Rachel Hadas

Rachel Hadas

Rachel Hadas is a poet, professor, essayist and translator. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, essays, and translations. Most recent publications include [poetry] The River of Forgetfulness (Wordtech Communications, 2006); Laws (2004); Indelible (2001); Halfway Down the Hall: New & Selected Poems (1998) — a finalist for the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Empty Bed (1995); The Double Legacy (1995); Mirrors of Astonishment (1992); and Living in Time (1990).

Rachel has studied various disciplines at Radcliffe, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins, and Princeton University. She began at Radcliffe College where she studied classics, graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. 1969. Rachel received her M.A. (poetry) from Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University. She spent four years in Greece between college and graduate school, and the traces and influences of the classics are evident in much of her published work.

Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department of the Newark, New Jersey campus of Rutgers University, and has taught occasional courses in literature and writing at both Columbia and Princeton. She is currently a Board of Governors Professor of English. Rachel has also served as faculty of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

About her work, the poet Grace Schulman has written, “The poems are urgent, contemplative, and finely wrought. In them, antiquity illuminates the present as Rachel Hadas finds in ordinary human acts ‘what never was and what is eternal.'”

Among her honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

 

 
Return

Dark of the moon   pang of return
Return of language   language of light
Light of memory   memory of youth
Youth gone south   south to the sea
Slapping the wall   wall where a white
Tomcat prowls   and sniffs for milk
Milky dawn   day of departure
Departing, look   up at the sky
Back at the sea   what else to do?
I must be going   I must be giving
I had forgotten   how to take
But here I take   the island back
Even as I turn   my back on it
And sail away   dark of the moon

 
Modern Greek 101

These phrases, once lodged in your memory,
Will help you find your way, I guarantee,
Through any social circumstance in Greek,
Each Scylla and Charybdis when you speak.
All will work in any situation,
Plug up gaps in any conversation,
Politely answer any salutation.
It’s surely no coincidence all four
In different ways purport to reassure.
So get your notebooks out, for here they are.

Siga-siga first: taki it easy, slow
Down. Ti na kanome: what can we do?
Then pirazi: it doesn’t matter.
(See how our repertory’s getting faster?)
Last but not least en daxi: all right, okay.
These are the crucial ones, and this is why:
Whichever of the four you chance to use
Shrugs with a weary grace you can’t refuse,
An attitude for which there is no name
In English, though we try it all the same,
Not understanding what we imitate:
Mild acquiescence in the face of Fate,
Not dialectical and not dramatic,
But unassuming, formulaic, phatic.

One boiling morning I remark, “It’s hot.”
The aproned landlord shrugged: “It matters not.”
”what a pretty evening,” I once said.
“What can we do?” a blck-clad crone replied.
Reverse these scraps of dialogue: you too
Can answer anything that’s said to you—
Though said is not the word so much as sung:
A whole philosophy rolls off the tongue.

The River of Forgetfulness (Wordtech Communications, 2006)

 
Neolithic Figurine, Spetses Archaeological Museum

Winged, bronze, two inches tall or less;
embodied stillness brimming with repose;
you have no feet, but at your pedestal
lie a row of slim bronze objects all
like you unlabelled: skewer, spoon and snake,
what looks to be a zipper pull; fishhook—
each clearly fashioned by a human hand
for some earthly purpose. But you stand
perpendicularly poised for flight,
arms ready to reach out and wings to beat.

Pawn-sized messenger and angel too,
your energy compressed inside of you
for two millennia, with what look to be
both tenderness and generosity
(the tiny tilted head, the earnest gaze)—
I trust you, though you haven’t any face.
Though you could fit into a toddler’s hand,
I write in the belief you understand,
and greet you, goddess, there in your glass case
upstairs in a Spetsiot captain’s house.
Where were you on this island before that?
Before, before … how many summer’s heat?
June, July, August: centuries go by.
From your corner can you see the sky?

The River of Forgetfulness (Wordtech Communications, 2006)

 
Three roads

And on your right the place where three roads met.
Look down—the valley, there.
We passengers to Delphi crane our necks.
No one can say precisely where.

As well as roadside shrines and blossoming trees,
the highway winding round the mountain is
dotted with decisions and transitions,
some totally invisible, some less.

Look hard enough: it’s possible to see
more than the season shifting stealthily.
Back home my brother slowly, slowly walks
toward the subterranean river; takes

an oar … the oracle? We’ll be there soon.
No one can predict precisely when.
Silence seals each mortal afternoon.

The River of Forgetfulness (Wordtech Communications, 2006)

 
Triolets In the Argolid

Return

The taste is strong as ever,
figs and cheese and wine.
I recall each savor;
the taste is strong as ever,
even if it will never
be quite so fresh again.
The taste is strong as ever,
figs and cheese and wine.

Obverse

Two sides of one coin
love and worry seem.
Both of them are mine:
two sides of one coin,
two links on one chain,
left/right of one brain?
Two sides of one coin
love and worry seem.

Metamorphosis

Why does transformation
sneak up on us so?
In life, not just narration,
why does transformation
creep up—yes, in slow motion,
inexorably, though?
Why does transformation
sneak up on us so?

Technology

Where are worry beads
now people have cell phones
clamped against their heads?
Where are worry beads?
Ancient human needs,
new millennium;
where are worry beads?
People have cell phones.

Fortress

Before we reach the top,
street sounds fade away.
Many steep steps up
before we reach the top;
just when did they stop?
Silence; scalding sky.
Before we reach the top,
street sounds fade away.

Dactylic

Tino’s counting on his fingers.
Syllables and rhyme;
a faint Sapphic cadence lingers.
Tino’s counting on his fingers.
Generations o singers
keeping, conquering time.
Tino’s counting on his fingers;
syllables and rhyme.

And All the Ways Grew Dark

Sunset. We ride the bus
through the Argolid
skirting an abyss.
Sunset: we ride the bus,
pondering, each of us,
thoughts written down, not said.
Sunset: we ride the bus
through the Argolid.

The River of Forgetfulness (Wordtech Communications, 2006)

 
Twenty-two, Married, on a Samian beach

The world was to be walking side by side
and hand in hand and sleeping curved as spoons
and raking sea-wet pebbles
with twenty toes and gazing
at the sun slipping into the Aegean
and the afterglow. Contrast the wrench
and aftershock of stoppage: fast, then slow.

Since world meant future,
world enough and time
meant one thing and the same:
seconds to set down and years to live through.

The River of Forgetfulness (Wordtech Communications, 2006)

 
Last Afternoon in Athens

The call at the cluttered apartment
of the old friend who’s still living;

the stroll past the shuttered house
of the other old friend who’s dead;

both visits done, it’s all downhill from here
(stairs for me banisters for you)

from the mountain to the heart of town
where to kill time before the sun goes down

we drop in on an earthly paradise—
the National Garden. Here a crone

feeding hordes of cats shrieks Go away!
Leave them alone! They’re hungry—let them eat!

Obediently we sink into a seat
from whose respectful distance we can watch

tigers, tabbies, tortoise shells, black, white,
tiny, lordly, dive and yawn

and stretch in striped sunlight.
We neither talk nor look away

from this teeming nursery. Dusty leaves,
the paths, the bench, the stones

look soiled and ancient, glazed with knowing sun.
Still speechless, we stand up in unison.

Indelible (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)

 
Samian Morning, 1971

The gypsy loomed in the open door of morning,
bulky, unsmiling, her head wrapped in a scarf.
Her hand was out. She wanted something from me.

I don’t remember whether I faced her fully.
Had I looked her straight in the eye and then beyond her,
I would have seen the Aegean like a frame.
If I had looked far enough over her right shoulder,
I would have seen Patmos lifting in a strip of light
from the horizon’s lip. Over her left
shoulder I could have craned and seen Ionia.
But both these radiant regions were blocked off
not only by the figure in the doorway.

Where had she come from? Behind the house was a field.
Beyond this square green field—it was a wheatfield—
were a bent fig tree and a low stone wall
and a whitewashed hut like a gatehouse. Behind the wall
a road wound north away from the coast to the village.
She could have just walked up Poseidon Street
to ours, the last house in the row. But I think
she came around from the side, the back, the North.
I used to think the wind blew straight from Russia.
Turkey was left, the East,
and right and West was the great granite mountain.

My stinginess and resentment balanced by shame,
I gave the gypsy something I remember
probably only because she scowled and reproached me.
Whether she came back a second time
to try again, another woman with her,
is wavering conjecture. But I see all right
the thing I gave her: bright yellow, cashmere,
still with its Saks Fifth Avenue label,
a sweater someone had given me, no doubt,
for the same reason I tried to palm it off
on the gypsy, who rejected it with scorn.
The sweater was marred. A stain like a port wine birthmark
splotched the front. Who would wear such a thing?
Not I. Not she. I recall the botched transaction
but have to supply the shining of the sea,
brilliant backdrop to the piebald life
I must have turned back to after the gypsy, grumbling,
took herself away from the open door,
though I do not know if I turned to it with relief.

Indelible (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)

 
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All poems on this post: © Rachel Hadas
Published with the permission of Rachel Hadas