In the Synagogue after Yizkor, by Stephanie Pressman

In the Synagogue after Yizkor
         In the manner of John Ash, “Memories of Italy”
by Stephanie Pressman

I feared the dark stairs of course
and the way the old women
whispered to each other in Yiddish.
I feared the dark stairs leading to the balcony—

the way the velvet carpet absorbed sound
like a blanket or when you go too far (if this is not
too phobic a way of putting it) into a walk-in
closet hung with wool and fox,

and the way the old women sat in the balcony
wearing their best house dresses, faded plaid
or polka-dot, dresses that hiked up to show
their stockings rolled down their shins which reminded me

of the curves on the balustrade in the balcony
the weird lathed shapes of table legs
their skin whiter than the anger of the woodworker
who cannot proceed with the piecing: the spindles
are piled waiting, their raw wood primed for the balcony

where old women sit knees to chins like Baba-Yaga ready to lure
any child wandering the secret path into a hut built on giant
chicken legs to spin deeper into the forest,
and I learn too late the fence is made of femurs, for they
tell their secrets only to each other…
And the woodworker knows he has to complete this balustrade,
that the curves are not urns
but another container to hold the shriveling bodies
of the old women in the side section of the balcony

and he knows the balustrade is sturdy,
that it represents the chain link and barbed wire
that held their nieces and nephews for whom the old women weep,

and the balustrade circles the balcony
and the old women rock back and forth behind it:
their veiled faces shadowed by felt hats.


The following is still under Copyright

“Memories of Italy”
by John Ash
         for Pat Steir

I loved the light of course
and the way the young men
flirted with each other.
I loved the light,—

the way if fell out of a sky like a painting,
or perhaps like the ground (if this
is not too paradoxical a way of
putting it) for a painting,

and the way the young men stood in the station
wearing jeans that were the colour of the sky
or the sea in a painting, jeans that revealed
the shapes of their legs which reminded me

of the statues in the square outside the station
where the light fell with such violence
their shadows were blacker than the despair of the painter
who cannot proceed with the painting: the canvas
is before him, its ground blue and blank as the sky above the station

where the young men loiter like the heroes in one of the lulls of
         the Trojan War
when lazy picnics were possible beside the calm sea, under the
         smiling sky,
and it half seems that the war will end forever, for surely they
         must all soon fall in love with each other…
And the painter knows his painting must be heroic, that the blue
         is not the sky
but a terrible sea a God has raised to drown the beauty of the
young men in the marble battlefield of the station,

and he knows the painting is finished,
that it represents the envy the divine must feel
towards the human as marble must envy the sea,

and the painting is hung in the concourse of the station
and the young men drift indifferently to and fro before it:
their feet hardly seem to touch the blue marble ground.

         from Disbelief
         reprinted in The Best American Poetry 1988


I started out writing an “opposite poem” using John Ash’s poem because of its strong sense of memory and the use of repetition to add nuances to memory. When I got to the dark stairs and the old women, I was hooked into my own memories. Children were sent out of the synagogue during Yiskor (the memorial service) on Yom Kippur. When I returned, I noticed that my grandmother and other older women had been crying, although I did not know why. Many years later when I was in University I learned about The Holocaust: it was never spoken about in my presence as I was growing up (at least not in my conscious memory), nor did we study about it in Hebrew or Sunday School. I came across a book with graphic photos, and since then have been haunted by the idea that had my family not come to the US when they did, I might have been one of those murdered. Also when I was a child I had recurring dreams that witches were rounding up all the children in the neighborhood.

Stephanie Pressman earned an MA in English from San Jose State University, taught writing at community college, and became a graphic artist and owner of her own design and publishing business, Frog on the Moon. An active member of Poetry Center San Jose since its founding, she served as co-editor and layout artist of cæsura. She also co-edited americas review. Her work has appeared in many journals including Bridges, cæsura, CQ/California State Poetry Quarterly, and Montserrat Review. Her long poem Lovebirdman appears in an illustrated volume published in June, 2018 (available on Amazon).

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