Poem of the Week | January 31, 2022

This week’s Poem of the Week is “The Women of Camelot” by Susan Rich!

Susan Rich is an award winning poet, editor, and essayist. She is the author of five poetry collections, including, Gallery of Postcards and Maps: New and Collected Poems, Cloud Pharmacy, and The Alchemist’s Kitchen. Rich has received awards from PEN USA and the Fulbright Foundation. Her recent poems have appeared in the New England Review, Image Journal, Poetry Ireland, and The Account. Her next collection, Blue Atlas, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press, 2024. Susan is the co-founder and director of Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Poetry Retreat for Women. Visit her at www.poetsusanrich.com


The Women of Camelot

They had bosoms, not breasts,
extra-strong bifocals and lipsticks

                            so bold they matched Red Hots, matched licorice.
                            Never trust ‘em, never trust ‘em — over

and over as if no one was listening…
My grandmother’s roundtable called out

                            their fingers stained with menthols and borscht.
                            And it didn’t matter to them that their ‘em

                                          meant everyone. My immigrants kept
                                          multiple rain bonnets sequestered in purses,

iridescent butterscotch twisted in gold
cellophane and blue rolls of Miss Liberty dimes—

                            prepared for the emergency that would,
                            (they knew) eventually, come. They spat

                                          out their language, said it wasn’t
                                          a language — half Polish, half Russian,

                                                                                half guttural scream.

Someone had a third cousin living
in Chelsea, a maiden aunt staying in Beverly.

                            My grandmother arrived via steerage class,
                            sixteen, alone with an idea

                                          she’d pull a sword from a stone.

I had not yet learned to read
when I came for sleepovers

                            in the castle filled with widows.
                            Small bracelets of digits tattooed

                                                          above their left wrists. She couldn’t

talk of her fog-filled samovar
or the filigreed tray of glass bottles,

                                          crenelated time capsules with notes

of oakmoss and plum—
the last drops from a war

                            I’d never understand displayed.

The scent of spirits who didn’t
make it out.

                                          They lived together like mirrored compacts

                                                          in public housing: Boston, Massachusetts,
                                                          inside a project called Camelot.


Author’s Note

Is it okay to write a poem about one’s own grandmother? Perhaps I needed to wait until I could barely remember the holy items she kept in her handbag or the conversations with her friend, Mrs. Cohen, down the hall. And is it strange that I am still amazed by the fact that she lived at Camelot Court: a 1970’s public housing project in Brighton, Massachusetts? That her floor was filled with Holocaust survivors and other Jewish immigrants? As a kid, I only knew of King Arthur and his Roundtable. It took my friend, Elizabeth, from California to tell me that the projects were more likely named in reference to the Brookline-Boston area being the birthplace of John F. Kennedy than in reference to British legends. It doesn’t matter. In my mind, my grandmother and her friends lived in mythic terms. I can’t revise this childhood belief now.

However, the poem went through more than a dozen revisions and I abandoned it more than once. The vitality of those Camelot Court women kept me coming back. I hope this piece in its final form channels a bit of these women’s energy right from the get-go, with “bosoms not breasts…matched Red Hots, matched licorice.” I was still a child when my grandmother died and so my memories of her come home to me from the mind of a kid who couldn’t understand the castle with no moat, no turrets. Is it okay to write a poem about one’s grandmother? Yes. Absolutely.