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Two Poems

"We are against war and the sources of war. We are for poetry and the sources of poetry," says poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) in The Life of Poetry, a strange book of poetics published in 1949 that I return to again and again. Her big idea—that poetry is an active force as potent as the weaknesses that can lead to war—I continue to ponder. Americans fear poetry because they fear feeling. The work of poetry is the task of discovering and sharing how we feel and how we remember. As a practice of emotional literacy, poetry has the potential to overcome the failures of imagination and vision that afflict human relations. When I was in graduate school, mid-1980s, all of Rukeyser’s work was out of print, so we staged public readings of her poems and prose. My teacher and final project advisor, Sharon Olds, had come to poetry in mid-life, as a student in Rukeyser’s workshops. No doubt Rukeyser’s ideas informed her pedagogical practice and work and come to us as influence. One of my classmates, Jan Freeman, founded Paris Press to reprint The Life of Poetry. And the longer I write, the more I find myself working in the public and personal and blatant ways that Rukeyser worked herself, especially in her later years.

Yehuda Amichai in Late November

Do not write the poem of love in the night of love;
as you lie in the arms of your beloved, love!

Soon enough your passions will be done
and you will have nothing left but your love

of words for comfort. How it always happens:
the day he deploys, the soldier falls in love.

Americans write such boring poems because
your wars are so abstract, as are your loves.

If you want to become a poet, be a warrior
trained to crave neither praise nor love.

Dead for a decade, Yehuda still chides
from the workshop table. But look, my love,

violets bloom in this autumn ditch like advice
to trick time: let’s make language and love at once.

Memorial Day, 1972

In my Girl Scouts tam and dress, I stood before my parents
who seemed less pleased than I expected,
silently struggling, I now guess, to say the right thing.

Dad wondered aloud what his brother, working for peace
in a Vietnamese village just south of the DMZ,
would think of me, the young niece marching in uniform

between convertibles of gentlemen vets from the Great War,
the Good War, and Korea. I thought only of glittering
batons tossed by majorettes in bathing suits and boots,

purr of polished fire trucks, shine of tubas
and trombones blown by sweaty, stern-faced boys,
and the dignity my practiced, white-gloved wave

might bestow upon the heavy, hair-sprayed ladies
parked in lawn chairs along Race Street. Honoring
the dead doesn’t have to mean you’re for war,

I tried, veteran of fraternal conflict, desperate
for glamour, for anything outside that town. You decide,
Dad sighed, as if choice existed, as if a line

had not been set between us and the world
of warriors. Firm, wordless. That silence
I now hit, worn out by my own kid’s arguments.

At noon, a fire siren sounded the start
of that parade. My green dress and sash of badges
already hung slack in the closet.

About the Author

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Julia Spicher Kasdorf is the author of three volumes of poetry, most recently Poetry in America (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press 2011) and Eve’s Striptease. Her first book, Sleeping Preacher, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Great Lakes College’s Association Award for New Writing. Her collection of essays, The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life, won the 2002 Book of the Year Award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature, and was recently reissued by Penn State University Press. A scholar of regional writing and Mennonite literature, she authored a biography, Fixing Tradition: Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American and co-edited the restored text of Yoder’s 1940 local color classic, Rosanna of the Amish. She is also co-editor of the anthology, Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU Press 2007) and The House of the Black Ring: A Romance of the Seven Mountains. An associate professor of English and women’s studies, she teaches poetry and writing at Penn State.