What writers are saying
“Gail Fishman Gerwin’s powerful new collection Dear Kinfolk, proves Gerwin has a range that is rare. Her psychological portraits explore youth; the Holocaust; the deep connection between dogs and owners; long-term marriage, children and grandchildren; and the discovery of self. Gerwin delves into each subject with intelligence, insight and an underlying emotion that is often spiced with ironic humor. Her trademarks are specificity, candor, and gorgeous imagery. Gail Fishman Gerwin is like a master diamond cutter. Her poems have clarity, depth, and shine brightly. Dear Kinfolk, is an exquisite book of poems, one I absolutely love.”
—Laura Boss, author of Flashlight (Guernica), founder and editor of Lips
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“Gail Fishman Gerwin writes from her heart, a heart in which her kinfolk reside; and in this new and memorable collection, she invites readers into the circle of her immediate family. These are the poems of a mature woman who looks at youth and relationships from the perspective of hard-won wisdom and insight. Gerwin unflinchingly plumbs the depths of memory as she comes to terms with the past and rejoices in the present—each poem is filled with the tenderness, compassion, and love of a fully realized life.”
—Adele Kenny, author of What Matters (Welcome Rain), poetry editor of Tiferet
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“Reading Gail Gerwin’s Dear Kinfolk, is like reading a novella. Each poem is a story, a trip back in time, a glimpse of the kinfolks who populate her life. Their stories are made vivid by Gerwin’s generous heart and sure gift of language.”
—Ann Hood, author of The Red Thread (W. W. Norton & Company)
Excerpts from the book:
CALL ME GERTIE
Tradition calls for naming a new baby
after a dead relative. The Hebrew name,
in my case Gittel (really Yiddish for good),
took center stage. And that is how my Nana
was born again as I made my morning debut
at Barnert Hospital on the seventh of May.
(I missed the Kindergarten cutoff date by a week.)
Delivered by tiny Morris Joelson,
balding, so popular among Paterson
matrons that years after his death,
the town celebrated Joelson Baby Day
with a concert at the synagogue, his aging
infants sporting nametags with pink or blue
ribbons. I’ll always be in business, Morris Joelson
said, all the men in Paterson work for me at night,
that’s what snickering Mama told me.
She also told me that I was the most beautiful
baby in the nursery. Beautiful like your Nana,
they came from all over the hospital to peer
through glass at you, she said, passing over
the prune-faced boy born that night who
later became my sixth-grade boyfriend.
My sister liked to remind me that Nana
died the year before I was born while they
played cards. I thought I’d killed her, she said,
I wish they’d named you Gertrude,
everyone would call you Gertie.
I wanted to know you,
I wanted my name
to be Susan or Jane.
GO TO HELL, CHICK MILLER
The summer I was seven, my father drove
me to the Y downtown for day camp
where I played indoor badminton and
danced in girl circles until he picked me
up in the Pontiac at the end of the day.
Until then I’d never learned to swim,
my water experience limited to the bathtub,
a perfect perch to observe my mother as she
painted her lips a Revlon red for a night
at the movies or dinner with friends at
Nystrom’s (famed for cream of tomato soup).
The Y boasted a giant indoor pool, bottomless
as the ocean, I may have thought, although I’d
never seen the ocean. For me the largest bodies
of water were the Passaic River along Route
Twenty—alias Death Highway—where cars
crashed almost daily, and the Hudson River,
raging torrent behind my Aunt Helen’s house
on Abeel Street in Kingston, just under the
bridge to Port Ewen.
Don’t go into Aunt Helen’s back yard,
my mother warned, you could drown,
water can kill you. She’d never been
a swimmer herself, the family emphasis
before The Great War on escape
from the hills of her native Saxony,
though she told me about swimmers
she could see on her walks along the Thames,
not far from the Jewish East End of London
where the family spent two years on the way
to new life in New York City.
Public swimming in outdoor pools like
the Arcola (not far from the sinful motel
my mother spoke about in whispers)
drove terror into the hearts of parents
the summer I was seven, the polio
epidemic like octopus arms, ready
to snatch children from their homes,
to place them in iron lungs.
At the Y on a hot day in July, I sat
at the edge of the vast blue expanse,
inhaled chlorine while Chick Miller,
the swim counselor, told us we would learn
to swim before camp let out in August,
swimming can save your lives, he said.
Suddenly I sensed massive hands under my
arms, Chick Miller’s grip tight as a vise, and I
was airborne, tossed into The Deep like bags
of trash my father carried to clattering cans
in the driveway. I sputtered, flailed, begged
to be saved, called for my mother (not there),
my father (not there).
Crybaby crybaby, the other girls chanted while Chick
Miller, a smug smile on his triangle face, his wet
chest hairs black as slimy ink squid pasta, lifted
me to safety on the pool apron.
Shamed by my fear, I fled to the locker room,
took off my aqua swim suit, the one with raised
white flowers on the bodice, dressed in panties
with the day of the week scrolled on the front,
checkered pink shorts and halter-top my mother
had packed in the morning, and never went back
to the Y again.
The first time I saw a Basset Hound, I was
a practice teacher on a playground in Baltimore
(the students now grandparents no doubt).
Dodgeball allowed long-legged Iris, a fourth
grader with blonde pigtails (her skills limited
to picture books), to deal with her pique as
she targeted the bullies who mocked her
when she stammered in reading group.
Back then they ranked classes by ability, told
us you take the fast learners, you teach the slow
students (my task), branded children for the
years they would spend together as they inched
from grade to grade.
Baltimore in April (already humid), I glimpsed
the dog as it waddled leashless across the blacktop.
Its ears almost swept the pavement, its long
body pressed on creased legs that seemed too
short to carry their heavy load. A life-size,
comic-strip canine that stopped the game
mid-throw as wild guffaws replaced team shouts.
Undaunted, it shuffled in slow motion
toward home, swung its ears back and forth
like a pendulum, voiced its pleasure with a
low awhoooo as it spied its owner
on the playground’s fringe.
The game resumed, long-legged Iris
slammed Steven, chortled with glee,
distracted from her own tough trek
ahead. I often wonder if her desire
to learn served well beyond that day
when I first saw a Basset Hound.
WEDDING DRESS, 1968
No frills, something simple, I told the woman in Manhattan
black. No bouffant skirt, though brides were known to twirl
in circles they’d never seen before. Something simple, special,
I said, sounds of protest from the parade against faraway war
muffled by the elegance of dresses for dreams. No Juliet sleeve
puffs to hide then-taut triceps. No lace points to cover wrists
now filled with spots. No Empire seam under round breasts yet
untouched by scalpels in search of alien cells. Something simple,
I said, as she brought out gown after gown, white clouds fit for
a Botticelli canvas. Finally—the dress, A-line, thin layer of ivory
organza over the silk underskirt, splash of filigree flowers to caress
shoulders that hadn’t ached from babies who wailed through the
night. Something simple, I’d thought. Something simple, I’d said.
Oh, the burden, thinks the gate of the camp,
the one through whose arms pass moaning
trains, cars rancid with mingled excrement,
alive with doomed neighbors who’d shopped
together, strolled together, prayed together.
I can change this, thinks the gate of the camp
as it watches tearful lines separate—women here,
their children torn away, strong men over there.
Just after nightfall, after the count, the quota met,
the gate stretches, flexes muscles of iron, lengthens
five hundred feet to each side, reaches a mile high,
snaps barbed wires atop fences, grows black octopus
tentacles, lifts itself from cement pilings. Monster gate,
it goose-steps to the villa where officers, half drunk,
sated with the power of death, don’t see it approach.
Sturdy as a python, longer than an infinity of boxcars,
it roars through the foundation, crushes all in its path,
grinds roasted boar and bottles of gin with ferrous force,
brandishes medaled uniforms from its spires.
Again—silence. The gate turns toward the barracks,
croons a lullaby to hollowed faces pressed against windows,
follow me, follow me to the forests, to the rivers,
your families await.
I look in the mirror, see the young
me in a sleeveless striped dress, brown
eyes shadowed by the newest product
along cosmetic aisles, sun-streaked hair
untouched by salon foils, tanned arms
with a curved silhouette that outlines
muscles toned with soup cans.
I download digital photos, see
an old woman, neck folds in strings
like melted mozzarella, cheekbones
that crave rediscovery, lines
in parentheses around lips
that forget to blush.
The young me speaks to the old me,
she speaks in fifties music that rolls
off her tongue as easily as the ABCs,
Sh Boom, walk down by the river,
a little white cloud cries for you.
The old me answers
Sh Boom Sh Boom,
grandchildren in the other room
frightened by the songburst.
Ma, my daughter says, your poodle
skirt called, it wants you back.
I smile, think how life
could be a dream, a dream.
For five, maybe six August years we drive from New Jersey
to Brooklyn, my husband the train buff in a huff because he’d
wanted to ride the rails, then the subway in a swelter, look at the
jam-up on Broadway, he says, we could have been on the train.
Up Flatbush, circle around the Saturday farmers’ market,
stay in the right lane or we take the circle again, then hug
the rim of Prospect Park, look for a space (if we see Wendy’s
we’ve gone too far), make a U-turn while cars weave about
as in a time-lapse film. Through the iron-gate perimeter, there!
The carousel awaits. Gap-toothed horses, zebras, benches for
babies who can’t yet crawl or be trusted to stay atop a rainbow
stallion. The gentle man who knows us by now starts the music,
In the good old summertime,
In the good old summertime,
Strolling thru’ a shady lane
With your baby mine—
We sing aloud, morph into the children we once were while
our grandchildren and their friends, there to celebrate summer
birthdays at a joint party, wonder as cheeky adults who’d
never climb on a horse in real life sing weird tunes in public.
What joy those two hours bring, how easy to let worries
fly as our hair does in the hot wind of the carousel circle,
how slowly we descend from equine mountains to form
another circle, sing happy birthday to brother and sister,
say goodbye to the generation between us, see you next year,
we promise, G-d willing, we pray silently. It’s next year
now, our fears of mortality still at bay, but we settle for the
calliope in our hearts, the days of joyful swirls are gone.
The girl chooses a pink-nail manicure party at home for her
friends, the boy opts for a sleepover with preteen cronies.
We remember humid August mornings when we galloped
on the plains of Brooklyn, waved to those outside the gates.
—You hold her hand and she holds yours,
And that’s a very good sign
That she’s your tootsie wootsie
In the good old summertime.