Sample Poems by Elizabeth Poliner
Saratoga Springs, New York
Waiting in line to pay, I know I know nothing.
Before me stand a curious clique of Hasidic Jews.
Curious, until the teller issues his orthodox instructions-
men to the right, women left. Then it's Gert,
hands on hips, running the women's ward since
long before time, who points firmly to that room,
my room. Inside, Gert hands me a hot sheet, says,
I'm Gert, take off your clothes, wrap yourself
in this, lie down, I'll be back! On the bed,
snug inside white cotton, I wait for Gert's return
with Alice, new Alice, her first day, my bath
her first berth. Gert says, Fill the tub, Alice,
so Alice twists the faucets, unleashes a saffron flow,
sulfuric and bubbling, crashing into the hard, stained
porcelain. Gert says, Relax! then, I'll be back.
Shyly, Alice says, Hi. Alice doesn't know what to do.
Me either. I stare about the room, plain and dingy,
this slim cot, one vinyl chair, a nightstand holding
a withering, wrinkled envelope for tips. Soon, the tiles
on the walls, tiny and cracking, begin to take form,
to resemble the worn YMCA of my youth, then
the Hasids seem like Hasids I've known, neighbors
in Brookline, strangers in Jerusalem, then Gert,
her catchy blend of authority, Jewishness, age . . .
She's my grandmother! Aunt! All my great-relatives-
and I do as she says. When she returns, I'm ordered
up and must drop my sheet. With Alice's help I hurdle
the tub's high rim, landing in the hot, bubbling pool,
in water that smells like coins gripped in a sweaty hand.
Behind me Gert adjusts a plastic inflatable pillow
while Alice, her face in my face, sets a small towel
under my chin to block fumes. It floats, like I once
floated in the Dead Sea, my legs rising, my arms
barely penetrating the water's surface, my breasts
buoyant beyond belief. I'll be back! says Gert.
Bye, says Alice, and they dim the lights,
shut the door, grant me twenty minutes of sulfuric
silence. I'm neck deep in it when sitting upright,
not wriggling to regain balance or use of a limb.
Strange, the instant restorative touch of the chance
familiar-Gert, the Hasids, the worn YMCA of my youth-
the familiar that oddness spurs us to seek, as in
bubbles surging to the surface, transforming as I lean
toward them into the precise scent of hot coins.
Soothing the Burn
My sister and I, barely teenage,
return from our day at the beach-independent,
too much aglow-and our grandmother
sets the Noxzema to chill in the hotel's
half-sized refrigerator. This vacation
our grandmother has done something different-
she's come here with us. When she spreads
the white mud over our knobby shoulders
and flaming backs, it works its way in slowly,
and our grandmother talks-as she has all day-
of a farm outside of Waterbury, of a train
she used to catch-it didn't stop but slowed
and she leapt aboard, risking it all
for piano lessons in the city. Our mother
sits to one side, is silent, barely there. Noxzema
Grandma says, is what she used, in her day, on her sunburn,
and those days . . . She's back on the farm,
picnicking with the relatives, wondering how
Cousin Sally, the Sunday guest, ever convinced her
to change her name, Jenny to Jean, farm girl
to city woman. The Noxzema, cold and shocking,
brightens our skin to a polished pink. It keeps us awake
while our grandmother talks, repeating events
as she once did scales on the piano,
working her hand over the same rough spots as if,
by touch, she can recover time, re-enter
acres of field. What you know in your hands
you don't ever forget, she says.
And as she rubs in the story of her life
I feel her palms gather the burn, open to fire.
Jean Sings to Mandy
Across the ivory
her left hand, air-
bounces between harmonizing triplets.
Her right, like a duty-bound soldier,
tramps through the melody,
the familiar theme
from that tormented Dr. Zhivago,
Somewhere, my love.
Somewhere, my love,
she sings, and he, lost in the middle
of the living room, knows now
to which corner he must turn.
Her melody line a compass
pointing the way back, and he,
a disoriented hunter,
or an aging Russian doctor
who ponders for a lifetime
the vicissitudes of love,
heads for that ringing
destination, the intimate curve
of the baby grand, the voice,
a rising soprano, to which,
readying his baritone,
he always comes home.
The Return of the Men
After dessert, after the after-dinner
talk of politics, business, and baseball,
the men returned from living room to dining table,
cleared now of meats and vegetables and seltzer
and kasha served with noodles the shape
of shells, as if this food had washed ashore
from some faraway place, and Jean had only to gather it,
place it in a bowl, then set it before us
on her white linen. Inhabiting once again the chairs,
fifteen or so, circling the now-spotted tablecloth,
they'd wait, this time for her borscht,
so deeply purple only the blend of sour cream
softened it into a more edible magenta pool.
Big men, all of them, silent and stuffed
beneath the table's skirts, heads bowed
over bowls-in another era they might have been
praying. We children could only guess
that the awful beets in Grandma's pink soup
made them so solemn. Yet eagerly they returned,
like pilgrims seized with journey, to eat
and eat, while she stood, thick arms crossed,
happy guard of the dining room, round goddess
of food, who, with a dollop of sour cream,
charmed them with the riches of her fat love.