Poem of the Week | August 11, 2014

This week we offer a new poem by Nancy Naomi Carlson. Carlson is a recipient of a literature translation fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as grants from the Maryland Arts Council and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Author of three prize-winning titles, as well as Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char (Tupelo Press, 2010), her translations of Abdourahman Waberi, from Djibouti, are forthcoming next March from Seagull Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press. She is a senior translation editor for Tupelo Quarterly and Blue Lyra Review.
Author’s note:

This poem is one of looking back—not at one momentous moment in time, but at those repeated moments which help shape who we are, often out of our awareness. Rather than meet the memory head-on, the poem takes a circuitous route from what is least remembered—the lake in the title, with its “tangle of roots,” located in Danbury, Connecticut—to the surrounding mountain that takes on an almost maternal or god-like role. By the end of the poem, the focus is on the “I” and a kind of pantheistic ritual of gathering rays of the sun to create a flame. This final act is rebellious, yet reminiscent of traditional Jewish candle-lighting ceremonies.
Although my father was not one of the original firefighters who founded this summer community, my mother’s sister’s husband, Uncle Sid, was. The Klein’s bungalow stood side by side to ours, as opposed to my grandparents’ larger bungalow at the further end of the street, where bowls of green grapes, nectarines, and cherries were always waiting for my sister and me. When I wasn’t hiking alone in the woods or trying to ignite leaves, I made frequent trips next door to sing show music and play the piano with my aunt. Her own daughter, with perfect pitch like my own, grew up to be the singer-songwriter, Carole King. Although I never became a professional musician, my daughter is a professional choral conductor and vocal performer, and my son sings a mean karaoke. The theme of music that runs through the poem (e.g., “…Studebaker’s engine/ strain in different keys as gears were changed…”; “…tunnel through hulls/ singing…”) stems from this personal history.


Lake Waubeeka

A summer community in Connecticut, founded by “Ner Tormid,”
“eternal flame,” a fraternal organization of Jewish firefighters.


The lake is not what I most remember, opaque
between water lilies whose tangle of roots
would tug at the oars my father dipped
into surface glaze, stagnant with algae and flies—
nor the outcrop of rock, my mother standing watch
as our boat sprang leaks on its way from the shore—
but the mountain itself enclosing the lake,
a presence, embrace that made our Studebaker’s engine
strain in different keys as gears were changed,
so even, eyes shut, I could guess how close we were
to the top. While my father hammered his chisel
into stone on which our summer house was built,
I’d chip away mica found in the woods,
or strip sassafras bark with my nails, then chew
its fragrant pulp. I’d pull Queen Anne’s lace
by the roots, just for its mock-carrot smell, balance
on fallen trees and tunnel through hulls,
singing, or magnify sun on a single brown leaf.