Three Poems

Ri J. Turner

Applepicking, 5775

I stayed awake that Shavuot, not on purpose—

not a tikkun, but rather a shibbur, my gut

and my heart switching places.

That night, and other nights that summer

I didn’t dare to lie down. At dawn, up

and into the park, exhausted and wide awake.

A few weeks later, I sat up awake again

and read about the yeshiva-bokher who didn’t sleep

for two consecutive nights, and his rebbe warned him

that a third would bring madness.

With me, it was the same—two whole nights

And fearing for the third.

But at the end of the summer, suddenly—. That day

we ate well—whitefish which I sliced up

myself, as if I knew what I was doing. The skin

lay before me on a separate plate.
I didn’t want to throw it out, but I was shy

about showing my desire.

I stole away with the plate into another room

for my animal bacchanalia.

I threw the scraps in the bathroom garbage,

washed the traces from my mouth and cheeks,
and asked myself if I would ever

reveal to you my secret revelry.

Two months passed, and the apples ripened.

Bold, teeth flashing, a bite . . . 

But homeward, homeward. Three apples in my backpack,

and sunflower seeds that a child planted

deep in a side pocket.

Every month has its delicacy or its fast day.

I got to know you through pie,

through broth. You worried (unnecessarily)

whether your dear sandwiches would appeal to me.

But even teapots, it turns out, are not bottomless.

One cherry tomato exploded on my shirt—

a sort of farewell. Home, finally, at least for a while;

I’ve needed for ages to dig out my own pots and pans.

Now it’s Shavuot once again. Awake,

this time on purpose. I once believed

that I would never be able to sleep

outside of my mother’s home. But this year

I relearned the art. And now

I allow myself the luxury—

not to sleep—

to remember. To thank—

Sated on first fruits.

My Accent Assertion

Jerusalem, January 2016

I decide that I will tell you “Gracias” instead of “Thank you,”

but it turns out that your words in my mouth disgust you.

I realize then that my Anglo-American tongue can only steal.

She cannot ever serve, regardless of her intentions.

Lisa in the free clinic speaks Spanish with a gringo R,

and I look down on her until I realize how much healing she can take credit for.

Soon I take her place, and I too choose the grating R

over pronouncing beautiful letters but choking on the sentences.

Terry in Boston pretends to be a sabra;

her speech is grimace and gesticulation, without content.

I’d rather be like S., who said and still says the line we all know:

Yidn (R)edn yidish in zeye(R) a sakh lende(R).

Dear Israel, thanks for the nice reception.

I’ve been ashamed of my accent forever,

and your scorn has made certain 

that I’ll never be able to forget myself, even for a single moment.

But I must confess that you’re right.

We’ve swarmed all over your land, or “your” land.

We want a part of your hard-won, hybrid, stolen ethnicity,

We’re prepared to pay quite a lot for a dip into your blackface.

Nevertheless, I’m stubborn.

I want to learn your language—mine, in other words—

and I will learn it, even though I don’t have to,

and even though I’ll drive you crazy in the meantime.

But I won’t pretend that we’re cut from the same cloth.

May my “absorption” be as awkward for you as it will be for me.

What’s the point of dancing around the facts?

A whole lifetime wouldn’t be long enough to mask the signs of my birth.

One thing, though: insofar as you don’t belong anywhere, even here—
in that sense, we have always been blood-countrymen.

Arabic Summer

Jerusalem, December 2015

In June in Bethelehem I received a letter:

“By the way, there’s a book that you might find useful:

‘Der arabish-idisher lerer—

Wayfinder for Jewish Legionnaires in Zion.”

God in Heaven, show me the way

not to become a legionnaire.

Instead, open the gate in each of my two hands,

so that Hebrew’s two language-margins can flow up my arms

and mix together in my breast.

My Arabic teacher went to a German school as a child,

and every now and then a German word slips out.

I tell her, “You’re almost making my dream come true,”

and close my eyes and change the “au” to an “oy.”

New words must float through the Yiddish veil.

حفلة, hafla, party. If you’re invited to a hafla,

it’s not heflekh to stay home.

غلط, galat, mistake. It’s always a galat

to anger a galekh.

Don’t mix one celebration with another, says the Gemara—

Let’s not mix simkhe with hafla.

On the contrary, let’s—

Let’s hang out, and crack nuts,

and solve crossword puzzles, all at the same time.

Let’s not turn down any overabundance of joy

or human dearness.

What is a language of love? Woe to both of us

if I find the words that are needed

only in a language that is foreign to you.

And where is our secret language,

our Rusarabhebyiddish? (English lets out an insulted peep.)

But it exists. No pure pleasure-seeking,

but rather history’s rivers, flowing together at the Foundation Stone,

brought all of us here. All of us are pilgrims,

to each his own particular mountain.

Midsummer, on my way to Haifa.

In the Jerusalem Central Bus Station,
Hebrew barely swims its way to the surface.

The waitress’s patience is generous, and geopolitical.

That Shabbat, I couldn’t sleep at all for the echoes

of Arabic words in my Bethlehem hostmother’s voice.

I lay awake, thankful for the inner peacelessness

that stood up against the walls that try to shut out the struggle,
somewhere where Hebrew won’t have to hear it.

Elul comes, and I make my way to Jerusalem

to let the sweet waters of Hebrew

soak me limb from limb. After a honeymoon,

stabbings in the streets—and I find my way back to the alif-ba.

Let the calligraphed grooves scratch down deeper.

Don’t let time or duststorms efface them—

may the letters carve out new hadrei-baten
which will know how to keep me loving this land.

translated from the by Ri J. Turner