Poet's Choice: 'Temple Beth Israel'
By Gabrielle Calvocoressi
Sunday, January 3, 2010;
In the spring of my 13th year, my mother took her life. It's not an unusual story, though that seems unusual to say. She had been ill my whole life and was, in some ways, a ghost the entire time I knew her. Now I can use terms like "borderline personality disorder." Back then there was just a mother who was sometimes home drinking but more often gone, in some nameless hospital.
What was it she wanted that I wanted too? Often the answer was: for God to hear me. My mother wanted that, and as she got sicker, it seemed to be all she wanted. Sometimes she thought God did hear her, and sometimes his absence made her home feel so full of nothingness that I can't remember what happened. After she died, I tried to stop believing. It wasn't until I was asked on a radio show what I did instead of keeping a journal and said, "Pray" that I realized I'd never stopped speaking into and with that deep silence.
My collection of poems "Apocalyptic Swing" contains faith and violence and all manner of music. One of those poems, "Temple Beth Israel," takes its name from a synagogue that was bombed in the summer of 1964. It considers faith and doubt co-existing in a world that does not welcome all of us. It is a letter about learning and risking joy in the face of tremendous loss. A love letter to a world in which faith and hope are unconquerable because they are boundless.
Temple Beth Israel
I thought I would write to you about the bombings
Of all those churches and temples in the South.
But instead I took a corner and there
Like the sun I wake to in this distant city
A boy resplendent in his yarmulke and Lakers
Jacket. It has happened before but we are almost
Champions now. In the arena, on the radio,
On every school bus there is the song of our city
Winning something. He was no higher than
My chest, heaving from a run as I tried to burn
Off a night of restless dreams. I thought
I would write about the people standing on the corners
In the midst of all that rubble and destruction
But here are the fathers carrying their sons to shul
And my legs are moving like I always dreamt they could.
If I talk to you amidst all this traffic and choose
To speak of joy instead of the suffering of so many,
People laughing in the streets: Shenandoah, La Cienega,
Doheny with its schools and girls in their long skirts
Does it make this less of a poem? How do we make a world
When so many don't want us here? Here are the boys
In their black suits and golden jackets. Here are the hills
Dry from months with no rain. Here I am learning
To read again. We sound the alarm and it is as sweet
As it is sorrowful. Our hands are in the air. We are running.
We are using our legs. We are holding buckets of water
And bright flags. We wear jerseys with the names of temporary kings upon them. We are breathing. We are breathing.
We are almost champions now.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of "The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart" and "Apocalyptic Swing."