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.
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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.


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