Carol Rubenstein returns

I grew up in the Salt City so always have had a taste for salt. Carol showed this poem about a salt mine in Poland to Lin, who showed it to me, and I asked Carol if I could print it here. Perhaps it will be to your taste too.


A Grain of Salt


Gnomes stayed down there, also horses, in the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

Men went up and down on ropes singing devotional hymns,

passing elbow-niches of salt saints.  The Precious Mining Protector


blesses the seams of salt, smites those seeking to steal the King’s substance,

forever shields all loyal guardians of the precious mine,

Poland’s glory.  A lifetime pinch of it their own.


Three salt lakes—one per cent of the mine—may be visited in groups

at set hours.  All else cordoned off—brain and bone of the Salty Man,

his terrain.  The long lift down and with luck back up.  A circling wall of stairs.


Tales told of and by this creature need be taken with a grain of salt.

Error:  At once one swift shake of itself over the shoulder

will blind any looming evil eye.  Avoid rubbing into wounds.


What would be our lot, lacking salt?  Meat would rot, savor shrink on tongue.

Not so!  For they, the Faithful, patrol the Realm.  Thus the Underworld City

blooms.  Long tunnels branch into elemental darkness veined with salt and chill.


Chandeliers of vacant tears suspend hugely.  An almost roofless height engulfs

the great ballroom spread lakelike below.  Buffed clean, minus water—

though barrels shoulder down for thirst.  The Salty Man dares not weep,


though weep he would, his wife’s last look back marking grief’s full measure.

Men and horses, warm-blooded, plod a tight circle—turning the wooden crank,

winching up each giant lodestone of repentance—their ropes chunked translucent.


Centuries of withheld tears groove the cheeks of those

compacted into gnomes.  No visit is complete without a purchase:

Salted wood, heart walled in, embodied in petrified locus.  Why which one?


Cap of red, tiny beard a white ruff, teeth on show.  The fiercely tiny artifacts hiss:

Take us home!  Whirling around, catch nothing.  Then pull the bell, comes the lift

to haul us back to living earth.  But the horses, shaggy with salt, always stayed.


Poem for Pussy Riot

What is there to say about these wild girls? What they did shocked their people; what was done to them shocked us. All prisoners deserve correspondence, so I have written a prose poem-letter to them.

Letter to Nadezhda, Yekaterina, and Maria in the IK-2 Penal Colony, Moldovia

The derecho blew through the night after his funeral. Then, the heavy heat, the brittling of downed leaves, the shimmering haze off the road. September is the month to lose; the cold thin air of the clear sky cannot arrest the floating upwards of souls. The child cries mama in the night and her father comes. Join arms with me, profane sailors on this rough sea, let us invent new obscenities with glee. I was once lost and my father found me, too relieved to be angry. I ran towards his open arms over the rough ground on the top of that hill. We open our arms for the child who does not come. In your storm I hear ray, I hear hope.

A Glass of Tea for Rachel Corrie

The crone waves her dusty black shawl, frantic with sign language.  The crow in the tree caws at the small girl who emerges from the house, waves its indifferent wing.  He is mad for women, he loves especially the thin blondes who look nothing like his mother.  The silent man in black brings a tray with one small glass of tea to clear the journey’s dust from her throat.  It is hot.  It is sweet.  She drinks and looks up.  The light of this country is too bright for her eyes.  And when they adjust, she realizes she is alone.  She must wait a long time for her mother to arrive. 

Guest Poet Inta Ezergailis

Inta is on my mind today–lovely Inta, friend to the animals, puzzle box of brilliance and fear. She was beautiful. It is my burden that I could never convince her that she was an amazing poet. “Just something I wrote,” she would say, with a throaty laugh, her eyes moving to the side. When I first read this poem I knew I was in the presence of a woman who would be a teacher to me. Thank you to Andy for giving me permission to reprint this poem. 


The Dress

It flows in the window-light,
greens, reds, some pink–
the same and not the same
as one some fifty years ago
in the window of a store
of a small Bavarian town,
so soon after the War
that we had no books, but took notes
on organic chemistry and Cornelius Nepos
in neat deferential German longhand.

New lives were being offered, sparingly.
It was possible to cash in on survival,
somehow, though life was not as rich
as it had looked in the bunker,
with Berlin being swept away outside,
when all seemed possible if one was spared,
when, at twelve, I thought
I had brought on the war,
and begged forgiveness for such small sings
as I’d been capable of, clenched my hands,
prayed, sitting straight–God’s good pupil–
as the bombs saturated all.

Now there was life–
refugee camp, German school,
the goldpaving of Ottawa or Boston,
or the Australian outback.
The senses in their timid flowering
seized on the dress in a shop window
on the way to school, a shop
which must have been expensive.
The single dress lay seductively
at a languid angle, fluid, silky.
No mannequin–pure, sweet, virgin,
it was waiting for me alone.
Transcendence without mediation.

The missed years of slow awakenings,
of stirrings in the body denied space and time,
trying to find root, turn delicately outward.
Did someone buy it, someone rich and glorious?

The town was Rosenheim, home of roses.

Guest poet: Jon Frankel

For many years, Jon Frankel and I met each Friday afternoon at 4:30 to walk home from work, shoe-horning an intense 30 minutes of conversation in between our work and family duties. (And as the families grew bigger, the duties grew too.) I learned a lot during those perambulations. I can’t meet Jon today at 4:30 as we work in different places now, so instead I will share his poem. If you like it, you might like his blog:, on which he is currently serializing a novel. I am gladdened by the rhyme in this poem.


Coiled Up In Flesh


If my father calls I go

Among strange letters of a foe


I tread the ladder of his breath

Ascend my son he says to rest


I cannot hold the bird in place

And see no throne or face


A voice across the valley goes

It startles flocks of crows


A pack of ruffled black arises

Scatters over sun’s disguises


Where my father hides his blue

Mane of fire in the true


Remains of silent corps pass by

Burned banners tattered on the sky


Buried in the soldiers’ brains

Stores of gracious April rains


That water cinders dirt and soot

And sweeten the discarded root


Coiled up in flesh

Wed to nothingness

Mint Leaves

If you have decided to live in Ithaca for your whole life, your karma must need you to learn something about being left. Every May, those who blow into town to fill their minds throw their mortarboards into the air and follow them, rising up into the sky, becoming crows and flying away. Some years just a few, some a lot. This year, lots of crows have flown–Sarah, Phoebe and Johnny, and Allison and Stefen and Anna and Irakli about to go. 


On June 11, it will be the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death. That was a big leavetaking, o it was. 


And on Wednesday night, I was on the phone with my girlhood friend, Marchette, condoling her on the loss of two of her musician collaborators at the Cafe Racer. Our creative lives have been entwined for so many decades, I can feel the loss of those I didn’t meet in my chest, vibrating from her. 

Here is a new prose poem about my melancholy June days. 


Mint Leaves


The trees are tossing their long green hair in the wind, flirting with the sky. Mint tea on a hot spring day brings salt to my skin. I am beset by good-byes, stamping my feet like a small girl, refusing to say farewell. The bride in her travelling suit leans against her new husband. Good bye to her white gloves and clutch. Good bye to the fine china I should have kept, good bye to the photo in the cheap gold frame. Good bye mom, good bye dad. I have been left so often in June. I know the difference between those I will see again and those I won’t. The mint will overtake the garden if allowed; the trees will stay rooted despite their attempts to fly. The crows in their baccalaureate robes cackle at me from the branches. Ceasing never wonders. Leave has been taken of me and I am still here—see—the one under the waterfall, blurred behind its veil. 


Ars Poetica

Sarah Mkhonza asked me a few weeks ago for my three sentence definition of my theory of poetry. She asked for more but I bargained down to three sentences. And in fact I am going to give just three words. Surely I should write this as a poem. And I may well one of these years. But in the meantime, when I write a poem, I am trying to–




Not always in that order–the weight shifts from quality to quality depending on topic, my mood, the position of the stars, etc.  But in the meantime, clarify. Innovate. Bedazzle.



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