom of my purse
I started it during a boring online faculty meeting and stuffed it in my pocket while I made dinner
It’s a supplicatory note crammed between the bricks of my suburban house
It’s a prayer that the power that holds us together won’t hold us so tight
“Grant us peace,” my husband sings, “abundant peace.”
We are oozing into one another like the spilled juice I keep forgetting to mop up
If I had time I would put fewer words into this poem because I think poems should be concise
But I have an excess of feeling, an excess of words, and not enough room or time to tame them.
Yesterday I drove my kids to the library to return books
In the car I hummed a high holiday song, “We return, we return again to You…”
Where does prayer end and the mundane begin?
Where the separation between holy and profane?
I think of Alan Ginsberg intoning “holy holy holy”
The kids in the car are holy! The gray of the wind is holy! The glare from my husband’s computer is holy!
I find the exercise wholly exhausting.
In the meantime, I don’t always know where I begin or end
Which one of us is in the first grade? Which one of us leads a congregation?
But I am returning something, sending it away from our house
like a dove searching for dry land
a few words escaping our home, easing our excess
This Is the Hour of Change
My son, asleep under a red fleece blanket
Night light still glowing, audiobook still storytelling
Into an orange room papered with crayon art
All day we’ve been forking words and numbers over to him
This evening he read a book to us, handing back words
As though we’d overpaid
He begged us to let him set an alarm
To ensure an early start to a long empty day
We shook our heads wisely urging sleep
Day of rest – a flurry of dishes
Rushing bedtime, skipping bath
Services on zoom into the night
Not enough time for sleeping in
For mornings of red fleece
Gazing at the wall, face still pressed on pillow
The fundamental stuff of creation is newness itself
My husband preaches to his congregation over zoom
This is the hour of change, he insists
We harness the day of rest
To shake us into recreating the world
For the rest of our lives, maybe
I’m not asking for the new, not
Praying for change, though we need it
Just wishing for less, and least at now, for once
Just for tonight couldn’t we
Bundle down and unplug the clock
I stretch out my hands to the universe
Brother, can you spare some time?
The Myth of Ithaca
The other day my son called out from the next room, “Mom, tell me some facts about the Loch Ness monster and Yetti!” “They aren’t real,” I hollered, half-listening as I read discussion posts about Cyclops. “I’m reading a non-fiction book,” he retorted. “You must be wrong.”
Right now my kids are watching Sunday School on zoom, while their dad, just one room over, tells the congregation a story about Noah’s ark. The kids like to giggle at the echo, moments of delay between his voice and its tinny reproduction through my laptop.
In the kitchen I stand by the stove, my head in my hands, torn between a desire to feed the kids oranges and praise their listening skills and my need to run out the back door, into the morning drizzle to escape my husband’s voice echoing in every room. The children gather two by two around the kitchen table. I’m trying to survive the flood.
Last night my daughter couldn’t sleep. Her face wet, her eyes red, she stood trembling in her bedroom saying, “There’s something wrong in my head. It keeps flipping from place to place and I can’t make it stop. I know monsters and goblins aren’t real but I still feel like they are real tonight.”
Now my daughter is running between my laptop and my husband’s office, returning to ask my son, “Did you see me pop up on Daddy’s screen? I was there!”
I don’t know where I am, searching for a home between the echoes, layers of conversations in zoom rooms, tossed across the deluge, from island to island.
My students in their white washed dorm rooms, a few books neatly stacked upon the shelves, or sitting in front of family photographs on far-off hearths.
My parents powerpointing into my son’s first grade class.
Like Odysseus on Calypso’s island, a tableau of timeless tears amidst abundance, I yearn for earlier times.
Meanwhile, songleaders storm my fortress, lay waste to its silence (though I know, remembering babies crying, grading papers into sleepless nights, it was never really there).
At my desk in the guest bedroom
The crayon box in front of my students
Is bright mustard yellow.
The stubby crayons’ points are rounded.
An hour passes, my students,
Each in their own box, alone,
Throw comments into the empty air.
I slide the crayon box away
From the black plastic keyboard
To make room for typing
The crayons are out of order. Pink
Next to brown, blue beside
Forest green. One rolls off my desk.
My students are arranged in rows,
Their eyes in boxes two by two
Like sequins pasted on a poster.
One crayon in my son’s hand
Is warm. He writes his name
In cherry red on lined paper.
The students behind the crayon box
Glitch and freeze, the laptop fan whirs,
The space heater hums.
So does my son.
Miracle at the Dining Room Table
Once, three years ago, I sat at this dining room table poised at a laptop with dwindling batteries, uploading an article for publication and watching a baby monitor. To my left, the open door to the garage where my son slept, slack-mouthed, buckled into his car seat, windows down. To my right, the stairs leading to my daughter who, thumb in mouth, lay in her crib, face planted in a plush tiger. I, in the middle, alone at a table in an empty room clicked the save button anxiously as I waited for the inevitable cries to pierce the silence.
Today, at the table, I write. To the left, the sound of children playing with marbles down the basement stairs. To the right, in the living room my husband leads Shabbat services over zoom. I’m writing in a notebook and I assume I won’t have time to finish jotting down my thoughts. It’s Hanukkah and the miracle is I’ve managed to transcribe this many of them.
My daughter emerges, plastic sword tucked into the top of her rainbow dress, asking if anyone needs saving. My husband is singing of mighty deeds in days of old. She returns to the basement.
This time alone, it seems, is continuing. I struggle with it. I want to fill it. Read a book, close my eyes, wrap the presents that arrived by mail. But when will the children ask to play?
My husband is praying for peace, followed by private, silent prayer. The cat hops on his lap, demanding to be pet. I have waited so long to sip my coffee that it’s grown cold.
I am still alone at this table. Morning melts into lunchtime and no one has mentioned their hunger.
“Mom?” My daughter calls, “I was just about to have a little tea party with you.” I’ll finish these thoughts some other time. I can hardly believe I’ve eked out this much.
Note from the author, Jessica Kirzane:
The attached poems were all written during, and are about, the time I have spent working at home with my family at home during the pandemic. I am a mother of young children, a university instructor (I primarily teach Yiddish language but my role as an instructor of world literature is referenced in these poems), and the wife of a rabbi. I am also a literary translator, including one book-length translation, of Miriam Karpilove’s Diary of a Lonely Girl, or the Battle against Free Love (Syracuse University Press, 2020).