Ukraine Musings by Miriam Sagan

I go to the dentist to get a temporary crown, and by the time I get home Russia has invaded the Ukraine.

Deep within me, fueling much of my personality, is the Ukraine my four Jewish grand-parents fled.

And it was Russia. Or “Russianize” as a student of comparative religion told me. A conquered territory. All of my grandparents referred to themselves as Russian. They spoke Russian, along with Yiddish, some Hebrew, and possibly Ukrainian. But the Russian tsar loomed over their stories, along with homicidal Cossacks.

They feared abduction into the Russian army, sometimes cutting off fingers or toes. Their money was Russian. If the Russian tsar stirred up Cossacks to raid Jewish villages, they died.

This was the world of the Pale. I never heard much about “Ukraine.” They were from shtetls between Kiev and Odessa—-pronounced the Russian way.

They ate borscht (which I loved). And kasha (still eat it). And drank shav in glasses (a cold sorrel soup—and I think they added celery. I hated it). Had samovars (which I coveted but never inherited). Slathered sour cream on everything. Pickled herring. Sliced radishes or kohlrabi on black bread.

You know that supposedly holistic diet—eat what your grandmother’s ate? Excuse me, chicken fat on rye bread? Not exactly health food.

My father’s parents were almost completely silent on the topic of the old country. Their policy seemed to be: It was a bad place and we left. Have something else to eat, kinde.

The local “graf” told my paternal grandfather to go to America. The word means “count” in Russian but I doubt he was any kind of lord-—probably just local gentry.

I thought of my mother’s parents as the Russian ones, the very short ones, the poor ones. I adored them.

My grandmother used a Russian word to describe me and my two sisters. She called the three of us a troika.

Although Russia was an empire it was also brewing a revolution. They were Russian in part because of politics. My grandfather Avrum was in the general strike of 1905. He had anti-tsarist pamphlets-—burned them in a back room stove when police came to call. My grandmother Sadie had a sister married to a Bolshevik sent to Siberia. They was killed by Hitler—or maybe Stalin. In any case, Sadie’s letters were returned.

“In Russia the cherries were sweeter” Sadie and Avrum used to say, spitting out the pits in their garden gazebo in Boston. A little house built to escape summer heat. Very Russian. It drove my mother crazy. How could the cherries not be sweetest here in the land of the free?

It wasn’t until I grew up that I became aware of Ukrainian culture—language, music, poetry, people. And then Ukraine became a modern nation. And once again, Russia came after it.

But it will never be only a real contemporary place to me. Inside me is the Pale—really that is the heart of it, more than Russia it is a place of Jewish settlement within different strains of Slavic and eastern European culture.

“Russian Jews,” my contemporaries, have suddenly been asking ourselves about our grand-parents. Where DID they come from? I’ve attempted to clarify for mine.

If I write more about this, I’ll investigate how this history compels me to automatically lie when faced with authority. To feel that my “ancestors” aren’t necessarily a purely good thing. How the Jews of Odessa were gangsters as well as otherworldly and pious. And more.

New Poetry Posts

These wonderful images are from students in last semester’s Color Theory class at SFCC with Sudeshna Sengupta. They are on six of the campus poetry posts: two in central courtyard, two at west entrance (upper & lower) and two in smoking area towards west of bookstore and cafeteria. I’ll be documenting the rest of the posts next–done by book artists. Enjoy this beautiful melding of words and color.

Peace and War

Nobody wants the war, only the money
fights on alone.

From Beat Poet Philip Whalen

In the light of current world events, Miriam’s Well will be publishing poems about peace (and perhaps war). Please send some to May be previously published, and will credit. Need not be topical. Looking for your actual emotional and historical experiences–not just vague good wishes.

Here is a haiku, written yesterday by Albuqurque Poet Laureate Mary Oishi:

today not one bird
thin snow caps on ev’rything
the hush before war

This next poem by David Shapiro is one of the poems that has meant the most to me, influenced as I was by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the suicide of a student protestor. On January 16, 1969, Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague in protest against the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops.

The Funeral of Jan Palach

When I entered the first meditation
I escaped the gravity of the object,
I experienced the emptiness,
And I have been dead a long time.

When I had a voice you could call a voice,
My mother wept to me:
My son, my beloved son,
I never thought this possible

I’ll follow you on foot.
Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up.
It was raining on the houses;
It was snowing on the police-cars.

The astronauts were weeping,
Going neither up nor out.
And my own mother was brave enough she looked
And it was alright I was dead.
—David Shapiro

Seasons With Stone Lizard by Terence Sykes

Seasons With Stone Lizard

upon my stone wall
lizard flashes rainbow tail
seasons come early

what do you forage
dandelions plucked for lunch
let us share this meal

verdant sunlight fades
clutching of oregano
spring rains bring flowers

willow branches dance
blackbird casts it mournful song
cross the fountain

summer comes too soon
lizard I call you my friend
flashing prism gleam

ginger blossoms soar
into star laden cosmos
dawn finds me hungry

rivers call my name
unspoken punctuation
where is my autumn

chestnut foliage
wild hive laden with honey
hidden in the lairs

where are you lizard
we have not talked as of late
dreams need to be told

mulberry charcoal
warms these freshly plucked peaches
drunk upon plum wine

clouds steeped silent hours
chrysanthemums shine brightly
like a pot of tea

lost in copse & groves
olive tree constellations
tea kettle simmers

stars fall from the sky
winter snow comes too early
fire pit keeps me warm

stone lizard stay warm
hibernate like a phoenix
resurrect come spring
This haiku sequence first appeared in Plum Tavern.

Terrence Sykes was born and raised in the rural coal mining area of Virginia ….isolation brings the theme of remembrance to his creations, whether real or imagined ….other interests include cooking, gardening, heirloom vegetable research & foraging wild edibles  ….his poetry, photography and flash fiction have been published in Bangladesh, Canada, Ireland, India, Mauritius, Pakistan, Scotland, Spain and the USA.

Home Again Home Again

Here I am at “the Sun” of a model solar system heading towards “Earth” on the way to a campground in Anza Borrego.

A bit more of Desert X.

Neptune’s Portal. A weird bit of outsider art where you can record a message. When people ask: how do you find these things? The answer is simple: I don’t. My husband Rich does!

Floating cloud of words outside a library in Tucson.

I’d call it home. Birdhouse, Tohono Chul, Tucson.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Queen Califia’s Magical Circle

One of the pleasures for me of travel–actually of life in general–is looking at art. And the greatest pleasure is to have my socks knocked off, my heart opened, my vision expanded. But of course that doesn’t always happen. It is an almost spiritual grace when it does, and it is unpredictable.

So on this trip to the Pacific and back I was entertained and amused by what I was looking at, but not truly transported. Until this.

This visionary mosaic garden is almost indescribable. A fever dream? A mescaline trip?

The French-American artist is the creator of the Nanas–wildly cheery rolling statues of ladies with big bodies and tiny heads. This is her only garden in the U.S.–inspired in part by John McPhee’s retelling of the legend of Califia, the Black Amazon who is part of California’s mythos. I’d love to see her Tarot Garden in Italy.

You could look forever and always see something new.

Easy to like–because it is beautiful, fun, and engaging. And easy to love, because it took me right out of myself and into an incredible world.

Fallen Star

Fallen Star
after Do Ho Suh’s sculpture, 2012, UC San Diego

the house fell like a meteor
but didn’t burn up
in earth’s atmosphere
or even hit an old lady
hanging out her laundry
in Yuma, Arizona

instead it landed
on the 7th floor
of the engineering building
at an odd
but secure angle
looking down on campus
with its hopeful self-engrossed undergraduates

once we landed
we set about
cleaning up
luckily the green garden hose
had survived the fall
along with the flower pots
and two mourning doves
had nested
on an unused bucket

you were there
and I was too
with our usual
asleep in each others’ arms

best of all
three crows
landed on our roof
cawing as if
they finally realized
we are all at home
here among the stars


Photos by Rich Feldman.