Tag Archives: poetry

Teenager’s diary reveals the world of a promising life cut short

Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal, by Renia Spiegel, with Elisabeth Bellak and Sarah Durand. Translated from Polish by Anna Blasiak and Marta Dziurosz. Introduction by Deborah E. Lipstadt. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

This book, a diary never meant for publication, is not what one would expect from something labeled as a Holocaust diary or journal. In it, young Renia gives very little attention to the immediate effects of Nazi aggression on a Jewish community. Most often, she seems barely aware of it. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that she is only intermittently aware of the establishment of a Ghetto near her grandparents’ home, where she has been living since being separated from her parents. She hears rumors that over time solidify. 

Most of her impressions of ongoing or expected destruction of Jewish communities seem second hand, and perhaps they most often were second hand – until the end.

Readers will wonder why they are not getting the kind of scenes that make up the bulk of first person Holocaust writings.

Deborah E. Lipstadt’s Introduction helps clarify the issue by making the important distinction between  diary and memoir. Diary writers are writing for themselves or for an alter ego. The diary is a companion (“dear diary”). Such journals are about the happenings and concerns of the immediate present.

Memoirs are retrospective. The writer knows the outcome of events initiated in the past and has processed the experiences after the immediate has become the remembered. Memoirs are meant to have an audience and they are written in anticipation of that audience.

Renia spent her time writing her observations, her primary concerns as a teenage girl in the last years of her well-designed secular schooling. Boys and possible relationships are on her mind, as are her female peers in the school. She writes about her moods, whom she likes, and whom she thinks does and does not understand her.

Foremost here is the student who becomes her committed boyfriend, Zygmunt. Her word portraits of this young man are astonishing, as are her records of their meetings and conversations. Parties, dances, and other standard teen activities are on Renia’s mind, as is her sense of how she is maturing physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Like most diary writers, she is talking to herself, addressing the diary directly as if it were a sympathetic friend: a true and loyal confidante.

The diary also records her concern about her mother’s situation, her longing for her mother to visit, and her high esteem for her absent mother. Many entries end with the author’s cry for help from her mother and from God. She needs them both desperately.

Renia’s diary is also, perhaps primarily, a collection of her poems, both recent and brand new. Her writerly aspirations drive her to produce more and more poems.in which she skillfully employs nature imagery to help explore her emotional life. The poems fall short of greatness, especially in that they are so repetitive of one another, but Renia is clearly a promising poet whose work could have grown in depth and sophistication if her life had not been cut short.

Meanwhile, she was trusted to run her school’s student newspaper.

While the last passages that Renia wrote do focus on the conditions of ghetto life, a fuller picture of that period and the family’s life before and after can be found in two additional sections of the book prepared by Renia’s younger sister. They are not journal material but a mix of memoir and research. Titled “Epilogue” and “Elizabeth’s Commentary,” These sections provide much-needed context that is otherwise missing from the journal proper. With these additions, the answers to questions that are not answered in journals or diaries like Renia’s are brought fully to light. It is here that readers receive the conditions of Holocaust life in Poland.

RENIA SPIEGEL was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1924. She began her diary at the start of 1939, right before the invasion of Poland by the German and Soviet armies. In 1942, she was forced to move to a ghetto, but was smuggled out by her boyfriend and went into hiding with his parents. She was discovered by the Gestapo and murdered on July 30, 1942.

ELIZABETH BELLAK (née Ariana Spiegel), Renia’s sister, born in 1930, was a child actress once called “the Polish Shirley Temple.” In 1942 she and her mother fled to Warsaw, and then to Austria, finally arriving in New York City, where she lives today.

This review appears in the August 2019 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

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“Made in Detroit: Poems” by Marge Piercy

Alfred A. Knopf  2015
192 Pages    $27.95

 Review by Philip K. Jason

Marge Piercy’s nineteenth collection of poetry—to go along with her seventeen novels—celebrates the working-class roots of a fierce American writer who became a voice at once strident and sensitive for social justice, the value of work, and humanity’s place in the embracing, injured natural world.

Her poems are often lean and tough, with sharp juxtapositions of words and images challenging the reader’s imagination and confronting complacency. marge-piercy

The book is divided into six sections, and in the first three Piercy’s references to her Jewish identity are sparse and defensive. In “City bleeding” she talks about learning to survive on Detroit’s “ashgrey burning streets / when as a Jew I was not white yet . . . .” Judaism seems a troubled reminder, in “What my mother gave me,” as the writer remembers “how cats would circle / your feet purring your Hebrew name.” In a prose poem, she remembers “feeling very alien, feeling very Jewish and judged.” She remembers her mother telling her not to putJew on a job application in “My time in better dresses”—Jewishness as a burden.

How surprising and uplifting, then, to find the entirety of Made in Detroit’s fourth part a full-throated acceptance and affirmation of Jewish identity. This section, mostly a meditation on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), soars. These poems, at once personal and public, reveal an engaged Jewish consciousness, a woman who tells us, “I like Rosh Hashanah late, / when leaves are half burnt / umber and scarlet” and when “migrating birds perch / on the wires davening.”

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council blog and will appear in a forthcoming Jewish Book World, click here: Made in Detroit by Marge Piercy | Jewish Book Council


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Merrill Leffler’s “Mark the Music”

MarkMusicMerrillI have had the rare privilege of watching a poetic journey for about 45 years. A long, long time ago I had occasion to review an earlier book by Mr. Leffler in Poet Lore (which I edited at the time). It was a joy to read and review that book (Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love), and it is no less of a joy to review this new collection. I only wish that I’d had more room for the new review, including the opportunity to provide examples.

I’ll allow others to do that work: Merrill Leffler to mentor Takoma’s poetic voice – Voice

And here is comment on a less known dimension of his multi-faceted work with words: Leffler the man of science: Chesapeake Quarterly Volume 3, Number 1: Leffler Takes His Leave

And here is a bit of what I’d like to share about his achievement: Mark the Music | Poems by Merrill Leffler | Jewish Book Council

Now, go get the book and enjoy.

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A Memory of Roland Flint


This piece was written soon after the death of Roland Flint (January 2, 2001) and published in the March/April 2001 issue of Writer’s Carousel (The Writer’s Center, Bethesda MD). Truly, this dedicated and gifted poet was one of the most unforgettable characters that I’ve been blessed to know. Like many others who had a similar life-changing opportunity, I will never forget him.

I find it difficult to speak in a public or professional voice about Roland Flint, a man who was a dear friend to me for over thirty years as well as a poet whose work I greatly admired and respected. He was a man with a great, caring soul – and what he cared about often found its way into his work: the unseen heroism of the common man, the magnitude of pain and suffering in people’s lives, the sources of endurance that sufferers discover, the miracle of human love, the beauty of the human form at rest and in motion, the juicy sexuality of creation, and all the promises of life that vie with all the obstacles of living.

 He had such a hearty laugh, he could have so much fun hearing a joke or telling one, that it is easy to forget how close so much of his life was to tears. But the laugh was not a mere cover or compensation: it was the tonic burst of a life-force at once fierce and gentle. I think I’ll miss that laugh as much as anything. That laugh shoots through many of the poems – especially the prose poems – and we have the poems. But they are not quite the same thing.

Roland Flint as Poet Laureate of Maryland

 Roland’s dance with the goddess Fame was only partly danced when he fell ill. I don’t mean that he hadn’t been long beloved by a wide spectrum of those who love poetry, those who read it and write it. But certainly he had not yet become a household name, and his work is not exemplifying one thing or another in the anthology texts that suggest to students a writer’s importance.  I think he was getting there fast, and may get there yet. He has a big chunk of space in any anthology I ever imagine.

 What does this mean? He started late in a generation of quickstart careers. His first two books, so lovingly brought to readers by Dryad Press, did not appear until he was 37 and 41 respectively. When RESUMING GREEN, from prestigious Dial Press, put him on the map in 1983, he was thoroughly a middle-aged man. And then the Dial imprint died and with it the parent company’s interest in this fine collection. When STUBBORN appeared from the University of Illinois Press in 1990, a National Poetry Series Selection, Roland had turned a corner – at 56. I don’t think he wrote less as the years went by, but rather that he allowed less to get into print. He was a severe judge and careful editor of his own work. It was another nine years until LSU Press brought out EASY. He had a lot more in him, I’m sure.

 Though I’m grateful for these books and the PIGEON volume that came out along the way, I want more.

 I also want more of that splendid vocal instrument that he tuned to perfection when giving a reading. What a dazzling presence he was at the podium: in performing his poems, Roland always achieved star power. Some faulted him for it, and some detractors believed that his readings made the poems seem better than they were. Others, those who would read and listen and read again, discovered that the voice truly revealed what was already there. But it’s a simple matter: Roland wrote to be heard. He knew the roots of poetry are in oral tradition, and he partook of that tradition even as he crafted poems that can speak right off the page. He taught us how to hear.

 And he taught other poets how to read – deliver, if you will – their poems to listeners. Not just by his example, but through workshops and serious individual advice, he helped a great many poets do justice to their writings.

 Roland at times showed a bard’s ego. I think for him it was a healthy pride. But he could revel in the deflation of it, and that’s one thing I loved about him. It’s an old story that many people have heard, because Roland would enjoy telling it on himself. Sometime before his first book, AND MORNING, came out, Roland told me that he had written a poem for David Ignatow. This sounded, though it probably wasn’t, a bit stuffy and a bit name-droppy to me. Feigning an innocence about these literary matters while eager to exercise my wiseguy persona, I asked: does he need one? Well, at this little dig Roland cracked up. He chuckled over it for years, — decades. He offered the story back as a way of complimenting me, though the laugh was on him.

 Show me a man who can laugh at himself and in no way be belittled, and I’ll show you a man of great spirit, self-knowledge, and robust cheer.

 OK. I haven’t listed the awards, the recognitions, the magazine credits, the fellowships, and the whole rigmarole of acclaim. They sit in official bios and will be selectively placed where they need to be referenced. These are not what made Roland an impressive man to me. That he learned enough Bulgarian to translate and recite it is something I admired, but I was touched when he would offer a Hebrew phrase or blessing when he knew I was celebrating the Sabbath or a Jewish holiday.

 One thing that made him impressive – and loved – was this: when he asked how my children were doing, he actually remembered what I had told him last – though months and even years may have intervened. He knew exactly what kind of careers they were pursuing, where they were living, what kind of problems they were contending with – and he hadn’t seen them since they were kids, decades ago. Roland always listened, he always heard, and he always cared. And do you know, he had formed a bond back then that left those children knowing who he was in a way that prepared them to share my sense of great fortune in being his friend, and now to share my loss.

 Hello. Goodbye. Peace. Shalom.


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When This Man Prays

When this man prays in private

          Leaving a space for silence and

                   Solitary whispers

We learn that we, too,

          Can own a space in the holy dialogue

                   Between God and his people

A one-on-one – alive, immediate, almost breathless.

And when this man sings his prayer,

          Full-voiced, impassioned,

                   With urgency and gentleness

We can feel our own voices

          Lift to the dance of language

                   Our throats and lips, our tongues,

Soaring in sorrow or celebration.

When this man’s body sways in prayer,

          Each bend and gesture a sign of love

                   Or reverential doubt

We can feel the tug on our own muscles:

          Bone and blood accepting the mitzvah

                   Of the dance . . .

And in unembarrassed wholeness

          Our bodies yield their stiffness

                   Our voices are suddenly beautiful

Our private murmurings flow free from the prison of self.

          Heart and voice and limbs

                   Ascending the ladder of longing,

We are Israel, hearing, in all our ways of being,

          Hearing at last.

published in Sources of Jewish Poetry: A Thirty-Year Shirim Retrospective. Vol. 30/2 and 31/1, 2012-13.

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A life of despair redeemed through the power of art

“I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl: a Memoir,” by Kelle Groom. Free Press. 256 pages. $23.00.

Like a lot of must-read books, “I Wore the Ocean” is a difficult book to read. Its passages of darkness and despair are almost overwhelming. Its descriptions of alcoholism, drug addiction, and emptiness are harrowing. But there is no turning away. Ms. Groom’s lyrical prose is addictive. Brilliantly lucid, richly suggestive, and ruthlessly honest, this memoir is a triumph of art and life. 

Young Kelle Groom was a person without a center. Up to a certain point in her life, she had a very loose grasp on her own reality. She could not really feel rooted, substantial. She found no way to assert herself into the world: she could barely speak. She lived in psychic pain, she faked confidence and, while yet in her early teens, lost herself to alcohol and drugs. She became easy prey to exploitative boyfriends and sexual predators. She was damaged goods, perhaps permanently lost.

Somewhere, there was a resilient core that showed itself from time to time. Her unplanned pregnancy, at nineteen, was a mixed blessing. It was a gift and a loss. Motherhood gave Kelle Groom a more powerful sense of herself. She was more anchored in the world. However, believing that she was not fit to raise a child, she allowed Tommy to be adopted by her aunt and uncle. She lived on the fringes of the life she gave. When Tommy died at fourteen months from leukemia, Ms. Groom’s despair and sense of guilt almost toppled her.

Her life as a young adult was one of marginal jobs, bad choices in men, and a running battle with alcoholism. The possibility of suicide was never far away. Over time, writing became more and more her salvation. It was her way of coming to terms with herself, of dealing with demons, of building a solid identify, of finding a productive addiction, and of gaining perspective and understanding.

Kelle Groom photo by Marion Ettinger

Kelle Groom’s process of self-making through art resulted in three collections of poetry and now this glorious memoir, based largely on journal entries written over many, many years.

A major thread in the book is Ms. Groom’s psychological and spiritual search for Tommy. Her own quest for wholeness required that she explore the possible reasons for her son’s death and the contours and texture of his brief life. With her, we examine the potential for cancer-causing environmental factors in and around Brockton, Massachusetts where Tommy lived. We witness her react to photographs of Tommy and his adoptive parents that enlarge her emotional understanding. Finally, her aunt and uncle give her some almost thirty-year old home movies that Kelle Groom has processed onto a video compact disc. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 29, 2011 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 30 issue of the Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Kelle Groom or here: Kelle Groom pdf – 1 and here: Kelle Groom pdf – 2

Note: Since this review first appeared, Groom’s memoir has made it to Oprah’s Summer Reading List.

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After Katrina

Does Katrina mean pure as in pure hell

or is it the new nick-name for global warming?

Like Adolph, it will fall from favor

with expecting parents.

To me, it’s a bouncy-sounding name:

I see my Katrina dancing,

a farm girl from Belgium or Holland

caught up in a Brueghel painting,

in what Williams called “rollicking measures,”

her skirt twirling like a roulette wheel,

a discus thrown from Biloxi.

But under her skirt are the whirling floaters,

the human flotsam outstretched

like starfish and — spinning, spinning

into the Gulf of Mexico

and across the Atlantic waters.

Washed out of the prisons and nursing homes,

the working-class neighborhoods

(and the neighborhoods without work),

the dockside warehouses, the brothels.

the churches and schools, — and streaming now,

each a little whirlpool of abated life,

a mandala of grief.

I imagine Katrina’s energy,

her benign urge to fulfillment,

the twists and turns of her swerving hips,

and her inevitable dissolution,

and I find that energy returning now

as pinwheel corpses revolve past

the drilling platforms and steer themselves

eastward, bumping against Miami

and then out to the vast, jazzed-up sea.

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Myra Sklarew’s “Harmless”

from Jewish Book World, Winter 2010-11

 HARMLESS, by Myra Sklarew. Mayapple Press, 2010. 92pp. $15.95.

ISBN: 978-0-932412-898

 Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

The question of Jewishness in poetry is too often answered by writing that seems like a forced demonstration of identity or an overly rehearsed, mocking self-hatred. Or it’s pretentiously learned. Or it lives entirely in nostalgia. Over several decades, Myra Sklarew has carefully avoided these stances. Her art is most profoundly Jewish even when it is not topically Jewish. Her identity as a Jewish woman and artist, a time-traveler who breathes and re-imagines Jewish experience across the ages, is secure. Her modesty in stance and style rests on certainties that remain unnamed while releasing the power of acute perceptions.

 Sklarew is at home with Torah as myth and history, and also with modern and contemporary history, particularly its themes of violence and separation. She cherishes equally the creative urge and courageous failures of the artist and of the scientist. She is at home with the constant flux of loss, disorientation, and balance restored. At home with mystery, she is wise enough not to unravel it.

As Myra Sklarew meditates on the consequences of war (“Sleeping in Lithuania”), the evergreen meanings of sacred story (“Crossing Over” and “Moses”), the richness of Jewish poetic achievement (“Keeping Silent: for Stanley Kunitz” and “The Journey,” honoring Yehuda Halevi), or the unfathomable resilience of grieving mothers and abandoned children, she awakens us to the magic of dvarim – words, words polished and fitted together into an ascending staircase.

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BOOK BEAT 47 – Len Solo

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   June 20-26, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

Is there a more perfect name for a poet than Solo? What name better fits the solitary author of lyric and narrative poems? Perhaps Dr. Leonard E. Solo had no real choice in the avocation that has occupied him since he was an undergraduate at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. Through his graduate work at the University of Massachusetts, through post-graduate studies at Harvard, and through his long years as a teacher, administrator, and consultant, Len Solo was also a poet. For this wintertime Naples resident (Massachusetts is otherwise home), the name’s the thing.

In the late 1960s, when Solo was teaching high school, he struck up a relationship with one of his students, Steve Weitzman (known as “Mud”). They wrote some poems together and critiqued one another’s work. They kept in touch, and in the early 1990s considered publishing a book together. Nothing came of it, and they lost contact.

By 2001, as Solo started writing more regularly, he came back to the idea of publishing a collection that combined Mud’s poems and his own. But now he could not find Mud, and their favored title, “The Spirit of the Seasons” (capturing the seasonal organization of the collection), was already taken. By 2003, Solo had added more poems and made structural changes. The collection was brought out by PublishAmerica in 2004 as “Landscape of the Misty Eye,” Solo trusting that his vanished friend, whom he listed as co-author, would not object. Solo found Mud last year, and the former student was “pleasantly astounded to see the book, which he likes a great deal.”

In another year, Solo found that he had written enough poems for a solo (no pun intended) collection. “Rooted in Place” (2006, also from PublishAmerica) is organized into three sections, each focused on one of the three main places that he has lived. One of these sections grows out of his experiences of six winters in Naples. There is also a temporal arrangement, moving from poems of youth to those of maturity and old age.

As a poet, Solo values directness and accessibility and shuns the academic. In plain language, he strives to surprise and delight his readers. He has mastered the conventions of traditional poetry and uses them when he needs to, but his work is best characterized as free verse.

Solo and his wife, Deanna, have a condo near the intersection of Route 41 and Rattlesnake Hammock. “Why Naples?” he writes, in answer to my question. “We have friends who got there first; we have an absolutely beautiful spot (small condo, friendly people, nice garden and pool in front, grass and trees in the back with a canal, birds, etc.). The weather is great and I’ve come to hate New England winters.” He also enjoys being near the ocean, the multitude of good restaurants, the art shows, the Thursdays on Third music festivals, and the seafood and music at Stan’s Idle Hour restaurant in Goodland. Solo also values the flatness of the Florida terrain, which makes it easy to walk and bike.

Solo says that he takes his cue as a writer from something Hemingway had expressed about trying to capture the sequence of motion and fact and in doing so creating the emotion. This busy poet has finished about forty new poems since “Rooted in Place” came out. I’m guessing that it won’t be long before he puts together another book.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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BOOK BEAT 9 – Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   September 13-19, 2006

by Philip K. Jason

Several years ago, when Marylin Krepf pondered what she could do to perk up her sister-in-law, Phyliss Geller, who had entered a gloomy period following a professional setback, the bright idea of co-editing a poetry anthology popped into her head. Phyliss quickly agreed. Soon after, the Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry was born, with Phyliss taking the title of publisher and editor while Marilyn was designated as literary editor. The latest iteration, Volume IV, has just appeared, and it advances the steady maturation demonstrated through the first three volumes.

Marylin and Phyliss have been involved with poetry for a long time. Both were shaped in part by a poetry workshop led by Pearl London at the New School in New York in the mid-1970s. Marylin, as Marylin Butler, published a collection of her work – Half Past Sunset – in 1985. The book received brief but enthusiastic reviews in Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. In that same year, her poem “Listen” was included in the prestigious anthology Carrying the Darkness, edited by W. D. Ehrhart. This is the most influential collection of poems dealing with the Vietnam War.

After her marriage to Winfried Krepf, a civil engineer, Marylin followed his career, which took the couple to several fascinating places: Germany (where her husband was born), Saudi Arabia, Siberia, and Indonesia among them. Relocating to the states to establish a more stable, non-wandering lifestyle, Winfried took a job in Fort Myers and seven years ago the couple settled in Naples with their young son. Since the boy’s enrollment at the Royal Palm Academy, Marylin has been named the school’s poet-in-residence.

Marylin and Phyliss (who lives in Boca Raton) share in the editorial selection process. Phyliss serves as first reader, logging in the poems and annotating them with her comments before passing them on to Marylin. Marylin then serves as the second reader. She writes to each potential contributor personally, quite frequently making suggestions for revision. Once the poems are selected, the women then strive to create an arrangement through which the poems speak to one another, allowing the anthology volume to be greater than the some of its parts.

The present volume and the one before it are notable for including reprints of poems by established poets. Volume Three contains poems by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Philip Levine. The new volume features poems by Jane Hirschfield. This decision to anchor anthology volumes with a prominent poet allows all the contributors to appear in good company and calls special attention to the anthology. It is, in fact, a marketing device that assures high quality as well. Marylin sees no reason not to republish poems by such major authors, giving the poems a chance to reach a new audience.

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