Short Sweet – Speaking for my Self: Twelve Poets in their seventies and eighties, reviewed by Jane Seitel

Speaking for my Self: Twelve Poets in their seventies and eighties
Edited by Sondra Zeidenstein
9781887344142
$18.00/ Chicory Blue Press

Sondra Zeidenstein

Sondra Zeidenstein

I publish older women writers because I need company. I have always believed that how we imagine our lives, how we make meaning of living,comes largely from literature. The older I get the more I find myself seeking older women writers to tell me about myself.

Sondra Zeidenstein founded Chicory Blue Press more than twenty-five years ago to celebrate the work of older women poets, and this book continues that celebration of wisdom, of art, of the rainbow of expression and inexhaustible spirit of twelve stellar craftswomen. Reading each poet’s work, as individual as her thumbprint, I feel the need to say each poet’s name aloud: Betty Buchsbaum, Phoebe Hoss, Nancy Kassell, Rita Brady Kiefer, Liane Ellison Norman, Margaret Randall, Myra Shapiro, Carole Stone, Florence Weinberger, Nellie Wong, Sondra Zeidensten, Geraldine Zetzel. As I read these women’s biographies, I notice the vivacity, fullness and diversity of what is possible in this life. As I read each woman’s poems, however, another awareness, more intimate and palpable, overtakes me. I read each poem a first time, a second and a third. Yes, I say, again and again. Yes.

These are poems not for the faint of heart, but for the heart that listens closely to the brave beat. Nancy Kassell writes in “Celestial Navigation”:

I know your point of departure,
I know how much time has elapsed.
What I don’t know is your course and speed,
how to make reckoning
for the dead.

I remind myself that these women are one or two generations before me and I notice that these are the women whose lives were shaped by The Great Depression, World War II, the struggles of the twentieth century into the Twenty-first. This underpins their poems, and crescendos many of their poems like storm waves. Writes Florence Weinberger in “Marrowbones”:

The soup the Nazi’s fed him in their concentration camp
         was thin as silk, what floated there thinner still.
From the aunts and mothers I learned wisdom is liquid,
         rescue, a recipe they give to their daughters.

If wisdom is liquid, then it comes in variety of flavors and compositions. It comes as sweet as the juice of oranges as Geralding Zetel writes in “Joy,” A wet leaf glints in the sun/ a jay calls out of the woods/Coolness touches my face/ for a moment: this edge or joy. It comes with the transient beauty and sadness of plum wine. From Nellie Wong in “Woman in Red Shoes”: Her red hat capes her black hair, she/ A picture of serenity filling her gold jacket/ With half moons, her black handbag hanging/ Over the right arm of her wheelchair. Or it appears as the brave, defiant third shot of straight vodka for Carole Stone, I loved to puff a cigarillo in the West Village/ like “Vincent” Millay. Inhaling desire. And it startles you like truth serum, in unflinching words in Sondra Zeidenstein’s poem “Subjection of Women,” a poem about the Romanian movies “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days” which tells us in the opening lines

slim white legs the pregnant student waxes before going to
     the abortionist,
the girlfriend who goes with her, loyal, protective of her
     helpless friend,
who is not smart or wary, just looking for the cheapest fix
and doesn’t anticipate the price for ending a five month pregnancy.

A horrific scene follows, but a scene written with the scalpel of a poet’s hand and heart. It is a poem which, although a representation of another representation, knows its origin in reality, and probes a deeper truth, as many of these brave poems do. It is the way this book, Speaking for my Self, surely becomes more than self, more than speaking. Celebration, testimony, testament, Speaking for my Self is indispensable poetry at its apex, celebrating the lifetimes of women whose art and wisdom dance my thoughts as hummingbirds beat their inexhaustible wings; as I accompany them flower to flower in a gathering of nectar.

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