Poem of the Week | May 09, 2016

This week we offer another poem from our new Spring 2016 issue, 39.1. A finalist of our Editors’ Prize, Allison Pitinii Davis is a Poetry Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her recent work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Crazyhorse and The Best American Poetry 2016. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. She is the author of Poppy Seeds (KSU Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. Her full-length collection, Line Study of a Motel Clerk, is forthcoming from Baobab Press in 2017.
Author’s note:

Milton Hindus wrote the biographical statement on Charles Reznikoff’s Poetry Foundation webpage. When I first discovered Reznikoff, I read Hindus’ introduction over and over. One line pains me—“He [Reznikoff] left no fervent disciples.” While my dad bought me Allen Ginsberg’s Selected in high school and Kathy Fagan-Grandinetti led me to Philip Levine, it took some searching to get to Reznikoff and Carl Rakosi, and even more to get to New York’s Yiddish poets. Along with many others, I’m a fervent disciple of Jewish American poetry, and no poet is more important to me than Reznikoff.
“Inheritance,” which is from my forthcoming collection Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press), is actually about losing, but losing in such a way that you end up preserving. I learned this move from Reznikoff. For example, Reznikoff has a poem where he’s leaving home, so his ailing grandfather blesses him in Hebrew. Reznikoff feels guilty because he doesn’t understand the Hebrew, so he tells his grandfather in “broken Yiddish” not to worry, that they’ll see each other again. The grandfather starts crying. Reznikoff wonders if his grandfather is sad because it’s the last time he’ll see his grandson or because his grandson is so secular. And, indeed, the poem is in English—it’s not written to console the grandfather. It’s written for the generations brought up between cultures.
A note that the last section of “Inheritance” is one of my uncle’s explanations on how we got the last name “Davis.” I come from long lines of storytellers—my great uncles are possibly the most exquisite bullshitters in history. That’s what the poem is about: my uncle’s speculation about our lost name—regardless of its accuracy—says more about our family than the name itself.




Whatever he did is characterized by meticulously fine and painstaking craftsmanship. […]
In the care and precision of his lines, people and objects retain their own lives.

—Harvey Shapiro on the poet Charles Reznikoff


1. Reznikoff’s parents made hats. His lines are tight
as his parent’s stitching:
Lines to cover a head on a freezing day.


2. My mother is a bookkeeper,
my father is an innkeeper.
I’m a keeper of a language
that won’t register under its name.


3. Reznikoff’s mother moved to America
and had a son. She wanted to name him Ezekiel
after her father. The doctor said, “Call him Charlie,
he’ll be grateful.”


4. When the thread unravels, run it between your lips.
When there isn’t thread, invent separation.
Double knot the end of every truth.


5. Between being horseman
in Czarist Russia
and trading horses
in Chicago, a Jew stopped in England
and grabbed a new name quickly
as a jacket
that we keep handing down
to inherit the sweat.