Roberta Chester is a writer and teacher living half the year in Israel and half in Maine where she manages Shorepath Cottage, a kosher B & B on the coast in Bar Harbor. She is the author of Light Years, a book of poems published by Puckerbush Press in 1983, and of numerous poems and articles that have appeared both in the US and Israel. Several of her poems have appeared in The Deronda Review; we are privileged to reproduce these here, along with a sample from Light Years.
From The Deronda Review
BETWEEN MAINE AND JERUSALEM
Honeysuckle and jasmine float
up from the street on the breeze
to sweeten the world,
as the Sabbath queen ,
gathers her robe of soft shadows
and threads of sun,
and silently takes her leave.
Three tiny stars
glisten like sequins
in the cobalt sky
above my balcony,
while the moon weaves between the clouds
over the distant, darkening hills
of silvery green olive groves
and the turtle doves
gurgle from the eaves...
It’s the fragile breath
of time ruffling the wings of memory,
as another world,
intertwined by filaments of dew,
suddenly rushes in.
and effortlessly carries me away.
Now I listen to shells murmuring
and taste the salty sea
licking my windowsill.
The bell buoy is clanging in the bay,
and I hear the chimes dancing slowly
with the wind on the porch
and your footfalls on the stair.
The lupines I scratched
into the cold, bare ground
uncurl their purple selves
and whisper to me from there
about the deep woods,
the tall spires of lacey pines,
the warm, ripe berries beside the road,
as if to tempt me from there
with another spice and wine
in that other loveliness of light and air
I once called home.
MY MOTHER'S KEVER
I weave my way through cedar and pine,
signs pointing to different neighborhoods
to find my mother's kever
in this city of the dead.
where small groups gather around fresh graves
reciting the Kaddish with muffled cries.
I visit the slab of stone etched
with the skeletal details:
mother, grand and great grandmother.
With a candle and pebbles and prayers
I plead to her to intercede
for an easy birth, to cure a sick child,
to comfort me through
whatever nights lie ahead.
All around I hear the hum
from the traffic on the highway below,
the gurgle of turtledoves,
the wind sweeping the graves.
I enter those memories
that are bound up with her
in an inextricable embrace
till I see her face, watch her hands,
and feel the safe circle of her arms,
and listen to the singsong words of my storybooks
in the suspense of pages turning when she read.
Suddenly the scent of jasmine from a flowering branch
Transports me to the flat on Elliott Street,
and I am clinging to her legs
smelling the perfume
in the curly fur of her black Persian lamb coat,
as she solemnly promises,
she'll be home soon.
But I knew she would leave me one day,
that the door would close on her forever,
that I would hear her heels clickety clack on the stairs,
and she would not come back.
Bar Harbor, Maine, October 28, 10:07 a.m.
The bright sliver
on the dark hardwood floor is a shard
of sunlight where the screen door is slightly ajar.
It will leave no stain, nothing to wipe or clean,
That blade of sunlight,
the gold dust dancing
with the softest shoes in the world,
depends upon everything configured just right
an angle of the sun this autumn morning,
an opening in the clouds,
a particular door, the curtain on a far wall
the branch of a tree, a leaf that just fluttered on the breath
of the wind in the confetti of Fall on the lawn,
and quiet such as I have never heard.
In this spill of light, I feel the chill of time passing,
knowing I will not stop here twice,
overwhelmed by this season's sweet, sad smell.
There is no repeat in this glorious scheme of things,
and I, I will die to come this way again.
From Light Years
Toward the end it happened fast.
I went from room to room
picking up pieces of glass,
splinters, shreds of yellow
wallpaper, but when I tried
to make it mend, the glue wouldn't hold.
If I touched the sheets
on the bed where we had been lying,
they fell apart, tying my hands.
Then the carpet was pulled out
from under us and we were drifting
through enormous questions, vast spaces
and pauses, secret passages, discovering
places we hadn't known existed behind
the closet doors as gaps in the floor
grew wider and the bottom fell out.
I called it an ill wind,
you said the stars
were lined up against us.
The hall to the outside
has been a long, dark dream
where the light is burned out,
and I am still coming out of it,
picking my way through falling beams,
loose boards, live wires.
You are beside me beside the spider.
Pale orange, she is lovely in the orange light.
Her legs are thin and nimble, and her abdomen
a mound from which we watch the thread come
as she clings, stroking the air with her spindly
bones, to the fine rungs of her ladder home.
You ask me if I think she's the one you met once,
the one who made your skin crawl, in the darkness
beneath the porch. I suggest she might have come out
to take the sun, to make room for moon and stars,
the shadows of leaves in halls and corridors, but still
I could only guess she might be the one that frightened
you half to death.
Nevertheless, I know you well enough to know
you are relieved to meet her out in the sun
where you feel safe to look her in the face and even
compliment her for her grace.
And I, too, am glad because I can see your eyes,
see you trace the silky floors. Oh, you take me by
surprise, the way you take me up the heights of your
delight, and oh I know that were it not for your
discerning eye that stops to measure the mystery
of each small universe, and directs me to the door
of places I'd ignored before, I would not now
be visiting the spider's web again, wondering about
which worlds and works are blown away, as I hear
you coming up the stair to remind me that the sky
is blue, the afternoon still fair, and you have
plans to draw me out of thought and into
your intricate design.
FOR THE RIVER
Now that the river is frozen
I can believe nothing
is really lost --
the last words you said to me,
your thoughts I did not have time to read,
the secrets I should not have told --
the names and addresses of people I should not visit
the gestures I should not have given away
bits of poems that came to a dead end
and smashed like lost birds against this window,
the small pieces of paper that will save our lives –
even the exact date and time when the ice quakes
along a fault of sunlight
and the giant slabs split like the puzzle
pieces of continents-
when it is time for me to wait
for whatever comes up bobbing between the floes
with my name on it.
THE FROST PLACE, FRANCONIA, NEW HAMPSHIRE
(for Erica Mumford)
Riding away from his sturdy white house
and his barn, where small slits in the old
pine boards made me feel we were all that time
being watched, I remember asking you what
you, especially with your blond hair,
the summer dress she wore in my old picture book,
felt like when you walked through the screen door
without so much as a knock, climbed the stair,
and sat on the quilt-covered bed that might
have been his. We listened for what we could
pick up from the woodwork and the fields of tiny
blue flowers on the walls wondering whether it
was her spirit moving us when we bent to look
at the poems, the old letters, the worn leather
volumes under glass.
I remember your quick laugh in the still
August air of that quiet room where the
curtains fluttered about the small desk
and the mountains moved like bears between
the window panes.
This season is sweetness and light.
Tomatoes and corn are piled
on small tables beside the road,
and someone has stopped to hold
the vegetables and fruit, to feel
the weight and measure the juice
beneath the ripe skins. Beneath
the leaves that are brighter than gold
in the clear air, a man under the shade
of his broad hat, calls to his wife
for change. This season is the calm
before the storm. Overhead the message
is clear. The dark leaves caught
in the wind rush like the sound of birds.
This is the time to look away
before the fields are falling under snow,
and what is left goes up in smoke.
SONOGEE NURSING HOME
In the circle of the old women
the faces are stone,
cracked and lined as the rocks in the bay,
and so it is hard to remember their names
except for Edie --
so small her feet do not touch the floor
who tells me about the stream
she called “Precious Spring"
where the water was clear and cold
where she used to dip her cup –
where her mother set the jugs
of milk and the bowls of cream.
Outside, a single tree
is breathing with the wind.
The sky is heavy with dusk
and even the sun is setting
but the others do not look.
Their eyes are full of empty rooms.
Only their hands, lying in
their laps like gifts
move over familiar things.
I could touch these
and wake them to Edie's cup
but it is late
and these hands are dying
At the end of February
When there isn't a matched pair
In the house --
No socks, boots, mittens
And even the man,
On a day that was unseasonably warm,
Left for an idea-
I find myself ready to elope,
Before the plumbing freezes,
With the first travelling salesman
On his way south.
The people who have
Lived here forever,
The ones who have
Great grandmothers sitting
In the trees and knitting mittens
With needles that click in the wind,
Say we've turned the corner
And I would like to believe.
This time the spies return from Saturn,
calamitous one, Sag-Ush, the male god,
Kaimanu, the one who moves slowly, the
killer of cattle, Cronus, the son of
Heaven and Earth who ate his children,
whose remnant circles him forever, fifteen moons, chunks of ice, dust of
dust and the ancient flotsam and jetsam --
This time the spies return from Saturn
and we remember the tall tales of giants
and a land of milk and honey
but Saturn is fire and ice,
the extremes of matter and prophecy
and again we are alone,
all seas and skies and wrapped in many colors,
the favorite child,
the single beholding eye,
mind and motion
and witness to the universe.
This time the spies return from Saturn.
There was good reason to appease
the planets and turn them into gods,
for we have the birthright
and all the blessings.
We remember the forgery of women –
Rebecca who covered the mild child
with hairy hides and Rhea who gave Cronus
the stone that would be Zeus.
These stars are the spit of my grandmothers
whose wet incantations saved us
from the evil eye,
who hid us in closets and under beds,
who floated us in baskets down the Nile.
This time the spies return from Saturn
and again we see ourselves from far away
and know we are the fairest of them all.
From far away Africa is a swirl
and the children and the river hyacinth
are floating together in the yellow waters.
This time the spies return from Saturn.
How beautiful we are from far away --
If our spies will be the death of us
How much we have to lose.
you may have known him,
can stop turning in his grave
on Coney Island
where his seven sons,
so clever and smart,
lowered him with a sigh
for all his desire
to coax them and carve them
out of himself.
He can stop turning
because his sons did not daven
three times a day
and cover their heads
and take wives who were wise
in the ways of his wife --
and chose to cut themselves off
behind his back
when his eyes grew dim as Isaac's
and he knew them only
from the feel of their skin
or the sound of their voices
when they spoke to him
in the Yiddish they usually kept
under their tongues.
But my grandfather
can stop turning
because the granddaughter
he never knew
tucks the strands of hair
beneath her scarf
and sits beside her husband
when she dips
her bread in salt
and watches the cup of wine
This child who was not
even named for him,
who never stroked his beard
as I did
when I sat on his lap
next to the window
overlooking Central Park West,
has flushed cheeks
in the candlelight
on the Sabbath,
that burn like coals.
I can thank the Czar
for the dirt between my toes,
the peas climbing the wire
and everything that grows
in spite of stones
on this piece of land
He took my grandfather's land away,
thick and heavy with trees,
in one of those occasional
Without his land
my grandfather had no reason to stay
and so he came here
with nothing to his name
except a woman,
who would live till she
was one hundred and three,
and a small son.
My grandfather searched the streets
for the gold of maple leaves
and paced the pavement
in his hiking boots.
I used to lace them up for him
beneath his eyes
dark as woods.
My grandfather lived to thank the Czar
for kicking us out
of Europe's way
and over the sea.
My grandfather's eyes
look out from between the trees.
He knows how good the dirt feels
in the palm of my hand,
and how I shudder
at the white paper
in the marketplace.
" ... language is the Divine substance of reality. "
NO TITLE YET
In October I pass a burning bush every day.
It breathes with the wind and rushes
at me with small flames. My footsteps echo
with the others, but inside I am shouting
as fiercely as a soul for its mate, "Give me
your name, speak to me, so that your breath
becomes mine!" Perhaps it is bird, and I can
reach in through the deeper darkness of the
leaves where the light is ribbon thin and bring
it to my lips. Perhaps it is an angel I must
wrestle with. Late at night when we are all
that is left of the world, I go back alone
to wait it out. The name is blessing and
commandment and my life depends on it.
Perhaps it wi11 occur to me.
After the last blast of the shofar
and the hard fast, the promises
and prayers for a good year,
it takes us by surprise
when we are in the season
of apples and honey cakes
and wine, when we eat in huts
open as birds to the stars,
it takes us by surprise
to see a swastika
drawn on the wall of the shul,
painted red and razor sharp
the women whisper,
there can be no mistake.
They know the sign.
It makes me think
we have been found out
although we've been here
for years, our candles shining
at the windows, the smell of challah,
the bittersweet sounds of Shabbos songs
escaping from out the windows and doors
and into the streets between the bridge
and the old brick church.
It takes us by surprise
and yet the trouble is so old
it echoes in my blood
with the sound of my grandfather
climbing the stairs of a building
on the lower east side
and pressed against the wall
by someone with a knife
who held the blade
against his neck and said,
“Swear, swear you are not a Jew,
and I will let you free!"
And from my grandfather who refused
just as they were both surprised
by an angel in disguise who opened a door
in that long, dark hall,
I learned never to be too much in love
with a roof over my head,
that houses are made of sticks and glass,
that they break like the works of our hands,
and that we should be ready to fly
up into the night with parcels and children
and scrolls under our arms
on the back of the wind.