Rachel Neve-Midbar’s “White Flesh, Yellow Dust” and “Memorial”

Comments by Contributing Editor Susan Cohen

Poets regularly describe poetry as a different way of seeing the world—a figure of speech that also suggests how much we rely on our eyes and how often we neglect other senses. After reading Salaam of Birds, which won Tebot Bach’s 2018 Patricia Bibby First Book Award, I believe Rachel Neve-Midbar also sees through her fingertips.

 Salaam of Birds contains free verse and a long prose poem set in Israel, where Neve-Midbar lives and raised children. Many of the poems revolve around motherhood, love, lovemaking, and—because it is a regular part of her life there—death. They are smart and extraordinarily sensuous. Like two celebrated writers who described the same landscape, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Neve-Midbar can manage beauty and pain at the same time.

I chose “White Flesh, Yellow Dust” to reveal the way Neve-Midbar investigates her world and brings it to us as if compelled to experience every texture, taste, smell, sound, and sight—simultaneously.

She starts with listening to “nothing.” When the poem suddenly shouts Listen, it summons us to pay attention to its words even as the speaker could be admonishing herself to pay attention to her surroundings. It also calls on us as observers to use our own multiple senses.

Stop! the poem almost screams at us. Look at what you miss if you only look: Smell—the “white daisies with the fragrance of apples.” Touch—like the monks kneeling with “rough, homespun knees against grass.” Taste—like the savored chamomile, “one flower, then another,” and the feel of yellow dust on both tongue and palm. This speaker is like a child who needs both to grab and to pop something into her mouth in order to learn.

When the poem turns from exploring the external landscape to the internal, we’re brought inside a meditation about what holds her, a move that also is embodied. We’re in the womb like a fetus, enveloped by amniotic fluid (“covered and smooth within secret waters”).

What holds her, it seems, is the land. More broadly, though, she’s held by all that she can absorb while alive and in a body, through eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. The poem ends with an almost overwhelming, synesthetic wave of sensation: “an earth soft with new growth, so yellow, so blue, / so complicated into molecules, the air tastes of it.” We sense the growth is also the poet’s.

Because the landscape Neve-Midbar shares so thoroughly and lovingly is Israel, each day and place also echoes with the past. In this poem, she mentions the caves with their centuries, as well as the monks. Biblical figures and Jewish ritual infuse the book. Few pieces of land feel so spiritually resonant for so many, so historically peopled, so chronicled. Which is also why it remains so contested.

Salaam of Birds contains poems written during war. The title poem is an epistolary prose sequence that serves as a coda to the book, initiated under rocket fire. The poem presents as a series of letters to “Marvin,” dated in 2014. I know that the man being addressed is Marvin Bell, Neve-Midbar’s advisor at the Pacific University low-residency MFA program where I first met her. She wrote to him one semester while she sheltered from missiles with some of her children as her son went to battle. Even shaped into a poem and several years later, her words shiver with the immediacy of violence. Young death stalks the whole collection.

That is why I also chose to feature “Memorial.” I find its imagery and language stunning. I’m most struck, though, by Neve-Midbar’s poetic choice not to tell us who is being mourned, how they died, or where. Her strategy echoes the poem’s deep empathy.

“When I name names, am I counting doves or darkness?” the speaker asks, and we can imagine this as a question for all of humanity, convinced of the necessity to sacrifice for the justness of some cause or for vengeance. Because I was curious whether this poem related to a specific episode, I asked Neve-Midbar to recollect its genesis. Her answer, which you can read in her Poet’s Note if you haven’t already, surprised me. “Memorial” began with her thoughts after the South Carolina church murders.

So, the opening scene at the lectern could be in the United States after a white-nationalist terrorist incident. We don’t learn this from the poem, and we don’t need to. Similarly, we don’t learn from the poem whether the speaker is Israeli or Palestinian. This underlines what we do learn from the poem, with lines like “…all of us greedy for some further fury”—our commonality.

The decision to let the mourners and victims remain unnamed in time and space makes the poem as inclusive as the feeling behind it. Neve-Midbar’s collection calls on us to step through the mirror into the daily life of others by letting us see into, hear, feel, taste, and touch hers.

Is “Memorial” political? I remember Marvin Bell’s advice during my own MFA studies about writing political poems: You must not forget the poetry. This is poetry with all of its power. We can be on any “side” and still embrace the humanity and ferocious longing for peace in these final gestures. These lines give me chills:

Lay with me back to back. Don’t you see
we are two sides of the same hair?
Please, we can do this together.
You hold the amulet while I
carry you across the divide.



Contributing Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson—Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Amazon, Red Dragonfly Press, or Small Press Distribution here. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize.



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