Three Poems by Marcela Sulak
It’s Better to be Smart than Right
To get here today I had to wait at home
while Dr. Dalia Marx explained her interesting
theory that Israeli motherhood begins
with what the father is willing
to sacrifice, in women’s poetry, because the phone
was plugged into the wall, recharging
the battery. To get here today was easy
compared to getting here last week
when I missed the bus
by five minutes because
I couldn’t find the phone
and waited in the sun
reading poems about Sukkot,
forgiveness, and Yom
Kippur by depressing Israeli holocaust
survivors or children of holocaust
survivors or those expelled from Bagdad,
Aleppo, Cairo or Salonika, and their sons
who fought in serial wars. Today I had
to face the wrath of my daughter’s prin-
cipal, and the wrath of the disgraced
woman we’d thought to hire for native-
English speakers and who called me a back
-stabbing bitch on facebook
when we did not hire her, though
my friend said her daughter liked her,
she herself might question
the propriety of 10-year-olds
writing about Jack-the-Ripper.
Since it was just before Yom Kippur,
we wrote a nice note to the principal
to clarify that we thought well
of her teaching. Getting here today
it seems there are more mistakes
than not-mistakes, though this bus
has finally arrived, and with brakes
and wheels working, the card reader
beeping, and that mechanism
which distinguishes Jerusalem
money from that of Tel Aviv, and bus
money from train, the back door closing
when it ought, and the driver having
obviously found his sun glasses,
an ironed shirt, belt, drivers’ license,
and managed to shave without cutting
himself. I wonder how often
he hears It’s better to be smart
than right, and if it’s as often
as I do. I am reading about
the production of space when
we get to the place soldiers get
off. The tall, slender one—
who floated on like a kite
is still adrift but displaying no
anger when the driver scolds
him for failure to show his ID
—is asking directions of civilians.
The woman beside me is sniffing,
I think she might be crying.
Let him go I mutter, in case
she needs some advice.
Skyping into Gaza
Yesterday I looked out of the balcony into a street in Beit Lahia, Gaza,
and there were white buildings and green, leafy squares, and a noisy
wind that slapped the curtains. I showed Mosab my street, too,
in Tel Aviv.
his daughter Yafa, for his ancestral city. From his roof he can see
Ashkelon. When I walk from my apartment
twenty minutes to the sea, I see Yaffo’s lighthouse
and towers, its walls that slice the southern coast.
There is an orange tree suspended in air
somewhere between the walls
of the old Crusader city.
I haven’t always
lived in Tel Aviv. My daughter is named for
a woman, not a city. This morning I ran
along the sea, north, away from Yaffo,
towards Naharia, then back down.
very strong carrying around what I have lost. I ran
and ran, until my clothes were wet
with the sea, because I never cry.
How one body
replaces another, how it is never quite what one expects,
this transmigration of bodies, from a city to a baby,
from book to an accordion, footsteps that move us
closer, the ones that move away.
And I want
to write to Moshe the filmmaker, and ask how much
light it takes to hold an image in place,
how many shadows, and fingers.
has never left Gaza since the day he was born.
Gaza is 141 sq mi. He says he travels through books,
through words. He sent me some of his words. Indeed,
they are flight worthy and well crafted in their sentences.
And it was awkward, at first,
when I stepped into his living
room, into his library, the one he is amassing anew, the IDF
having destroyed his previous
one, or maybe it was Hamas. I didn’t ask.
We sat there together,
and he answered my questions:
they cook with gas, but it is expensive; sometimes
they’ve needed to burn wood. No, there is
no milk or meat in the house
when the electricity is cut off.
Then he has to go to the shops and buy
each time they need.
I am sorry, I say,
for asking about unpleasant
things. I want to know him as a person.
But people live in bodies, and bodies live in homes,
and homes are placed in cities, and cities once
had walls, now countries do, and bodies
have skin, and words have wings, and names
are everywhere, and when they leave
they leave gaps.
Silence : Siren ::
November 2012 my daughter grasps the soap,
Castilian peppermint, and starts to yell,
first soft, then growing louder as I grope
for the door handle in the dark. She tells
me when it’s done (she’s sun, I’m heliotrope)
and the black paint lines from her arms dispelled,
It was a soap siren! And then she laughs.
And I laugh, too. We laugh and laugh and laugh.
We had no siren yesterday, but today
a bus exploded near the hospital.
I’d taken my girl to kindergarten—Wednesday—
as I did every day, on a bicycle.
“Oh yes, please save yourself for poetry,”
said a Libyan friend to my “I don’t want to be political—
I’m just alive” fb note. So as he asked I’ll note: in Gaza
it’s worse. It’s also worse in Syria.
And as children we were required to eat,
for the starving children of Cambodia,
without complaining, everything on our plate.
Why couldn’t we just send them our lasagna,
we said, surely our eating didn’t alleviate
their hunger. Two years and a second war,
my child intact, I’ve understood
the point is gratitude and not the food.
Dead baby, dead baby, dead baby, dead
teenager, some blood faked, some photos borrowed
from other wars, numbers inflated
for sure. And yet, a single photo
of a dead child—after that, what can be said?
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxweapons stored xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxresidential areas xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxphoto opportunities
My daughter asks me if the big bad wolf
is the “bad guy” in this bedtime story.
At the risk of damaging her cognitive
development, which needs clear-cut categories,
I tell her it’s his nature to behave
this way; he isn’t bad so much as hungry.
Of course it’s easier if you aren’t the swine
on which the hungry wolf prefers to dine.
(Man passes me on a bike with a 12-rung ladder,
a broom, two brushes , two big green plastic pails,
and a cigarette between his lips—metaphor
for something, I say) (Israel’s too technological
ly advanced, says Paul, for such a metaphor,
but I’m not so sure.) We’re on the brink of all-
out war or peace. This silence that’s endured
thirty-six hours has me unnerved.
My daughter and I stop outside Ha-Bima
coming home from school to watch jugglers throw
sticks. The silence presses, oppresses, I mean;
the missile siren’s late today, and no one knows
what time our daily missile will appear. All this time
we can’t relax; we’re scanning the public square for holes
to hide in; children play within ninety
seconds of them. Still we can’t resist pretense of normalcy.
Marcela Sulak would appear to be the poetic offspring of Francis Ponge and Frank O’hara. Like Ponge, her impersonal descriptions exhibit a sly subversiveness, wherein the straightforward listing of objects and actions points beyond them. What might, at first, seem like concealed judgements, or moralizing sentiments, slowly develop into a mere mood—perhaps it’s the mood of emotional resilience, battling with impending fatigue. Intermixed with these impersonal descriptions, Sulak’s poems seem sometimes to draw from O’hara’s Manifesto of Personism as they flaunt obscure personal ties that remind most readers of their outsider status. Yet, as the daughter of these literary figures, Sulak doesn’t only mix their styles. She also migrates this hybrid poetic sensibility to today’s global Middle East. Navigating the chaotic underpinnings of day-to-day life in Israel, Sulak’s poems convery the need to move deeper into a horizon teeming with grim subtleties.
Included here is a selection of three poems from her newest book, City of Skypapers (Black Lawrence Press, 2021). They give us a peek into the curious world of English-language poetry in Israel.