Ruth Steinberg Poetry

Poems of witness, joy, and discovery

The grammar of aging

     Autumn is a graceful and melancholy andante which admirably
     prepares for the solemn adagio of winter.
George Sand

When I turned 49, I was traumatized by the prospect of turning 50. I was a drama queen for almost that whole year: “
More than half of my life was already behind me,” etc., etc. By my 50th birthday I had left the trauma and the drama behind and went on living my life.

Now, almost 30 years later, I’m starting even earlier. In less than three months I’ll be 79, a year away from a bigger milestone – the demarcation of the andante of my autumn and the adagio of my winter. Octogenarian! An adjective for others, surely.

At 80, Philip Roth said he was done with writing. Alice Munro, at 82, said
I’m probably not going to write anymore.” Munro, in a New York Times interview, 7/1/13, added that the process of growing old bothers her less than it used to. “I worry less than I did. There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s better than being dead.”

                    Philip Roth


                                               Alice Munro

I’m glad Ms. Munro worries less, and I agree with her that growing old is better than being dead. And unlike Roth and Munro, I’m not quite ready to give up writing. However, this process of growing old is bewildering at best. There is, first of all the disbelief when I look in the mirror, a disbelief I share with many others, including John Updike:

Where was the freckled boy who used to peek
          into the front hall mirror, off to school?
                              John Updike, Endpoint

Then, as I’ve written before, there is the everyday diminishment of what we used to take for granted:

checks mailed, I stopped for gas, and plumb forgot
          how to release the gas-cap door.
          What’s up? What’s left of me?
                              John Updike, A Lightened Life

I’m lucky in that there’s still a great deal left of me. So far my body betrays me only in minor ways.

And then there’s the strange role reversal when your adult children become your nurturers. It is not ingratitude that makes this difficult. I’m grateful that my children care, and that they show they care. But I’m reluctant to give up even a little independence before I absolutely have to. Does it threaten my identity as Mom? No, but it does change the syntax from verb to noun, the voice from active to passive.

I exaggerate, of course. Just some of my “year-before milestone” drama. I fully expect to get it all out of my system in the coming year. After all:

It is not the future that lies in wait for us but the next moment,
          and anyone who thinks he is seeing beyond that moment is
          deceiving himself.
                              Imre Kertész, Dossier K.

Here’s a new poem:

          Time spent
          time stretched out
          like worn elastic.
          I wore it carelessly.

          time flows through my fingers
          like quicksilver
          from a broken thermometer.
          I follow it feverishly.

There’s a poem from
A Step in Time on the sidebar.

Until next time,
rs sig2
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Rest in Love

And if loss
is an absence, why does it grow
so heavy?
asks Linda Pastan in her poem Cousins.

But Linda Michaels, in
Fugitive Pieces, writes
There’s no absence, if there remains even the memory of absence. Memory dies unless it’s given a use. Or … if one no longer has land but has the memory of land, then one can make a map.

I recently learned, with great sadness, of the deaths of two teachers who were critical to my development as a poet. And so I am putting my memory to use and making a map.

I met both D.H. Melhem and Susan Baugh at an annual summer writing conference. D.H., a scholar, poet, and novelist, was vibrant, generous, encouraging. In her classes we found new understanding of old works, wrote our responses, even learned obscure old forms like the ghazal. Her reading voice was sonorous, distinctive, dramatic.

Homage to a Reader (after Pablo Neruda)
D.H. brought us
a poem
which she read herself
in her poet’s voice,
a voice
as cadenced
as vesper bells.

She slipped her heart
into that poem
as though
into her own.

The poem
thus thrice honored


Over the years D.H. was very supportive of my work, even blurbed A Certain Frame of Reference. Her critiques were incisive and meticulous. She was a lifelong resident of New York City, and called her street her muse. Of all her work, however, I like Rest in Love, her elegy to her mother, the best. Here’s an excerpt:

at this distance in a dim light
your picture moves
the hands clasped under your chin
unclasp toward me
and I move close to see if it is real
that gesture
if you are living in my wall
if you are a glimpse of infinite youth
before I was born

I examine the frame
through glass that traps only paper
the sad smile printed there
lives in my mind

where you hold me

DH Melhem Portrait 3
D. H. Melhem

Susan Baugh

Susan Baugh, a southwestern transplant to Pennsylvania, had a very different voice: a breath of Texas in the northeastern campus where we gathered every year. She was equally generous, equally meticulous, but Susan didn’t teach poetry in any formal sense. She gathered a “roundtable” of poets and gently developed our critiquing skills. She had an amazing ability to listen to a poem, without reading the words, find its weak spots, and suggest improvements.

After a few years we decided to publish a book of our poems, which we called
The Poets’ Roundtable. As Stephanie Kaplan Cohen wrote in the introduction:
With Susan at the helm, we read to each other, we applauded each other and we (gently) critiqued each other. When we were done, if we had left anything out, Susan stepped in, and told us how to make our poem better. And it was better.

Here’s one of Susan’s poems from that book:

My life gets interrupted by work, by telephone calls,
by grocery stores and meetings.
By the kid’s calls on Saturday morning.
By dinner with my husband and chatter about what we’ve
done during the day.

My life gets interrupted by old shoes that wear out
so I have to buy new ones,
though I’d rather wear the old ones
that take me down familiar walkways.

My life gets interrupted by numbers – always popping up
where I’d much rather see letters,
even if it’s only in alphabet soup –
dropped on a page and arranged in delicious words
that make sounds
that make meaning
that make life.

Poets Roundtable

A Thousand Darknesses, Ruth Franklin quotes W.G. Sebald: Remembrance, after all, in essence is nothing other than a quotation. And the quotation incorporated in a text … compels us to probe our knowledge of other texts … and our knowledge of the world.

And so I remember and honor D.H. and Susan as they taught us to probe our knowledge of our own and other texts and thereby our knowledge of the world.

I miss them both and bid them rest in love.

Until next time,
rs sig2
Photo of D.H. Melhem from her website
Photo of Susan Baugh by Barbara Hyde Haber
Poets’ Roundtable collage by Christine Graf

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Patriotism and compassion

After the Boston Marathon bombings and the hunt for the bombers, my cousin Fran, who lives in Water Town emailed this:

The rain fell gently all night as if to soothe and cleanse the city of these past few days’ blood and grittiness and tension. It is now a glorious spring day with even more brilliant green shoots and gorgeous blossoms bursting out around us.

To think that they apprehended the kid only about ten blocks from where we live! We were lucky; being just outside of the police perimeter, we barely felt the security forces’ siege, other than the sounds of sirens and helicopters.

She ended with: Now, relief and a heavy sadness – and some dismay at the sight of rejoicing and flag waving after all this.

What is patriotic about the wounding and capture of a young man – terrorist though he may be? The atmosphere in and around Boston, the stress of police and FBI presence in the streets of Water Town, the shock and grief of the injured, relations, friends and bystanders; these are all unimaginable to those of us who watched from the safety of our homes. I don’t want to minimize any of it.

I share my cousin’s great sadness at the tragic happening and also her dismay at the reaction of our fellow citizens. How is this patriotism? Where is the sober compassion for such pain and for such a waste of lives?

It reminds me of the nationwide celebration at the death of Osama bin Laden. An occasion for relief that he was no longer a threat to us, yes, and also for regret that he wasn’t captured and put on trial. But dancing in the streets? Is this a civilized response?

I worry about our image and our self-image. There’s a significant disconnect, and I wonder: was it ever thus?

we stood in size places
pudgy right hands across middy blouses
pledged allegiance
in outdoor voices
fervently sang
and the rockets’ red glare
above the fruited plain
to the shores of Tripoli.

Tripoli was just a strange word, like

That was another time
when America was beautiful.
A Step in Time, page 75

Fran, an artist and photographer, included in her email this eloquent vote for civility.


As always, let me know what you think. Click on Comments below, or leave a comment on the contact me page.

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Until next time,
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Art and Activism

I don’t want to be a potted plant, Natasha Tretheway, our newest Poet Laureate says. As one of the youngest holders of the post she hopes to be an activist on the job, defining her activism as “finding a way that’s the best for bringing poetry to a wider audience.”

But Tretheway, the daughter of a black mother and a white father, is already an activist in her work. According to the September/October issue of
Poets and Writers magazine: while not overtly political her poems are implicitly so, simply by virtue of telling her story.

Adrienne Rich, on the other hand, a poet described in her
New York Times obituary (March 2012) as a public intellectual and icon for the triply marginalized – as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew, used her powerful poems as a vehicle for her ideas of feminism and social justice. In 1997 she refused the National Medal of Honor, saying the radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.

Art and activism and how they go together was the theme of Women’s Voices for (a) Change, the three-day symposium I attended last week. It was inspired, inspiring, even – to use an adjective much abused – awesome. Painting, photography, poetry, song: the arts were on full display, all with the underlying theme of social justice, of helping others, of witness.

One of 12 notecards by Sandra Mattucci

Says artist Sandra Mattucci: The Guatemalan people … transformed my life and inspired the images created. A portion of the stationery’s sales will be donated to Shuarhands, Inc. the non-profit organization with whom I traveled to Guatemala. Sandy sells her notecards and other art at her website

In EVE (Expressing Values that are Evolutionary) Talks women described the creative ways they found to make a difference: from Kate Munger’s hospice singers to Jana Stanfield’s voluntourism to formerly-homeless teen Inocente Izucar’s art featured in an Emmy award-winning documentary.

Art and Activism awards went to Grammy award winner Joanne Shenandoah, who performed Iroquois music with her daughter; to Linda Hogan, Chickasaw poet and novelist, who read from her work; and to June Millington, women’s music veteran, who performed with three students from her rock music camp for girls. The place rocked.

There was so much more, but listing the events doesn’t begin to portray the energy and excitement of those three days. Lots of music, lots of laughter. Lots of ideas to take home with us. There were sessions on practical topics: using social media, writing in protest. Here’s my protest poem: (There’s another one on the sidebar.)

Doctors assaulting our borders
Michael Burgess – a doctor and congressman –
has seen fetuses masturbate;
he wants to outlaw abortion
after 15 weeks.
(Never mind the evidence)

Phil Gingrey – a doctor and congressman –
said a 15-year-old girl who gets pregnant
might accuse her boyfriend of rape
because she’s embarrassed.
(Never mind the evidence)

Tom Price – a doctor and congressman
insists there’s not one woman
who lacks access to birth control.
(Never mind the evidence)

What kind of doctor gives up his practice
in order to practice
making laws against women’s health?

It’s the GOP Doctors Caucus.
Mind the ominous evidence.

The symposium was the brainchild of Jan Phillips, whose
Living Kindness Foundation sponsored the symposium, and Jan’s inspired leadership made it a magical three days.

So the challenge is not to be potted plants but, like our
Poet Laureate, and like all those who shared their time, talent, and ideas, to find a way for each of us – in the Hebrew
tikkun olam – to help heal and repair the world.

For more of my poems, check out the other pages of my website.
As always, let me know what you think. Click on Comments below, or leave a comment on the contact me page.

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Until next time,
rs sig2


Metaphor Mania

According to the poet Charles Simic:
A thousand naked fornicating couples and their moans and contortions are nothing compared to a good metaphor.

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but a good metaphor – simple, consistent, thought-provoking, and surprising – is a total delight for me to read (and torture for me to write). I wanted to call this post
I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like, but that title belongs to Dr. Mardy Grothe’s wonderful compilation. I too have been collecting similes and metaphors for some time. Here are a few for your enjoyment.

Anne Michaels:
Truth grows gradually in us, like a musician who plays a piece again and again until suddenly he hears it for the first time.

John Lahr: (Clifford) Odets can make words dance. They hop, dip, and surprise, like a knuckleball.

Adrienne Rich: Sewage of public verbiage choking the inlets of the mind.

Stewart Klawans: Her emotional juices are intense, rather than fresh, having simmered for years into a complex reduction.

William Zinsser, about a preface by John Updike to a book by Daniel Fuchs:
I felt that I was watching two thoroughbred horses on the final leg of a racetrack, each straining to outrun the other, every muscle fully stretched.

Nicole Krauss: He learned to live with the truth, not to accept it, but to live with it. It was like living with an elephant. His room was tiny and every morning he had to squeeze around the truth to go to the bathroom.

I once wrote a poem about a difficult relationship The poem wasn’t worth keeping, but I liked this image: Politeness hung between us like a blackout curtain.

Here’s another fragment I kept: Outsider stuck to her like burrs to a sweater.

Quill on MS

From the Guest House
Some poets toil
in an intricate boil
of language.

They bubble and froth
in a meaningless broth
of slang which

will never make Publisher’s Weekly.

No improbably word
has ever occurred
in the po biz.

So I’d much rather hone
my poems to the bone
though what I know is

I’ll never make Publisher’s Weekly either.
Word Play, page 3

Much as I enjoy a good image, I think I get even more pleasure, although an evil one, from a mixed metaphor or one that just plain misses. How do you like this from a New Yorker article?
It’s a self-eating watermelon of despair.

To give the New Yorker its due, however, here’s one the editors picked up from the Boston Globe:
I conclude that to skim the frosting, pocket the cake, and avoid paying the fair, reasonable, and affordable value of the meal, is a hound that will not hunt.

My delight in mixed metaphors and missed images dates back to my corporate days and a boss with a tin ear for the language. He enlivened many a tiresome staff meeting with gems like:

Read the contract with a fine-tooth comb.

He was crying wolf too early.

You fill out the form and we’ll put in the blanks.

They should sit on the other side of the coin.

You’re putting the eggs in front of your cart.

Now I’d like to throw the room out for questions.

And my all-time favorite: If you give him enough rope he’ll shoot himself in the foot.

laughing exec

If you have equally delicious items, send them to me and I’ll happily share them here. Or, as my former boss once said: Just write yourself a mental note and drop it in the file.

As always, let me know what you think. Click on Comments below, or leave a comment on the contact me page.

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Until next time,
rs sig2