Orlando, Adrienne Rich, Ethel Rosenberg, and Julia de Burgos

adrienneIt started last evening. I was watching (on facebook) the first “livestreamkabbalat shabbat service from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ synagogues in the world. The just-ordained (from the Reconstructionist seminary) Rabbi Marisa Elana James, who had interned at CBST, was introduced and congratulated. Rabbi James chose, in this gay pride week, and the first shabbat after the Orlando massacre of 49 at a gay dance club during Latinx night, to read a poem written by Adrienne Rich. Since I was sitting at the computer, I could quickly search on “Adrienne Rich” and the two words I remembered from the poem: “unleavened bread.” Ahh, yes, of course, from Sources (1983), which I could pull off my bookshelf:

from Sources XV

It’s an oldfashioned, an outrageous thing
To believe one has a “destiny”

— a thought often peculiar to those
who possess privilege—
 
but there is something else:   the faith
of those despised and endangered
 
that they are not merely the sum
of damages done to them:
 
have kept beyond violence the knowledge
arranged in patterns like kente-cloth
 
unexpected as in batik
recurrent as bitter herbs and unleavened bread
 
of being a connective link
in a long, continuous way
 
of ordering hunger, weather, death, desire
and the nearness of chaos.

My google search led, of course, to other poems. One which I felt I should immediately post to facebook because it spoke so directly to this moment:

What Kind of Times Are These

BY ADRIENNE RICH

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows
     uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but 
     don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

from  Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1995) and also published in The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001  (2002).

This led me to thinking about another of Adrienne’s poems…but I couldn’t remember the title. All I could remember last night was a poem that mentioned Ethel Rosenberg, a window, a barn and had been published in the early 1990s when I worked with Adrienne on the journal Bridges.  My google search turned up a poem I knew it wasn’t (because it was published earlier, in 1981). But somehow, this too, was meaningful: I was reminded that tomorrow, June 19, 2016 , is the 63rd anniversary of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Adrienne wrote this 1981 poem, “For Ethel Rosenberg,” remembering that the date in 1953 of their execution was a week before her marriage. After you read this post, take a moment and watch/listen to Adrienne read this poem.

Still searching for the window, the barn, I came across another of Adrienne’s poems, not the one I was looking for, but at this moment, right.  North American Time, written in 1983, was published in 1986 in Your Native Land, Your Life, the final stanza reads:

IX

In North America time stumbles on
without moving, only releasing
a certain North American pain.
Julia de Burgos wrote:
That my grandfather was a slave
is my grief; had he been a master
that would have been my shame.
A poet's words, hung over a door
in North America, in the year
nineteen-eighty-three. The almost-full moon rises
timeless speaking of change
out of the Bronx, the Harlem River
the drowned towns of the Quabbin
the pilfered burial mounds
the toxic swamps, the testing-grounds
and I start to speak again.

1983

In this youtube of Adrienne reading the poem, she tells us that Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican poet who died on the streets of New York in 1953. A little research and I find she died in early July, just weeks after the Rosenberg execution. I’m reminded that the Jewish Puerto Rican poet Aurora Levins Morales wrote  on facebook this week:

“Hardly anyone is talking about the fact that at least 23 of the people who died at the Pulse were Puerto Rican. That Central Florida is receiving 1000 Puerto Ricans a week fleeing from the disaster colonialism has wrought on us. That these beloved, mostly young people were not only targeted by homophobia. The man who killed them was a regular at that bar and he chose Latinx night. I will not stand for the racist aspect of this hate crime being whitewashed away. This was my familia. They were all doubly my cousins. Yes, everybody reach out to queer communities. Yes, everybody reach out to Muslim communities. But reach out to Latinx and specifically Puerto Rican communities, too. They were our children.”

JBMural-207x300You can find more of Julia de Burgos’ poetry in this bilingual edition. All of these connections across generations, places. I had to get them all down in one place. Thus this blog. I finally found the poem that sent me on this journey. It was hard to find online, but published in Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995, which I have on my bookshelf (I tell you this because I am happy to lend books):

Revolution in Permanence

(1953, 1993)

Through a barn window, three-quartered
the profile of Ethel Rosenberg
stares down past a shattered apple-orchard
into speechless firs.
Speechless this evening.   Last night
the whole countryside thrashed in lowgrade fever
under low swollen clouds
the mist advanced and the wind
tore into one thing then another
--you could think random but you know
the patterns are there—
a sick time, and the human body
feeling it, a loss of pressure,
an agitation without purpose . . .
Purpose?   Do you believe
all agitation has an outcome
like revolt, like Bread and Freedom?
—or do you hang on to the picture
of the State as a human body
—some people being heads or hearts
and others only hands or guts or legs?
But she—how did she end up here
in this of all places?
What she is seeing I cannot see,
what I see has her shape.
There’s an old scythe propped
in an upper window of the barn—
—does it call up marches of peasants?
what is it with you and this barn?
And, no, it’s not an old scythe,
it’s an old rag, you see how it twitches.
And Ethel Rosenberg? I’ve worried about her
through the liquid window in that damp place.
I’ve thought she was coughing, like me,
but her profile stayed still watching
what held her in that position.

1993

Finally, as I go to post this, I find out that on Monday June 20th, 2016, two days from now, The New Yorker magazine will publish a review of Rich’s just out Collected Poems 1950-2012 (WW Norton, June 2016). If only I’d had the new collection when I started writing this, I wouldn’t have had to spend the night searching google.