Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
News

PSALM 151

THE MUSES

Mrs. Sperling,

Mrs. Meadow,

my grandmother, Gusty —

evening, porch, shadows,

robed in cotton dresses,

buttoned-up sweaters,

hair tied back in buns

under babushkas,

wire-rim spectacles

and heavy black shoes.

Twittering in Yiddish.

Even when young

they looked old. Each

had at least one deaf ear,

how they looked directly

at you when you spoke.

Hidden in their nest

perched in the buckeye

that throws its leaves

across early evening.

Three widows from across

the waters. They’ve returned.

I want them to rest awhile

after their long lives of labor

before they spin and weave,

these birds of some exotic

species not recorded

on anyone’s life list,

relaxing their shoulders

as the shiny brown fruit plunks

into the grass. I place one

in each of their dough-crusted

hands, reciting Basho:

it is a common flower

the worldly think not worth

their note, chestnut

at the hermit’s eaves.

I want them to kibitz

about nothing we should

be concerned with

until the next millennium,

or the one after.

— Philip Terman

* * *|

Philip Terman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and studied at Ohio University, the University of Washington and Ohio State University. He teaches creative writing at Clarion University. His first full-length collection, “The House of Sages,” was published by Mammoth Books in 1998. He has received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for poetry on the Jewish experience, an Academy of American Poets prize, and the Kenneth Patchen Award. Mammoth is bringing out a second collection, “Book of the Unbroken Days,” in 2003.

“The Muses” can be read pleasurably as an affectionate salute to three old ladies, the poet’s grandmother among them, each deaf in one ear, but “twittering” happily in Yiddish in the shade of that iconic Ohio tree, the buckeye. The women — clearly immigrants from the old country — are seen as migrant birds who have taken nest in the American landscape, and since for a poet a bird is also often an emblem for the self (from John Keats’s nightingale to Walt Whitman’s “solitary singer”), we see as well that these three old birds have carried a song of Jewish self from the old country to the new, and that the poet, listening as a child, picked up some flavor of that song that still endures in his work.

Yet here is where the story gets complicated, mingling old country and new, American and Jewish, Greek (for the muses) and Japanese. The three muses — a number more apt for the graces, but who’s counting? — represent the source of poetic inspiration, but so does Basho, the Japanese haiku master. The brown fruit that falls at their feet — and which the poet remembers himself as a boy handing to them as an offering — recalls the chestnut in Basho’s poem. It is said that some birds — the mockingbird, for instance — pick up songs of every bird they’ve mingled with in their travels. Poets travel even faster than birds on “the viewless wings of poesy,” as Keats once put it, and they travel as well by ear and by heart.

Engage

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.