Naomi Replansky’s Career Began in a Factory

Poet Learned To Be Wordsmith on the Assembly Line

By Benjamin Ivry

Published October 02, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

In a storage area of Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, there is a striking portrait known to only a few art lovers. It’s the work of Joseph Solman (1909–2008), the Vitebsk-born American Jewish artist whose studio was located for decades over the former site of New York City’s 2nd Avenue Deli. Painted in oil on linen in 1954, “Naomi” shows a woman whose face is too determinedly hard-edged to resemble a Modigliani subject, yet she shares some of the wit and elongated grace of that Italian Jewish painter’s work. “Naomi” pays tribute to an artist who has likewise long been known to only a select few: Naomi Replansky, the 94-year-old poet whose “Collected Poems” Black Sparrow Books recently published.

Blithe Spirit: 94-year-old Naomi Replansky published her first poems in 1936.
michael berg
Blithe Spirit: 94-year-old Naomi Replansky published her first poems in 1936.

Replansky was born in the Bronx in 1918. Her mother worked as a secretary in a Harlem junior high school, while her father was unemployed for many years. Replansky toiled in factories, starting on an assembly line during World War II in the heyday of Rosie the Riveter, and eventually graduated to operating a lathe. Years later, she trained herself to become a pioneering computer programmer for not-for-profit organizations, starting with the earliest punched cards used by the first giant computers. This variegated background helped Replansky develop into an eloquent poet of the working class. Her first publication was in a 1936 anthology, “Contemporary American Women Poets: An Anthology of Verses by 1311 Living Writers,”, Marianne Moore and Muriel Rukeyser. edited by Tooni Gordi. In the anthology, the teenage Replansky is featured alongside such established fellow writers as Babette Deutsch

From childhood onward, Replansky’s chief inspiration was drawn from the oral poetry tradition: “Mother Goose / Was my metrical muse,” Replansky has asserted in a poem. At age 10, she relished the ballads of Rudyard Kipling, whereas at 13, she was transfixed by the words and structure of spirituals, especially “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” as sung on the radio by African-American contralto Marian Anderson. Later in her teens, Replansky discovered the Border Ballads, old songs recounting tales of violence and the supernatural along the England-Scotland border.

From these and other sources, Replansky derived a style with the immediacy of folksong and a quirkily personalized turn of expression that owed much to her Jewishness, as in her 1946 poem, “The Six Million,” which is eloquent in its plainness and simplicity:

They entered the fiery furnace
And never one came forth.
How can that be, my brothers?
But it is true, my sisters.
They entered the fiery furnace
And never one came forth.

Another evocation of wartime carnage in the age of the A-bomb, the quatrain “Epitaph: 1945,” was written at the end of World War II:

My spoon was lifted when the bomb came down
That left no face, no hand, no spoon to hold.
A hundred thousand died in my home town.
This came to pass before my soup was cold.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.