Separation Wall, Shoafat, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.”
Photo by Michal Fattal
Introduction: The Way of the Matriot: On the Poetry of Frances Payne Adler
By way of introducing her poetry, I want to share my brief origin tale. In the early 1990s, I discovered Adler’s change-making work through a poem and article she’d published. The poem, which inspired me in my own work for the next twenty-five years, was prefaced by a photograph of an elderly woman (or so she was to my forty-five-year-old eyes), Helen Vandevere, raising her fist in front of a graffiti scrawl in caps (REVOLUTION), followed by Adler’s definition of a term she coined, serving as the poem’s title (please see the video below of Adler reading the poem). The documentary poem itself was in Vandevere’s voice, drawn from an interview. “Matriot” became the title poem of Adler’s 2003 collection, The Making of a Matriot. The starkness of the opening lines remains as powerful today as when I first read them: “There’s not much that’s important at my age / except making the world a better place.” (33)
I’ve been so inspired by Adler’s poetry and vision that I twice brought her to give readings and workshops at universities where I taught, and once I journeyed, as if on a pilgrimage, to the California State University Monterey Bay campus, to observe the Creative Writing and Social Action Program, which Adler founded and directed until her retirement in 2006. Preparing this feature, moreover, I’ve realized how much her documentary poetic practice (the interviews she conducts and makes into portrait poems, for example) and her innovative social action curriculum influenced me. Over the years, Adler has addressed in forthright poetry a number of “hot” social issues: pregnancy and addiction (When the Bough Breaks), homelessness (Home Street Home), and the trauma children of the survivors of the Holocaust inherit (Raising the Tents).
The topic Adler takes up in the collaborative feature piece (with photographs by Israeli photographer Michal Fattal) that follows, Dare I Call You Cousin, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Adler describes the dramatic origins of the work, the poems began “spilling out about the Occupation and I knew I needed to be there.” She went to Israel and the West Bank so she could see for herself, conduct research, interview Palestinians and Israelis, and live on the “seam” between East and West Jerusalem.
The subject lends itself particularly well to the documentary method of interviewing all parties, giving all sides a space in which to speak of their lived experience. As Adler clarifies in a short afterword, the hope of her piece is to bear witness to their lives:
Dare I Call You Cousin, a manuscript and exhibition of poetry, photos, and videos [by Israeli videographer, Yossi Yacov], steps inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Images and stories, from both Israeli and Palestinian points of view, show the simmering conditions underpinning their lives. The art’s peacebuilding aim is to create breathing space for discussion.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to view a private exhibition drawn from the series as a whole, and similar to this feature in Persimmon Tree, we could read poems that were placed in dialogue with photographs we could see at the same time. It was emotional, inviting us “inside” the conflict, as Adler puts it, countering the natural tendency to remain outside, removed and distant.
Art reaches across political and individual boundaries to speak to us, and to bring us face to face with another person at the most intimate level, of the human heart and mind. It speaks truth, inviting us into its space to listen, feel, and think. Persimmon Tree embraces Frances Payne Adler’s ethical aim that art can be a part of “peacebuilding” efforts at this time, creating “breathing space for discussion.” We hope you’ll join in.
Frances Payne Adler, “Matriot” (Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2003). Lines quoted in text are from this first edition.
(This poetry feature is a portion of Dare I Call You Cousin.)
“It has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves
when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty
seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”
– Adrienne Rich, “Defying the Space That Separates,” Arts of the Possible.
“Thank you for Dare I Call You Cousin. The poems and photographs
are close to my heart. Sending my respect and appreciation.”
– Amos Oz
Dare I Call You Cousin
is funded in part by Portland, Oregon’s Regional Arts and Culture Council
(Hebrew) Be quiet.
|I’ve come though the voices shushing
me for years, through the underbrush
of sheket circling my feet, covering
my mouth, my eyes, past the tangle
of we don’t wash our dirty linen, past
we must speak with one voice, beyond
you have no right, you’re not Israeli,
My grandmother Bessie sewed rubles
into the hem of her coat, packed potatoes,
black bread, her pinochle deck, and walked
out of Russia, by herself, thirteen years old,
running from pogroms. Do you know, Francela,
she’d say to me, vot it’s like to feel homeless
My husband was a two-year-old kid
in Romania during the war that hunted Jews.
When we lived in Canada, and crossed the border
into the U.S., when we lived in San Diego, crossed
the border into Mexico, he’d turn to our kids
in the back seat of the car, and say, I’ll
do the talking. At the base of his neck,
he was breaking out in a sweat.
I know the gas has seeped through generations,
that this fear lives in Israel multiplied by millions.
I know we’re no longer victims, us Jews,
and you’d think we’d know how to be with power.
My thirteen-year-old granddaughter Sophie says to me,
We haven’t learned anything, Bubbe.
“5 am. Qalandiya Checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem.”
Photo by Michal Fattal
You can barely see, at first, in the dawn light, working men
jump from buses, race to get in line, the banter between them.
You can’t see the signs like in a dream when your eyes won’t
open. What you can see are men bundled against the cold
night air, men who jostle, shove, climb the steel bars, try to
break the queue, men who pray, who face east, kneel, press
their heads to cold concrete, all who wait for the gate to open.
And then you hear it, a few words slipping from lips — parched
wells, the wadi, permits denied for cisterns, permits denied
to build a bakery, and when you do, the bulldozer. What you
hear is the gasp rising, the not-so-slow stifle. What you see
are soldiers, teenagers, some in their twenties, machine guns
slung like satchels over their shoulders, their boots clacking
the concrete, and no one moving to open the gates. What you
hear are students in the ‘Humanitarian Line,’ It’s for nothing
you’re filming us. They come, they film, nothing changes.
What you hear is the silence of a woman wearing a black
hijab, who carries a sack of books in her arms. What you
see is a man who clutches his side and tells you, I wait
here, away from the crush. I got my ribs broken last week
in the line. What you smell are figs in the fingers of a child,
her father beside her, I’m taking her to hospital in Jerusalem,
he says to you in Hebrew. And when the interpreter translates,
Her name is Pella, you hear her whisper in his ear, Baba, I
need to use the bathroom, and there is none. What you hear
is a businessman with three daughters, taking them to school
in East Jerusalem. What, he says, waving his arm at the steel
bars, the soldiers, the guns, are my daughters learning from this?
“Ben Gurion Airport”
Photo by Michal Fattal
Crossing the Border into Israel, II
“The majority of the Knesset decided to create a committee to investigate
human rights organizations…And they have more plans: …new regulations
that would deny entry to Israel of anyone connected to leftist activity.”
– Nitzan Horowitz, Member of Knesset
If they ask me why
I’ve come, I’ll say
When they want to know
where I’m going, I’ll say
Haifa, not Hebron
When they look
in my bag, find
the tape recorder,
I’ll say Family stories,
not Awad’s story
But if they ask who
I work for, I’ll say, You
And when they don’t
believe me, and they shine
a steel lamp into my mouth,
and climb in
they’ll find my grandmother Bessie,
small, still wearing her coat, saying,
In the pogrom, they told me,
Hold your tongue, girl.
Today, my tongue
is not a rope
they can bind
back down my throat
If they ask me who
I am, I’ll say Jew
“Eviction 1, Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.”
“Eviction 2, Sheikh Jarrah.”
Photo by Michal Fattal
Nasser Ghawi, protesting his family’s eviction from their home.
Photo by Michal Fattal
Nasser Ghawi, graphic designer.
Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, East Jerusalem.
The Israeli police came at five in the morning, came with cars, their guns, their horses, and a dog. We could hear them breaking down the door. My niece was crying, they wouldn’t let us take our stuff. My kids were crying. If you don’t stop crying, I’ll arrest you. An officer said this to my kids. To me he said, Give me the key, Mr. Nasser. You bombed the door, I said. There’s no door to use the key. He said, Give. Me. The key. Then he ran to the settler, gave him the key, to show me This is not your house anymore. An hour later, settlers moved in with their mattresses. I was born in this house 49 years ago, my brothers were born in this house, all our children were born in this house. This is the lemon tree my mother planted, the fig, the olive, the apricot. Our family has been in this house for 56 years. We have the original deed of ownership. It’s an old document, the Israeli court said. We can’t recognize that kind of paper. So they cancelled the document. They cancelled the document. The settlers’ deed is one hundred and thirty years old. The court decided the land belongs to them. The settlers put a menorah on the roof that was my house, is still my house. Our family slept in a tent in front of the house for months, protesting our eviction. The police took it down nine times. I will sit on a chair in the street with my children without a tent, without anything, Maysoun, his wife, says. They stole the house from me by force. I will stand or visit my house. I have a right to be here.
“Ariel Ben Aharon.” (The sticker on the laptop says, ‘Love for Free.’)
Photo: Michal Fattal
Ariel Ben Aharon, settler
Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem
Yes, you can see that I love Arabic music. We love all. We teach not to hate, anyone who hates is someone who is damaging himself. The Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, who lived 950 years ago, wrote that there are a million ways, and if I tell everyone that my way is better, it will make a mess. Each in his own way, each with his own thing, we must simply love everyone, doesn’t matter who, anyone, any goy. We love. Very simple, we do not hate anyone.
How do I get along with my neighbors? Very well. Sometimes there are ‘things’, but how to say it, that’s the youngsters, those who love action, who haven’t seen enough movies. Listen, if someone comes to hit me, we’re not sitting quiet and saying to him, come and beat us and everything is fine. But we are not putting hate in here, nothing. How do I explain it to you. I’m here already three months and I never in my life went to anyone and said to him, Go away, you asshole, or something like this, I didn’t throw him words, but I always see they are the irritators, they’re always throwing words at me in Arabic. I don’t understand Arabic but I understand they’re curses. I keep quiet, say to myself, I don’t care. The land of Israel belongs to the Israeli nation according to the Bible. Abraham, God promised him. Why do I need them? They can shout until tomorrow.
to my israeli and american jewish family
have the fears from our history
crusted our eyes
like the inside of kettles
have they rusted the hinges
of our mouths
have our machine guns
and tear gas and
back on us, the barbed wire
of our laws bound our hearts,
caused our souls to forget
Photo by Michal Fattal
Sarah, Jewish resident, Jerusalem
Have I ever been to the West Bank,
to Palestinian villages? No, but I’ve driven
on roads that go past them. You Americans
can’t know what it’s like unless you live here.
We’re driving with some friends at night on a road
just 10 minutes from here, from our house in Jerusalem,
and out of nowhere, some young boys, teenagers,
Palestinians, rush toward us, close in on us, throw
boulders at our car, boulders not stones, they shatter
the windshield. Thought I was going to die right there,
our friends in the back seat calling the police, who, thank G_d,
directed us to the station. We put the car in reverse
and raced back down the road. You’re lucky to be alive,
they said. Why were you there in the first place?
Terrifying. I was attacked just because I’m a Jew.
Photos by Michal Fattal
“Wish wish wish the world would take that dare.”
– Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, on hearing the title
of the exhibition.
Too often comes the death stare.
Too many daughters, sons, ashes.
Wish wish wish we would take that dare.
Schoolgirl on a bus, death doesn’t care,
doesn’t falter. It whirrs and flashes.
Wish wish wish we could take that dare.
Oud player, cyclist, release despair,
release the pain that death attaches.
Yes yes yes we should take that dare.
Stone thrower, soldier, in death’s wide glare,
together we will heal the gashes.
Salaam, shalom, why not dare
end, for both our peoples, death’s career.
Abraham/Ibrahim, watch us
do more than wish to take that dare.
Enough, this death-dark nightmare.
Cousin, let’s stop these clashes.
Too often comes the death stare.
Yes yes yes let’s take that dare.
“Students Yael Keinan and Areen Nashef, at Hand in Hand School, in front of flags of donors’ countries.”
Photo by Michal Fattal
Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand (Yad B’Yad) School, one of the only
bi-cultural, bilingual, integrated schools for Arabs and Jews in Israel.
The idea right there in plain sight,
obvious as breathing with a hat on,
though few of their Israeli and
Palestinian neighbors and friends
and cousins could see it, their eyes
cataracted with fear. But for Areen
and Yael in first grade, it was easy.
Teachers filled the classroom with
Arabic and Hebrew, and so what
they had no words yet to talk to each other.
They used their hands, wrapped books
together, ate figs and pomegranates together,
played ball together under the olive trees.
So what if they disagreed and agreed
all the way up the ladder of grades,
they learned each other’s languages
and listened, didn’t they, heard with their
ears and toes and rows of desks, cluttered
and spattered with their complicated lives.
They spoke, didn’t they, they understood,
their arms around each other’s waists.
And their words rose with the years,
We don’t blame each other for the
adults’ mistakes, we are sisters.
The Breasted God
On the day El Shaddai / Inanna, the Breasted God, returns
after many millennia, wouldn’t you know it, artists set to work
immediately, and crosses and crescents and stars of David
become breasts oo or 8 the shape of infinity signs.
And She sends us a message in six thousand and seventy
languages: We’re here forever so clean up and come over.
I’m inviting the whole family in for tea.
And so I’m here. We’re all here. You can hardly get in the door.
Everyone I’ve ever loved is here, everyone I’ve known and
heard about, and all of you I have yet to know.
Well, first off, She serves tea. I mean, She Herself
serves it. And She has all of our favorite teas,
from each of our families’ tea bins, Of course,
why wouldn’t I, She says, and sits down. So tell me.
She wants to hear our stories. She opens Her desk,
turns on Her computer and its Translation Program,
the one with the built-in speakers so we can all
understand each other, and as we talk, She takes notes.
I mean, She takes notes. Any other place, an assistant
would be taking notes. I’m going to write down all
that You tell me, and then I’ll read it back to You
so You can tell me if I’ve heard You right.
Sounds like She really wants to hear, alright,
and what’s more She’s writing it down.
It’s up to You how You do this.
Well, no surprise, we can’t agree on how to do it.
We soon realize that in Her house, no one
has any more power than She does or
each other, so we just do it, tell our stories.
One at a time.
It’s like a Grand Intervention.
Of course that’s how it is.
How can it be any other way?
We all know what a muck we’ve made of things.
And here’s another thing: in Her house,
we discover that what we all have in common,
every one of us, is a fine-tuned Baloney Factor Meter.
And we use it. We’re at that place where enough is enough.
So we sit here with this large I mean large family
and tell each other our exact experiences. And it’s tough.
But we’re in Her house and we feel emboldened by the group.
We talk, we hear, we use The Meter.
And it goes on into the night and next day and next night and years
and we talk and listen and meter. And there rises in the room
a kind of centrifugal caring. Each word carries it.
And She takes down each of our stories and the group’s
responses and reads it all back to us and we listen
and look at each other. Hard.
We know so much about each other, that by now we are a family.
It’s clear how we’ve hurt each other, how we love each other,
where we’ve failed, where we’ve gotten it right.
And at last She says, So go home and clean up
what You now know and invite me to come visit.
I will sit in Your kitchens next time, see Your stories
for myself. And then I will tell You mine.
Dare I Call You Cousin, a manuscript and exhibition of poetry, photos, and videos, steps inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Images and stories, from both Israeli and Palestinian points of view, show the simmering conditions underpinning their lives. The art’s peacebuilding aim is to create breathing space for discussion. Three artists concerned about the Occupation have collaborated to create Cousin: Portland poet Frances Payne Adler, Jerusalem photographer Michal Fattal, and Tel Aviv videographer Yossi Yacov. The Dare I Call You Cousin exhibition opened at Havurah Shalom in Portland, Oregon, and was shown most recently at Brandeis University’s Graduate Program in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence. A portion of Cousin appears here in Persimmon Tree.
For permission to reproduce the photographs reprinted in this feature, thanks go to photographer Michal Fattal. Copyright © 2022 by Michal Fattal. Reprinted with permission of the photographer.
Thanks to Yossi Yacov for his insightful videography.
“Sheket.” Persimmon Tree. Summer 2015.
“When Your Eyes” and “In the Mirror.” Serving House Journal. Issue 5. April 2012.
“Crossing the Border into Israel II.” Voices Israel Anthology 2012: Poetry from Israel and Abroad. Jerusalem. Vol 38. June 2012.
“The Breasted God.” Bridges. Eugene, OR. Vol. 9. No.2. Fall 2002. Making of a Matriot. LA: Red Hen Press, 2003, 2017.
“Matriot.” Progressive. Madison, WI. Feb. 1995. And Making of a Matriot.
Havurah Shalom community in Portland, OR, for their original showing of Dare I Call You Cousin.
And to Odds, my generous writing community.
I’d also like to acknowledge, with thanks, Editor Sue Leonard and Poetry Editor Cynthia Hogue, of Persimmon Tree, for their generosity and belief in my work.
|Frances Payne Adler
Tel Aviv, Israel.