Touring the Tower of London thirty years ago with our teenage daughters, we saw the Crown Jewels. As we followed the path around protective cases, awed by the spectrum of gems—3,000 in King George’s 1937 coronation crown alone, an alarm suddenly blared from speakers, and iron gates came down to prevent exit. It truly terrified us. How to protect our children? After a while, the gates lifted; lightening had struck the Tower in a flash storm and set off the warning blasts. We were ready to leave the crowns and other treasures, happy to catalog this experience as a memory.
The crowns in this volume are memories I carry within. Stories of my ancestors, the miraculous moon rock I saw before I gave birth for the first time, young men and women who entered and left my life, kinfolk who are gone, kinfolk who remain, and the growing grandchildren—jewels who add sunshine to my days.
Special thanks to family, friends, and colleagues in poetry who continue to provide the support that fosters the words I write.
What people are saying...
In these lively and often heart-piercing narrative poems, Gail Fishman Gerwin explores her own family history set under the long, dark shadow of the Holocaust. As the poems shift back and forth between now and then, the US and Europe, the living and the dead, we are reminded of what’s been lost and what remains. Skillfully stitched together with a set of related motifs—paintings, photographs, dancing, hats, and beaded purses—this collection poignantly acknowledges that we can never know the whole story of our lives, that some pieces will always be missing. By sharing her personal stories, Gerwin compels us to feel more deeply our shared history.
—Diane Lockward, author of The Crafty Poet A Portable Workshop
Gail Fishman Gerwin weaves past and present into a song of affirmation. Skype, Facebook and email are as at home in these poems singing of the past as a lost emerald ring from childhood, a recollection of first love, or a cousin living in Israel. Each poem in Crowns is a gem in a treasure of warm memories that enrich us. Its wealth of connections reminds us of how memory itself sustains and enlightens because it evokes the tenderness of what ties us to those we love. These poems reach across time and around the world creating “a single warm coat on days that turn cold.”
—Michael T. Young, author of The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost
Hadassa’s painting My Old Handbags—delicate jeweled purses—reminds me of my mother’s beaded collection. In a bottom dresser drawer, these treasures
lie dormant, gems that took her with my father to now-decayed Catskills resorts, that flew with her as a business wife to convention galas on humid islands,
that adorned her sequined gowns at winter dances in ballrooms long before the days of Judith Lieber. I owned a few flashy evening bags as well, one gold
mesh, so tiny even a faerie’s comb couldn’t fit, but ample enough for the mad money Mama provided—in case your date gets fresh and you need to call Daddy.
I never used the mad money, yet sometimes when I peer inside at the old bags in my bottom drawer among the tangled costume bracelets my second-
graders thought I might like to wear, I spot a nickel, remember a phone booth on the corner next to a domed synagogue. There I am!
In a cantaloupe cashmere shirtdress from Mikola’s
on Broadway, black patent-leather high-heeled pumps over Hanes hose. I see the ghosts of Paterson, warm
and smiling as they fox-trot around a parquet floor now dulled, abandoned along with the stage where
a band once played.
My Aunt Helen, sixth in the crop of seven born to my grandmother in Plauen, could not spell. Every post card, every birthday greeting, our wedding check—all added a Y to the middle of the name my parents gave me at birth. When corrected, she’d say oh yes, I know, then proceed to gift me with that Y until the April day she died,and we drove up to Paterson to tell her baby sister, my mother, the sad news.
Aunt Helen, generous with the alphabet, generous with her keepsakes, gifted me: a necklace I rarely remove, a bracelet, its etched roses a thornless circle that rounds my wrist, a curio cabinet that holds my grandfather’s spectacles and my mother’s Limoges candy dish that stored M&Ms.
Aunt Helen, whose spelling began in German,Yiddish, whose life was touched
by trauma—twin sons who died within her, a daughter who remained a non-reader, a non-speller.
She gifted me again, again, as I watched herdive from unspeakable heights into backyard pools in upstate New York, as I danced with her in shoe departments when she snatched my arm,twirled me to piped-in Muzak tunes from the old days. And now? On the final day of the Festival of Booths, when we gather to remember the dead,
I recall Aunt Helen, who danced through the alphabet to gift me with an extra letter.
He lived across the street from us in what was called The Mansion, a Tudor-beamed half circle that stretched across a city block. Rumor was that they handed out dollar bills for Halloween. He lived with his mother Anna, a redhead from The Old Country, who walked Ike, her Weimaraner, a friendly grey fellow with green eyes. She’d say, her words heavy with her birth, Ike, clean yourself out, and—good dog, he did. Good dog until he jumped on her with the joy of being, knocked out her front tooth.
He lived across the street, his daughters came on weekends from their mother’s home near the park. His tennis court was open to all, come play, bring friends, he’d say, it shouldn’t sit empty. I played tennis, leapt from his yard’s playground swings into open air, landed square on my feet, my mother furious at chances I took.
In May lilacs bloomed
Filled the air with perfume
He lived across the street, walked over on summer
evenings, strode through our unlocked screen door.
Cele, he'd say to my mother, what's to eat, then open
the fridge, surf her bounty.
He’d pass humid hours on our front porch, tell gathered neighbors about silks his company wove in one of the Carolinas, far from our town, once a city that flowed with fabric. Our home soon sold, my parents soon gone, summer chatter a clattering memory, the fridge now empty.
In May lilacs bloom
Seclude the razed acreage
Fill the street with sweetness
A Proper Gentleman
After A Proper Gentleman,
—from Subway Series, Marla Del Collins
All that summer I thought the Beatles sang for me: all you need is love, love, love is all you need. I’d found my love, a man with a midwest twang who knew every corner of New York, who took me to city spots I’d never seen, though all my life I’d lived along the eastern seaboard. Manhattan, one Saturday night, maybe we watched The Endless Summer in the Kips Bay Theatre with the marquee that cautioned The Endless Summer ends tomorrow. Then the Second Avenue bus to the Lower East Side, Katz’s Delicatessen, where salamis above the counter mimed chandeliers, where tea came in glass tumblers, where corned beef sandwiches promised tomorrow’s lunch. We sat at a narrow table, surrounded by a smattering of other Katz late-nighters. The waiter approached, maybe to see if we wanted anything else, but no, instead he said, his voice heavy with his own Eastern Europe salt,
A proper gentleman
Would not block the aisle
With his long leg. Move it
Gail Fishman Gerwin leads her readers across a vast literary landscape of emotion and experience in her masterful collection, Crowns. Whether she is writing about growing up in Paterson or her times in far away places such as Prague or Israel, she never loses sight of what it means to be in love with life. I am struck with her ability to find the universal in the personal and make critical discoveries through specific details. In the lovely title poem that concludes her book, Gerwin writes about opening boxes and finding “Treasures worth more per ounce than the price of gold.” Readers will discover that also describes the poems that grace this collection.
—Edwin Romond, author of Alone with Love Songs