Friday, September 16, 2016

"Name Change," a poem from my book of poems, Dwelling

This is the plaque in entry of my grandfather's, Robert Barnstone's, jewelry
and watch store in Lewiston, Maine.
Because in this election, a religious group is being demonized, I offer this family history from my new book of poems, Dwelling. Our family name was changed in 1912, one year before the Leo Frank case. Maine's nativists evolved into the KKK, which in this northern state directed its hate and violence toward Catholics and Jews (because they were regarded as recent immigrants), as well as its few African-American residents. I thought when I was growing up that my grandfather wanted to change the family name because he was ambitious and wanted to be respectable—and I'm sure those considerations figured into his reasoning—yet there was also a back-history of dangerous anti-Semitism. You can read more about anti-Semitism in Maine here, at Documenting Maine Jewry.

Name Change

It was my grandfather’s idea to change
the family name from Bornstein,
meaning amber
          or burning stone in German,
to Barnstone, also meaning amber.

In 1912, he, his father, step-mother,
and all his siblings stood before a judge
in Auburn, Maine,
              and Anglicized the vowels
within their name’s consonants to conceal
being Jews within their souls and behind the walls
of home
(shades drawn to hide Shabbat candlelight.)    
The gems’s classical name was electron,
“beaming sun,” yet the Heliades grief
made them poplars and their tears golden amber. 
Two centuries before, the Emperor
Joseph the Second decreed that all Jews
immediately abandon
                                  Hebrew names
and adopt a constant German surname.
Tax them and keep track of them like the rest
of Christendom,
                          except keep the Jews humble.
No Jew may take the surname of a noble
or renowned family.
                                No Jew may keep
a name if someone complains it was his.

All circumcision books and all birth books
will be in German forever and ever.

The Jews will be registered, just as Jesus
was born in Bethlehem,
                        city of David,
where Joseph and Mary traveled to sign
the census decreed by Caesar Augustus.
Did the ancestors know the parallel—
register to be taxed (and rounded up later)—
when they chose lovely names: apple or pear
tree, rose, gold leaf, green field, or blooming valley.

My jeweler Zaide was a great magician
with diamonds, so I am told.
                                 What if
in 1788, our ancestors
had been able to afford Diamond—
the hardest stone, dispersing spectral color—
would my grandfather have heard the brilliant name
as Jewish?
   and would he have chosen for us
Davies, Day, or even plain Smith instead?

Every time I look down at my left hand,
I behold
  the ring he gave my grandmother:
a platinum setting shaping a sun.
The diamond conceals
                                    fire within
until, awakened by rays, it bursts
into rainbows and stars scattered on the walls
all around me:
           the covenant with Noah:

God will never annihilate us again.

My grandmother, Dora Lempert Barnstone, and my grandfather, Robert Carl Barnstone

My uncle, Howard Barnstone, grandmother, Dora Lempert Barnstone, my
aunt, Beatrice Barnstone Kammerman, and the litte one in front
is my father, Willis Barnstone.
My grandmother, Dora Lempert Barnstone, and her sister, my great Aunt Jane, Jennie Lempert Lichter.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"Poetry Game," a Poem for my Father

Me and my father, Willis Barnstone, in our home,
Bloomington, IN, early 70s, photo by Richard Phlum.
On the occasion of my every birthday, my father writes me a poem. I remember when I was still a very small girl, around 4, he would read me "my companion of the hills / I take your hand," and he'd take my hand. He also transcribed my poems, as he did my daughter, Zoe's, when she was little. From the beginning he encouraged us all to sing, to be artists. On Father's Day, I offer a poem for my dad that gives a glimpse of our creative lives, when we spent our summers in Vermont. 

Poetry Game

—for Dad and Blanche

I could eat the words,
if one were “strudel.”
If it were “cheese,”
I couldn’t stop myself
recalling my friends’ birthday parties,
how the farmer takes a wife,
the choosing game, and my shame
to be the homely cheese
standing alone on a braided rug
breathing in sour smells,

not the savory thyme and oregano,
not the sweet
almond, filo, and honey
of our home, my father
leaning down to read
my page
of scrawls and doodles.
he’d ask, fountain pen poised,
“What kind of bird?”

“Chickadee,” I’d say,
            or “whippoorwill.”
Their names were their songs.
his black and white head
at home in daylight,
I could see when he sang,
his sharpened beak writing
letters that disappeared the instant
they were formed on air.

Whippoorwill I knew to be
a homely bird
who sings only in the dark,
invisibly, somewhere
in a thorny locust or fragrant pine
so beautiful, a little
mournful. But why
the mean picture:
whip poor Will?
I tried to think of another pun

less punishing. If I wrote “flowers,”
I understood to cross it out
before Dad questioned the word, unless
it were a verb or arranged,
a bunch of flowers I’d picked
in our field, dried up in a homely jar.
I’d say “tiger lilies,” seeing
their orange blooming
around the boulder where water pooled
after a storm.

I’d say “hollyhocks”
because when I crossed
our dirt road to find Blanche Bleikhart,
I passed their sunny faces
and tall stalks propped up against
her weathered clapboard home,
her drunk husband
bellowing behind the walls.
I’d say “marigolds,” “pansies,”
“poppies,” and “petunias,”

because she’d be kneeling in the dirt,
a hymn to the Green Mountains
spread above her,
a velvet veil across the temple
of sky. She looked up
and spoke with me,
murmuring to calico
kittens winding round her ankles
as she weeded and harvested.

I’d say “Jack-in-the-Pulpit,”
holy and purple, appearing
in sheltered groves, because
the bark peeled away from birches
reminded me of the lines
of dark earth on her knuckles,
and she gently placed some seed pods
in my young palm,
with instructions,
a simple homily.

Because bordering the rows of homely beans,
squash, peppers, and tomatoes,
my elderly friend raised the companion
flowers I’d later learn
keep pests away from our food—
and someday I’d grow
to be an old lady, gifted
with a green thumb
and sunflowers three times as tall
            as I stand, shaded by a straw hat.

—in Dwelling, forthcoming with the Sheep Meadow Press, October 4, 2016.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Gender Neutral Rendering of a Passage from Proverbs that Deals with Wisdom

Sophia in Ephesus by Thérèse Gaigé 
As a woman and the daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, I have been tormented in church (Episcopal) by two things: the masculine pronoun to refer to God and the passages, especially in John, that serve as the foundation for anti-Semitism. Today when I heard this beautiful passage from Proverbs, I was inspired (and I mean INSPIRED) to do a gender neutral translation. My problem is that when I have to say "Our Father" to refer to the Most High, I feel that I am lying. I don't believe that God is a man! Jesus may be the masculine and the Holy Spirit and Wisdom (Sophia) may be feminine, but the Source must not have a gender. Some of the teachings say that God doesn't have a gender, but we use "he" as a gender neutral pronoun. This has been thoroughly debunked by now, I hope. I am very happy with this translation. I did a little research on the names of God (which I really didn't have to do, but I always research even the things I think I already know because I can always learn more). I felt that this translation was truly a devotional practice, expanding God to be larger than the masculine pronoun. I felt the spirit of Sophia coursing through me! I was inspired also by Cathy Rosenholtz's sermon on the Holy Trinity in which she said, "We have made God so small." I have no doubt that God is so small, so large, so beyond human comprehension, yet always letting us into Their Mystery.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Does not Wisdom call,
     and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
     at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
     at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
"To you, O people, I call,
     and my cry is to all that live.
The MOST HIGH created me at the beginning of Their work,
     the first of Their acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
     at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
     when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
     before the hills, I was brought forth--
when the CREATOR had not yet made earth and fields,
     or the world's first bits of soil.
When the LIGHT established the heavens, I was there,
     when the NAME drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when the ANCIENT OF DAYS made firm the skies above,
     when the OVERSOUL established the fountains of the deep,
when the SOURCE assigned to the sea its limit,
     so that the waters might not transgress Their command,
when the SUPREME BEING marked out the foundations of the earth,
     then I was beside Them, like a master worker;
and I was daily the HOLY PARENT’S delight,
     rejoicing before Them always,
rejoicing in Their inhabited world
     and delighting in the human race."

My friend Claire Schaffer wrote: Thanks, Kiki, for this translation. As much as I agree on the gender points you make, I wonder if you view God as a being (as in SUPREME BEING)? Also, can you be comfortable with "their" as the singular gender/neutral pronoun? 

I answered: I asked myself about whether to go further in my explanation about the experience of translating the names of God, but left my commentary as it was for a time. I'm grateful for you question because things reveal themselves with dialogue. With regard to God a being, yes, I do feel comfortable about that because one of the names of God is "I am" (as in Exodus, God tells Moses to tell the people that "I AM" sent him. As for the Supreme part, that word has some negative associations, but I think that that name should apply to God, though perhaps not to humans. My answer to the question about "their/them" as the gender neutral pronoun is two-fold. On the grammatical level, I used to correct my students when they wrote a construction such as "Everyone has a right to their free speech." But I realized that "they/their" is emerging as the gender neutral pronoun and that's just the way that language develops. Some experts on grammar are now saying that "they/their" as the gender neutral pronoun is correct. But apart from that, there are precedents in other languages as well as English for pronouns that are both plural and singular. For example, "you" is both singular and plural, though certain regions of the country make disctinctions (y'all, youse). There is also the "royal we." In Spanish and other Romance languages the formal and the plural second person are the same pronoun (usted in Spanish). On a theological level, I think it makes sense to use "they/their" as the gender neutral pronoun, and there's ample scriptural and theological justification for that usage in the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis 1:26, God says "Let us make humanity in our image." God has both feminine and masculine aspects in the Jewish tradition. In the Christian tradition, the Holy Trinity is the three-personed God. I love what the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew says that God is a love relationship and therefore is Love (my paraphrase). There are some icons that depict the Holy Trinity as three very androgenous beings, the most famous one is by the 14th-15th Century Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Holy Friday, a poem

In Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora ChurchIstanbul, c. 1315,
raising Adam and Eve is depicted as part of the Resurrection icon, as it always is in the East.

© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / , via Wikimedia Commons

Holy Friday

After he gave up his spirit, the dogwood grieved
that it was strong and straight and heavy,
chopped down and crudely made to be
the tall cross he dragged up Golgotha Hill.
He blessed the tree that was only fulfilling the scriptures,
that had no will and yet could feel,
and shriveled and shrank crookedly in shame.
He blessed the tree and suddenly
            the dogwoods all over the Earth
            bloomed white or pink, luminous
in twilight, a little thornless crown at the center
and four fleshy petals for the points of the cross.

And a robin landed on one branch
to announce the spring,
and a mockingbird landed on another
to repeat the good news,
and an owl landed on another to wisely chant
                        a lament for the dead.

Then the ground trembled and opened,
            the archangels flew out of the immense
waning red Passover moon,
and flanked him as he descended into the underworld.
And the sage and thyme and rosemary
            growing close to the ground
            released their fragrance as they were trampled
            by him who would trample death,
who pushed aside the granite stone covering the tombs
            and took Eve and Adam by the hand
            and pulled them bodily from their graves.
The first mother and father shouted out to be risen,
            on their feet, held in each other’s arms,
touching heart to heart, and testing
the muscles in their fingers.

            The owl was heard solemnly chanting praise;
the mockingbird repeating the good news;
the robin announcing the spring.

Yet he would not be interrupted, the cattle and sheep,
winemakers and bakers, farmers and shepherds,
and the loyal dogs leaning against them,
the weavers and the barefoot children died too soon,
and women exhausted with birth
found themselves upright, standing witness
as all the souls were good
after their original nature.
Even the warrior kings and even the rich,
killers whose gold starved the rest,
he allowed into the cloud,
let them be poor and naked and sick,
let them hold a dogwood branch as a scepter.

--Aliki Barnstone, the poem originally appeared in Great River Review, and will appear in her forthcoming book, Dwelling, the Sheep Meadow Press, 2016.

NOTE: The poem refers to the Legend of the Dogwood and to the icons of the “Harrowing of Hell,” in which Jesus is depicted raising Adam and Eve from their tombs.