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PSALM 15

A recent article in The New York Times highlighted a vacancy in Queens — the poet laureate position held by Hal Sirowitz is now available. As the Times noted, “the position is not necessarily an exalted one,” yet Sirowitz has shown that exaltation is not the only quality we can look for in poetry. Plainness, ribald humor and honesty are all very welcome, and the poems Sirowitz has given us in his public readings and books have all those qualities and more.

Sirowitz, who is 55, worked for 23 years as a special education teacher in New York City public schools. He’s widely known as an entertaining reader, nonchalantly uncorking poems line by line, releasing laughter that bubbles over. He’s read his work on MTV, National Public Radio and PBS. His second book, “Mother Said” (Crown, 1996), was wildly successful and translated into nine languages. His most recent book, “Before, During & After” (Soft Skull Press, 2003) explores the relationships, physical and emotional, between men and women, with a frank language that’s guaranteed to be liberating. “Father Said” will be published this spring, also from Soft Skull.

“I wrote the poem ‘Lightning’ after my mother had died,” Sirowitz told the Forward. “In the Jewish religion, there are all these restrictions about your relationship with the dead. It’s considered blasphemy to go to the cemetery and talk to the dead. I get around it by having my dead mother talk to me. I figure since I’m not talking but only listening it’s okay. I might need a rabbi to tell me if I’m interpreting that correctly or not. My mother was always afraid of lightning. I inherited some of her fear. One time at a writer’s colony during a thunderstorm, I stayed under my desk in my studio when I heard the thunder. I think I was just acting out my irrationality.”

The poem shows that his mother’s voice is alive and well inside his head. And yet there’s a kind of liberation too in the promise of the last line with its kites in all weather. Sirowitz’s position as ex-laureate of Queens may not be “exalted” but his poems — with their laughter — can fly us pretty high.

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