Tag Archives: poetry

Writing Prompts 51-60

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WritingPrompts

These are all original writing prompts. Writing prompts © 2019 by Alexandria Szeman.
All rights reserved. No content may be copied, excerpted, or distributed
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The Butcher Birds

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Each morning as we walk the farm’s perimeter,
we find victims of the butcher birds: grasshoppers,

beetles, lizards, frogs, snakes, mice, impaled on cactus
spines, thorns, or barbed wire. Sometimes we see one of the

birds itself, perched on a branch or fence-line, the black
mask around its eyes and hooked beak resembling the

masks of my childhood heroes. My daughter doesn’t
like the look of it, and she doesn’t want it to

shriek: she wants it to sing like other birds. She can’t
understand why I won’t let her take down the bird’s

victims. While I try to explain about nature’s
laws, about marking territory and mating

rituals and survival of the fittest, she
keeps on trying to grab hold of the barbed wire, the

cactus spines, or the thorns, trying to free the dead.
One day, when we come across a grasshopper, still

alive though impaled, his kicking legs frantic, my
daughter becomes hysterical, not believing

there is no chance for him to survive. For the rest
of the day, she is inconsolable. She sobs

over her mashed potatoes at dinner, and then
buries her face against my wife’s neck and shoulder.

In the night, her cries wake us. The murmur of my
wife’s voice, woven with my daughter’s sobs, reaches me

through the walls like the hum of my father’s voice through
the walls of my childhood home in the summer of

1969 when young boys from small towns all
over the country were coming home in boxes.

Others came home without arms, without legs, without
any light in their eyes. We thought the ones who came

home in one piece were the lucky ones, but even
they were broken, pierced by butcher birds on the far

side of the world. That was when my brother came home,
right after I turned thirteen, and we thought the war

was over for us. But my brother was damaged
in ways no one could see, impaled on his jungle

memories.  One rainy morning, he went behind
the barn, put his pistol to his head, and slipped free

of whatever had caught him. I was the one who
found him. My father collapsed under the weight of

his tears, my mother rarely spoke afterward, and I
learned to hold my breath, to feel my way around sharp

corners, to keep watch during all the long dark nights.
When my wife comes back after soothing our daughter,

she says I mustn’t take the child with me when I
walk the farm, I must protect her from the butcher

birds’ atrocities, I must check all the barbed wire
and the thorn bushes around the house, and I must

remove the dead. All the dead. She doesn’t want our
daughter to grow up traumatized, and she thinks that,

somehow, I can protect her. The next morning at
breakfast, our daughter seems herself again, singing

to her doll between bites of oatmeal, twirling her
dark hair into ringlets around her finger. When

I finish my coffee and try to leave without
her, she objects. When my wife tries to explain, our

daughter cries and stomps her foot. My wife urges me
to go on alone. I am halfway across the

yard when the door slams, and I turn to see my wife
on the porch, holding our daughter by the waist. She

is so angry, our five-year-old daughter, caught in
that soft, maternal vise. No words could describe the

desperation of her anger, the helplessness
of her fury, her face contorted with tears and

shrieks, her tiny arms straining toward me, her weightless
legs kick, kick, kicking the heavy and blameless air.

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Read some of my other poems,
and excerpts from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse

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He has everything he needs set up in the back yard: two triangular UPS shipping tubes held together by duct tape in the middle, with ...
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Portrait of the Poet as a Woman

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The Lies Our Parents Tell Us

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While the Music Lasts: Poem to My Younger Self

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images copy

Portrait of the Poet as a Woman: The Creative Process

If you don't count the short stories about vampires, shrinking girls, and monsters that I wrote -- and tried to sell as little books -- ...
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The Butcher Birds

The Butcher Birds

Each morning as we walk the farm's perimeter, we find victims of the butcher birds: grasshoppers, beetles, lizards, frogs, snakes, mice, impaled on cactus spines, ...
Continue reading

© 2019 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
May not be reprinted or excerpted without written permission.
Please do not support piracy of Intellectual Property.
This is a new poem: it does not appear in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs

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Portrait of the Poet as a Woman: The Creative Process

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If you don’t count the short stories about vampires, shrinking girls, and monsters that I wrote — and tried to sell as little books — when I was twelve, then my writing career technically began with poetry. If you’ve never written poetry, you might wonder where the poet gets his ideas. If you have written anything creative, you know that the ideas are always out there. It’s the getting them down on paper so they make sense to other people that’s difficult. Though my poems eventually became so long and contained so much narrative that I eventually switched to fiction, even the reviewers of my first novel said that I wrote like a poet.

Originally, my two poetry collections were much smaller and were part of my Creative Writing dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives. Eventually, while trying the get the book accepted for publication, the dissertation grew into two books because I continued writing poems. Love in the Time of Dinosaurs included any of my poems that were not on The Holocaust, and Where Lightning Strikes contained all my Holocaust poems.

My earliest successful poems, both in terms of positive reactions from readers and in getting published in university or literary  journals, were those that dealt with family and relationships. They eventually ended up in Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, in the section called “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” — named after one of the poems. In those poems, though they contained some aspects of my private life, I adopted a persona of an unnamed woman who was struggling  to make sense of relationships, family, marriage, divorce, and children that were not her own.

I was in a relationship when I wrote these poems, and the man had children from a previous marriage, but we weren’t living together. When I wrote it, while living in my one-room apartment, and it won a prize. The judge who awarded the prize thought it was memoir. At the Awards ceremony, he asked exactly how many children I had. I told him I had none.

He asked how long I’d been married.

I told him I was single.

“But you live in a big house, at least, right?” he said.

I told him I lived in a tiny apartment.

With obvious surprise on his face, he told me he would’ve given me an even “bigger prize than the Grand Prize” if he’d known I wasn’t married nor had any children and lived in a tiny apartment when I’d written it, just for “writing a relationship poem that made [him] think it was memoir, albeit a very well-done memoir.”

Later, one of my friends was so moved by the relationship poems in general, and by “Portrait of the Poet as a Woman” in particular, that she painted The Yellow Teapot in its honor and gave me the painting as a gift.

Barbara Walker's artwork of the "yellow teapot", inspired by my poem "Portrait of the Poet as A Woman," from LOVE IN THE TIME OF DINOSAURS_1024

Portrait of the Poet as a Woman

Your second wife calls to say that the children get
ill after you bring them home Sunday night it must

be something they eat what do I feed them something
dreadful? She calls collect when she’s away. If I

ask who’s calling she says, This is his wife. If I
don’t ask, she says, This is his wife. Sometimes she cries.

I want to feel for her pain, but loving a man
is penance enough. In the yellow tea kettle,

the water steams. Holding the phone to my ear, I
sit at the table with this morning’s dishes. At

breakfast, your youngest son decided to hate the
toast, the jam, the world, me. I wanted to hold him —

the hands covering his face seemed so small, but his
older brother’s stare fixed me, as if in a bad

photograph: off-center, one hand reaching out, the
other almost tipping my teacup, mouth open,

staring straight into the camera. Lot’s wife stilled in
faltering. Pinned without wriggling to the wall. One

of the children slams the bathroom door. The water
steams, without whistling, in the yellow tea kettle.

Last night, one of your children cried out in sleep. The
wood of the hall was cool on my bare feet, and

my nightgown brushed my legs. You were already there
in his room. I stood near the open window and

listened to the hum of your deep voice, woven with
your child’s answering sobs. The white lace curtains brushed

against my flattened belly, aching to be child-
swollen, to share you with something of me instead.

The water steams and she reminds me again that
I have moved into her house. I crumple some burnt

toast with my fingers. Outside, two brown sparrows hop
together in the dried leaves, talking bird-somethings.

~~~

Back to Top

Holiday

Sometimes my Poet-persona had two step-children, sometimes three, but she always felt isolated from them, excluded from their world and their love, no matter how much she loved them. Much of that may have been because I never felt loved as a child myself, but it also may have been due to the fact that, since I wasn’t married to the man with whom I was in a relationship, my status was legally undefined.

Is the girlfriend allowed to tell the children what to do? Is she allowed to discipline the children who aren’t hers? Even married couples with children from previous relationships have to consider these things.

I created other poems narrated by this woman Poet, in which she attempted to emotionally connect with the children who were not hers, as well as with the husband who, technically, was hers. “Holiday” was one of the poems that came from my own experiences but which was transmuted into the Poet’s life.

The dream she has was, in fact, a real dream of mine: it was that very same dream that inspired this poem. Even though, at the time, I didn’t consciously realize what the dream was trying to tell me about my own relationship, I was still able to create poetry from the dream. By the time I was finished with the poem, I understood enough about the dream — and my relationship — to find exactly the right epigraph for it.

 

Holiday

 Day followed day, and this and that
Seemed to be happening
As always, but through it all
Already loneliness was seeping.

Anna Ahkmatova

 

I pour myself another glass of wine, then lounge
on the wicker couch of the sun-porch, my bare feet

propped on an old milking stool, surrounded by texts
on the psychology of dreams. Late this morning

your first wife phoned, from where it is not raining: your
three children huddled around, chirping, while the cat

lapped milk from their cereal bowls. Outside the grey
rain shimmers, chanting the glossary of terms I

have yet to memorize. Thirteen-year-old Laura
eases into the Bentwood across from me, rocks

slowly. Her brothers pirouette onto the porch,
warbling ninth-day-of-rain-it-never-rains-when-we’re-

in-school songs. I reward them with cookies, so they
dance away to the kitchen, crooning rain-songs for

each other. Last night the youngest stole two-thirds of
your gin-and-tonic, inquired of your mother:

Barbara, when you get drunk, do things look all different?
Beethoven drifts out from behind the door of the

room she’s sharing with your daughter. Your typewriter
clacks as Laura strokes the cover of one of my

books. Last night I dreamed I was swimming and couldn’t
see land anywhere at all.
When her brothers

bounce onto the porch and propose rain-dancing, I
send them to you. Two minutes later, the back door

thuds, and muted squeals float back to us. Your clacking
chorus resumes. I got real tired and called and

called to some man to save me but he was talking
to this mermaid. He didn’t hear me so I guess

I drowned. I present her one of the dream books; she
snuggles with it in a distant room. I wander

the summer cottage, open a second bottle
of wine, memorize your sons in glittering pools.

Last night I, too, dreamt: I was unrolling faded
oriental carpets onto scuffed wood floors. Three

sparrows fluttered down, whispering among themselves.
Their words swelled, joined hands, became the cars of a train

yanking away from an abandoned platform. My
legs lumbered after. The sparrows darted down,

snared the ticket from my extended hand, raced each
other to giggling clouds. The ticket escaped, spun

itself into a whirling dervish, scattering
the clouds and birds. Then I roamed through some crumbling old

house, breaking open all the curtains, unlatching
windows. You followed around behind, closing them.

~~~

Back to Top

The Toast

I don’t recall exactly when I wrote “The Toast,” but I’m sure I was beginning to suspect that the man in my life was being unfaithful, despite his denials. Later, after I discovered that, for the final year of our eight-year relationship, he’d been having an affair with my best friend, who was married with two young children, I left him, changed my phone number, moved, and never answered his letters begging me to forgive him and to just talk to him and listen to his side of what happened.

His side?

I didn’t need to listen to anyone else’s side.

The pain and the grief had been too much for me to bear: the woman he had been involved with had, metaphorically and emotionally, died.

I was the survivor, and I wanted nothing to do with a man who defined “love” like that.

The Poet persona, however bitter, stayed with her unfaithful husband, and I got a series of good poems out of exploring the betrayal and pain of infidelity. One of the poems dealing with those issues, “The Toast,” later won a prize.

Though I don’t know if I ever would have gained the ironic tone of the poet had I stayed in my own relationship, I know that leaving that unfaithful man after eight years certainly improved my writing.

The Toast

To God,
Who did not save us.

(after a poem by
Anna Ahkmatova)

Let’s drink a toast to this dreadful old house, filled with
lost ghosts who come every night to roam around the

downstairs rooms, their limp ghost-hair straying across their
gloomy ghost-eyes. Let’s drink to all the empty rooms

upstairs, meant for an absolute infestation
of tousle-haired, rosy-cheeked children, but housing

instead only walls of books, empty as our eyes
at the breakfast table when the drinks of the night

before have deserted us, leaving us only
each other. Let’s toast the sons your scorned first wife hid

in Italy: your just and deserved punishment
for requiring someone younger, but for which you

never pardoned the new wife. Or let’s toast that faint
stirring in my flattened belly — only once, long

before you were free to claim it. Let’s raise our glass
to the clacking and clanking of your manual

typewriter in the middle of the night, and to
mine, which has been holding its electric tongue for

weeks, except to murmur the names in your frieze of
discarded women whenever I try to write

about something other than the space in the bed
between us, something other than our excuses

for not touching. And let’s not forget to drink to
nineteen-year-old Seraphina in your fiction

writing class who called the house Saturday morning
and asked for you by first name. Let’s drink to the God

who plucked us from our separate lives that last summer
your second wife visited her family in France,

molded us together in His callused palm, clamped
His heavy fingers like bars around us, and laughed.

~~~

I hope you’ve you enjoyed the poems as well as some of the background information on how I got inspired to write them.

c

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Read excerpts from
Love in the Time of Dinosaurs,
new poems, and related posts

Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse

Auggie Vernon and the Eclipse

He has everything he needs set up in the back yard: two triangular UPS shipping tubes held together by duct tape in the middle, with ...
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Field Trip to the Serpent Mound

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Once again our professor reminds us that we have not come here to see the Serpent Mound but to see the geological formations beside it, ...
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Holiday

Holiday

  Day followed day, and this and that Seemed to be happening As always, but through it all Already loneliness was seeping. Anna Ahkmatova I ...
Continue reading
Portrait of the Poet as a Woman

Portrait of the Poet as a Woman

Your second wife calls to say that the children get ill after you bring them home Sunday night it must be something they eat what ...
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Should, Should Not

Should, Should Not

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The Lies Our Parents Tell Us

The Lies Our Parents Tell Us begin in childhood: you're not dumb, you were not an accident, the sight of you doesn't make us sick, ...
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To God, Who did not save us. (after a poem by Anna Ahkmatova) Let’s drink a toast to this dreadful old house, filled with lost ...
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While the Music Lasts: Poem to My Younger Self

While the Music Lasts: Poem to My Younger Self

For most of us, there is only the unattended Moment… or music heard so deeply That it is not heard at all, but you are ...
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images copy

Portrait of the Poet as a Woman: The Creative Process

If you don't count the short stories about vampires, shrinking girls, and monsters that I wrote -- and tried to sell as little books -- ...
Continue reading
The Butcher Birds

The Butcher Birds

Each morning as we walk the farm's perimeter, we find victims of the butcher birds: grasshoppers, beetles, lizards, frogs, snakes, mice, impaled on cactus spines, ...
Continue reading

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All poems from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs © 1980-2010, 2012, 2013, by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
Yellow Teapot © 1987 by Barbara Walker; private collection of Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.

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Olivia & Lucy do Poetry

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There’s absolutely nothing I can say about this video, where seven-year-old Olivia & Lucy do poetry on Britain’s Got Talent, except to imitate Christopher Walken’s Wowie-Wow-Wow-Wow.

I hope Olivia does get her wish to perform her poem in front of the Queen. I, too, think she might like it. Very much.

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Never Again: Yom HaShoah

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Yom HaShoah
International Holocaust Memorial Day

We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, not only because of the large-scale persecution and execution of the European Jews, but because such hatred, intolerance, and genocide still exist today, against Jews as well as against many other groups of people. Soon, there will be no Holocaust survivors remaining to tell their own stories, so we must prevent this horrific event from becoming “distant history” by telling their stories for them, and by creating, reading, and viewing art which reminds us that “the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

In honor of Yom HaShoah, in memory of my great-grandparents’ family members and all the other Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, in honor of my friend who survived Auschwitz at age 16 – Anna Brunn Ornstein – and all the other survivors of the camps, I present my novel The Kommandant’s Mistress, Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition; and my collection of Holocaust poetry Where Lightning Strikes. Read the descriptions, see the covers, and get the links for each book below.

The Kommandant’s Mistress

The Kommandant's Mistress

Viewing the Holocaust from multiple perspectives, The Kommandant’s Mistress tells the story of a Nazi Kommandant who forces a Jewish inmate to be his “mistress” during the war; first, he tells us his version of events, and then she tells us hers.

Historical Fiction set during Holocaust & World War II
Warning: Adult Content, Violence.

The rumors spread by the Camp’s inmates, other Nazi officers, and the Kommandant’s own family insist that she was his “mistress”, but was she, voluntarily? Told from three different perspectives – that of the formerly idealistic Kommandant, the young Jewish inmate who captivates him, and the ostensibly objective historical biographies of the protagonists – this novel examines one troubling moral question over and over: if your staying alive was the only “good” during the War, if your survival was your sole purpose in this horrific world of the Concentration Camps – whether you were Nazi or Jewish – what, exactly, would you do to survive? Would you lie, cheat, steal, kill, submit?

Flashing back and forth through the narrators’ memories as they recall their time before, during, and after the War, and leading, inevitably, to their ultimate, shocking confrontation, “Szeman’s uncompromising realism and superb use of stream-of-consciousness technique make [this novel] a chilling study of evil, erotic obsession, and the will to survive” (Publishers Weekly).

Winner of the Kafka Prize for “best book of prose fiction by an American woman” (’94) and chosen as one of the New York Times Book Review‘s “Top 100 Books of the Year” (’93), the tales told by the Kommandant, his “mistress”, and their “biographer” will mesmerize and stun you, leaving you wondering, at the conclusion, which, if any, is telling the complete truth about what happened between them.

Revised & Expanded, 20th Anniversary Edition
Includes Discussion Questions & Chapter-by-Chapter Scene Index,
all hyper-linked back to text in novel.

The Kommandant's Mistress

United States
United Kingdom
Canada

Read an excerpt from the novel: Chapter One, or download a free (3-chapter) Sample from Amazon [this link is to the American site: each site offers free samples].

Back to Books

Where Lightning Strikes

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

Where Lightning Strikes includes all Szeman’s Holocaust poetry, from the poems featured in her Ph.D. dissertation Survivor: One Who Survives, to the original versions of “Rachel’s poems” appearing or mentioned in Szeman’s award-winning, critically acclaimed first novel The Kommandant’s Mistress.

The poems in this collection revisit the classic themes that have inspired poets for generations: love, passion, betrayal, doubt, loyalty, despair, faith, and survival — this time in the context of the period before, during, and after the Holocaust with its systematic persecution and extermination of the majority of European Jewry by the Nazi regime.

In this collection, victims are given voices. In “First Day of German Class” a young, teenaged girl unfamiliar with the Nazis and their atrocities in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territory develops a crush on the handsome and enigmatic SS Officer who passes out the yellow Stars of David they must now wear, like a brand, to identify and isolate them from the rest of the population.

In the author’s first Holocaust poem, “Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays for Himself” — excerpted in The Kommandant’s Mistress — a female inmate forced into sexual servitude by the Kommandant of the camp considers suicide as an escape from her personal bondage and from the camp, even as she alternately pities or condemns those “weak enough” to “go to the wire” (grab the electric fence), offering her own suggestions for suicide to “escape” the intolerable situation.

“Survivor: One Who Survives,” the title poem of Szeman’s dissertation, also mentioned in her first novel as one of Rachel’s poems/books, explores the life of a woman who “survived” her experiences in the camps but is having difficulty “living.”

Other disturbing yet lyrical poems trace the Holocaust from the perpetrators’ perspective. We hear Albert Speer’s musings about which “path” to take in the dramatic monologue “Learning the New Language,” in which he initially claims not to understand the “new language” that everyone in the Nazi-regime is speaking, but then begins to practice some of the words himself.

A Warsaw Ghetto guard in “The Dead Bodies That Line The Streets” bitterly complains about all the dead bodies who watch his every movement, whisper behind his back, and generally prevent him from doing his job effectively and from sleeping well.

Early, unnamed versions of Max, of The Kommandant’s Mistress, appear, isolated and morally confused in “Dead: Out of Play Though Not Necessarily Out of the Game,” where he momentarily sees an inmate as a fellow human being.

A younger SS officer finds himself disconcerted and alarmed after he is unexpectedly attracted to one of the female inmates when he sees her dancing ballet to the music floating from his office window in “White on White.”

In the camp itself, one of the Sonderkommando, who were in charge of guiding the Jews to be exterminated into the gas chambers, gives “instructions” to a new member of this chosen group on how to survive the camp, in the grim yet spiritually philosophical “On the Other Hand.” Nursery rhymes and children’s songs take on a deadly, mesmerizing meaning in the stunning, award-winning “Lager-Lieder (Camp Songs).”

The true story of Auschwitz-survivor Anna Brunn Ornstein, who was in the camp as a young girl with her mother, is transformed from Anna’s own stories and related in the disturbing yet moving poem “Sofie and Anna.”

Haunting depictions of abusers’ and survivors’ lives after the war appear in works like “Those Who Claim We Hated Them,” where the narrator insists — not always convincingly — that he, his family, and his colleagues held no contempt whatsoever for the Jews, and only did what was politically and morally required of them so that they themselves might survive the Nazi regime and the War.

In the collection’s title work, “Where Lightning Strikes,” a survivor of the camps who now holds a Professorship likens his encounter with contemporary anti-Semitism to a tree’s being struck by lightning: swift, unexpected, brutal, devastating, but terrifyingly and sadly illuminating.

Szeman’s work speaks to us with clarity and resonance. Her themes, though set, in this collection, around the Holocaust, are universal, encompassing the perpetrators’, victims’, and survivors’ perspectives equally insightfully. Though the line-breaks are syllabic — imitating the arbitrary rigidity of the Nazi persecutions as well as of the concentration camps’ operations — the language flows passionately over the artificially imposed line-breaks and formal stanzas. The poems’ many fans often state that, despite the fact that they may have been initially wary of the subject matter, they were enthralled and shaken by poetry which so clearly, simply, and memorably portrays such complex and harrowing events in human history.

Several poems were part of her dissertation, Survivor: One Who Survives (University of Cincinnati, 1986). Along with her non-Holocaust poetry collection, Love in the Time of Dinosaurs, this volume, Where Lightning Strikes, was unanimously accepted for publication by all outside readers of UKA Press in 2004.

As powerful, unsettling, and lyrical as her first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, these poems will take you on a compelling, chilling, and unforgettable journey into the lives, hearts, and minds of all those who were victims, perpetrators, and survivors of the Holocaust.

1st Prize (1985), 2nd Prize (1984), Grand Prize (1983) University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Prize (anonymous competition), and awarded The Isabel & Mary Neff Fellowship for Creative Writing (1984-85).

Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on the Holocaust

United States
United Kingdom
Canada

Read an excerpt of  three poems, or download a free Sample from Amazon.

Back to Books

Don’t have a Kindle? You can still read the novel with the free Kindle.app for any device you have: Smartphones, Tablets, PC, or Mac.

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