light lowering in diminished sevenths by Judt Kronenfeld

Judy Kronenfeld
Author photo: Lynn L. Thomas  
It is good that Judy Kronenfeld’s light lowering in diminished sevenths is being reissued in a revised second edition. What makes this prize-winning book especially memorable is its rare combination of intelligence and passion, reverence and iconoclasm. It is a glorious reminiscence, a clear-headed examination of the effects of time, an elegiac collection, dedicated to the memory of the author's parents.. It has been much praised by a wide variety of reviewers. Molly Peacock has noted that “Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths gives us Judy Kronenfeld at the height of her powers. In this generous collection of poems of memory and aging—her finest work yet—Kronenfeld writes with that sensuous cherishing of the world savored only by those who sense how easy it is to lose. Because of her delight, the poems, even when they don’t mention light at all, are filled with clear air, clarity of thought, and the complementary radiances of remembrance and imagination.” And this from Maurya Simon: “In her aptly titled new volume, Judy Kronenfeld lavishes upon the reader her profound and illuminating meditations, songs, laments, and odes exploring mortality and the vicissitudes of aging. Her ‘ghost words’ reenact her childhood memories and adult visions, which arise with haunting clarity and verisimilitude. With consummate skill, capacious feeling, and keen-eyed intelligence, Kronenfeld apprehends and renders ‘the terrible world’ as being awash both in darkness and possibility, while offering the reader astonishing moments of self-knowledge, awe, gratitude, and reverence. In this lyrical and memorable collection, the poet also pays homage to the resilience of the family, and she honors the solemn or unexpected rituals that sustain its members. In so doing, Kronenfeld delves deeply into the greatest mysteries of the heart and spirit—wherein loss and longing, suffering and transcendence, coexist—and delivers, through the doubled lenses of wisdom and tenderness, a world shimmering beyond death’s doors.” For his part, Christopher Buckley praises the way “Judy Kronenfeld’s poems celebrate the world. Her eye for detail, exact and first-hand, coupled with her daring and intelligent arrangement of events, accomplish what poems at their best should—they cherish and preserve our lives so that we might find meaning in them alone—if we have to—as they shine in memory. By preserving her mid-century childhood—and further back and even more poignantly, the lives of her parents—Kronenfeld gives us poetry that makes sense of our little time and place on earth. These poems, steeped in the past, recapture the light of those lives and give us all some reprieve from loss as they master wonderfully ‘that ordinary happiness.’ ”
Kronenfeld cover
Cover art: “Upper West Side Apartment Buildings at Dusk” by Andy Sotiriou,
from the Riser Collection/Getty Images

 

 

Judy Kronenfeld was born in New York City and educated at Smith College and at Stanford University, where she received a Ph.D. in English. She is the author of two other full-length poetry collections—Shadow of Wings (Bellflower Press, 1991) and Shimmer (WordTech Editions, 2012)—as well as two poetry chapbooks, the most recent being Ghost Nurseries (Finishing Line, 2005). She has also published criticism and reviews on Renaissance subjects in many scholarly journals, and a critical study, King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance (Duke, 1998). Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Women’s Review of Books, Poetry International, Natural Bridge, The Pedestal, Cimarron Review, Calyx, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Hiram Poetry Review; they have also been published in several anthologies including Red, White and Blues: Poets on the Promise of America (Iowa, 2004); Blue Arc West: An Anthology of California Poets (Tebot Bach, 2006); Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease (Kent State University Press, 2009); and Love over 60: An Anthology of Women’s Poems (Mayapple Press, 2010). Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The Madison Review, The North American Review, Literary Mama, Under the Sun, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and other publications. She has taught English literature at UC Riverside, UC Irvine and Purdue University, and having recently retired from the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside, is currently Lecturer Emerita in that Department. She is an Associate Editor of the online poetry magazine, Poemeleon. Judy Kronenfeld lives in Riverside, California, with her anthropologist husband. They are the parents of a grown son and daughter. Please visit her new website: http://judykronenfeld.com.

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BOOK STATISTICS

ISBN 978-1-936482-19-1

Copyright © 2012 by Judy Kronenfeld

6" x 9" paperback, 128 pages

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SAMPLE POEMS

DISAPPEARED DOWN DARK WELLS,
AND STILL FALLING

For all the lucky accidents:
a friend’s dog butted off the mountain
by a sheep, to sail a thousand feet down
to the bottom of a canyon, shake himself,
and crawl laboriously up, only a little dazed;

the baby chortling in his car seat
on the roof of the car where his mother left him,
until, run down by an alarmed crowd
of gesticulating shoppers, she jumped out, snatched him up,
and gunned off again;

for all the anecdotes of luck
scooping up life from the edge
of the bottomless pit of if only I had
like a shortstop a line drive
to the roar of the crowd—
doing the kazatski, balanced on top
of the spinning world;

for all the dazzling same-day luck,
the ungod pokes someone in the chest
with his bony finger—no ifs ands
or buts—who crosses in that tiny instant
an unmarked border, and is

lost to us, like all
who weep on the stairs
or huddled in doctors’ offices,
choking on their words,

because when we whisper to them,
we must feel the tongue dancing
free in the mouth,

and when we slowly turn from them—
who look up now
only for their own kind—
the bounce in our lucky
heels.

 

OUR LITTLE LIFE

All night the dream of being
lost flickers: I gnaw my nails
to the quick of memory; stumble, shine
a light on the faces of other sleepers,
who are they? Who am I?

Yet when I wake, about to lose
the dream of being lost,
I circle and circle its dimming
glow, curl down in the traces
like a dog in his favorite spot;

I want to immerse myself again,
in even the blankest,
the most opaque dream
frozen on one frame—

an infant dreamer
dreaming myself
half-asleep in the warm bath,
until the water spins
in a vortex out.

 

SUMMER AUTUMNAL

I can barely remember the porch,
the dusty hydrangeas crisping
brown at the edges—

And upstairs, our mothers
in the studios with kitchenettes,
the two rooms with ocean view,
on hands and knees scrubbing
the sloping linoleum.

There were cupolas, I think,
on the clapboard Victorian,
tiered like a huge wedding-cake,
like nineteenth-century
skirts.

And underneath the petticoats,
as if lifting an edge—
on salt-aired days in August
when the sky was swept with
cirrus, and wind flung
the sun’s warmth, after
we’d ocean-splashed while our mothers
surveyed, after we’d been bathed
at home, all our baby folds
talcumed—we children crept
into the grey gloom of the encircling porch—

Someone had thought of playing doctor. The patient
lay obediently stomach-down, on the wooden bench
that hugged the house. It was almost cold
under the deep overhang. The selected instrument—
crayon or pencil—a flick of short skirt, a glimpse
of grey-white panties and pink cheek, a search—

Then the instrument lowered like the thermometer
we all dreaded. The thrill was parental.
But it never touched. It plunged up and down,
in air. We giggled, flushed.

On the path our grey-faced fathers,
come for the weekend, newspapers
folded, approached, and we leapt up
and were swept into their arms.

 

VISITING HOUR

My mother’s teeth lie in their little
plastic dish, though she insists
she’s wearing them, and waves away my hand,
impatient with my obstinacy. She weeps
because she is lost and the hospital staff
can’t place her. She does not know
her own address. She has no money with her.
Her fear is naked
as her stool in the commode I steady
while she strains, my other hand on the poor
ravaged skull, its fluff of down
all white under the dyed brown.

Outside all the birds have fled.

Her wheelchair knocks against the dock of her bed.

 

MY MOTHER’S POTS

came from Woolworth’s
or Kresge’s,

aluminum with tiny metal
handles to burn
my hands on,

bottoms dimpled as a baby’s,
round as rub-a-dub-dub
and scrubbed for fifty years

until they shone,
and wiped dry
with diaper-soft cloths
and gently berthed.

On holidays,
rocking and churning,
the flotilla of them
jostled forth.

When she grew ill
and barnacles of black
began to roost in
their dimpled grooves,

I could have broken
the oarlocks, I could have
let them rot

but, to my surprise,
I scoured them clean
and seaworthy again,

as if—released for her last
passage on the sea-surge,
like an Anglo-Saxon king—
she could clasp her shining,
spotless pots.

 

TONIGHT, THE DEAD

whose names are water
in water, howl at my door
like locked-out dogs,
asking for love, love,
endless gratitude, inviolate memory,
justice, what they deserve,

though they are more forgettable
than packed away clothing too good
to throw out, unredeemed keys,
obligatory visits, kisses,
though their names
on the mausoleum’s drawers of ashes
are like labels on files assembled
so they can be forgotten—remaindered,
to the shredders.

And when I go to the door they stop
whimpering, suddenly as kids
whose mothers give in to their yowls
for dessert. They are coyly expectant,
camped out in my grave yard.

Aunt Edith sits splayed
on the ground, arranging
her hair, grass in her mouth.
“I’ve never worn it this long before,”
she says, her voice plump with smiles;
“You don’t remember, but I do,” she says,
“how your mother sprung closed the Murphy bed,
and you in it!”—she snuggles her squirrel hands
to her chest—“and I heard a little squeak, ‘Ee-ee,’
and I crept around calling out ‘Ee-ee’
is here. I saved you. ‘Ee-ee,’
you called, ‘Ee-ee.’ ”

A few rows back, unhurriedly,
my father’s oldest brother, Ben, crosses
his arms and plants one foot
on his expensive marble tombstone, as if
on a ’49 Packard’s running board.

His shroud falls open
at the chest, where golden chains
in graduated sizes encircle the bone.
He sees me. He turns his head.
He likes the silence of the dead. Now I
must come to him—“Beloved Eldest Brother
of T and P and M , whom he saved
from the Nazis, and staked when their idiocy
led them to bankruptcy; Beloved Uncle
of R and B and N (the conspicuous
absence of my name), who made no complaint
when he lifted their lips to look at their teeth,
knowing they wouldn’t be alive, etc. etc.”
And in gold letters, BENJAMIN.

And Manny and Mimm and Rmm and Mmm,
thick as leaves,
waving and drowning at the far shores
of oblivion, while the unclosed stories
of their lives still play,
like drive-in movies
you glimpse from the freeway:
shadows you first think are
water, trees, as they slide and pour off—
though refracted from life,
so you glance back.
No cars in the hollow lot,
the speakers all hanging at their stations,
the mute screen flashing to no-one.

But I am listening, dead ones,
I am listening.

 

YIDDISH KISSES

And another one (as if
the first): reverently, on my hand—
papa the courtier—your walrus
moustache splotchily wet. And
an encore: you miss
my hand in your hand and
kiss your own.

At your luncheon table
in the dementia wing, you’ve clasped
both my hands like prayer
times two above the soup.
Looks like broccoli-cheese, something
inedible. On our right,
a glowering resident twists away
from the looming spoon. Again you touch

my hand to your lips, then deposit
another wet word juicily
on my cheek—not quite missing
my ear—as if to speak
my nickname, katshkele. The papery
dowager on our left tremors down
her spoon and stares: envy? desire?
disgust?

I force-feed you smiles and you
smile back, electric,
and kiss me on the forehead,
pinning there a blue
ribbon for some virtue I’ve
hardly shown—staying but
planning escape.

I stroke your dry, bald head.
It’s almost as if
you’ve grown fur, like the ancient
dog at home—out of his own small
skull, arthritic, shambling
along, stumbling, dropping his
back end, barking let me in!
barking let me out!

I almost wish you were furred.
So easy, so soothing for me,
to stroke your head again.

 

THIS IS NOT A RELIGIOUS POEM

Lying belly-down
on the surgeon’s table,
hands squirreled under my neck,
for a “minor excision”
of a “mildly suspicious”
protuberant nub on my back.
No-one’s chatting. Especially because,
it appears, the anaesthetic’s
not yet working. The surgeon’s getting annoyed,
the way surgeons do when your flesh
doesn’t do what it’s supposed to—
come out neatly, go numb—
and I think he’s about to put the blame
on me. Then the—scalpel—is it? OUCH
—just the idea of it—I’m about
to faint. “Just relax for me now.”
Right. I’m grasping at anything,
anything at all and what pops in my head, Sweet Jesus,
is—Sweet Jesus—suffering on the cross.
A rootless cosmopolitan whose father
escaped the Nazis, now I know
I’ve read too much Christian poetry, too many sermons
in “Puritan Lit,” and “Backgrounds of the Elizabethans,”
not to mention heard too much gospel music. I try
pushing him away, then making his feet swing
à la Monty Python, then I run through all the Hebrew
names of God—at this moment that feels
so extreme, I need to wave some true colors—
Adonai, Jahweh, alias Jehovah. But they mean nameless,
He Who Cannot Be Named. Cold comfort
to know how virtuous are those who shun graven images,
or who understand God is a principle—the incarnation
of the community maybe, like Durkheim says.
The community’s not at home; or at least
not answering their doors. What I want
is an icon—fast. So, guiltily,
I think of him, ashen-grey, bleeding,
Catholic, no less, and now I’m sure
that even the frigging Puritans couldn’t wipe out
the picture of suffering in the mind, whatever Calvin
said about God the Paw being figured as smoke, as cloud,
so we wouldn’t try to see him as a person. Then the moment’s
over; my idolatrous heart
leaps back into my chest.

 

COMPANY IS COMING! COMPANY
IS COMING!

and I am in the kitchen, reincarnating
my mother chopping onions, only I am listening
to The Gypsy Kings, and her music
was clattering pans, and a recitative of talking
to herself while cooking. I am wiping the side
of my oniony hand across my brow,
I am sniffling in because my daughter
is coming, my daughter is coming!
after many months, with her newish
boyfriend (from Morocco!),
and at the door of my mind,
my favorite dead uncle waits like Elijah,
to come in! come in! to breathe
the odors of frying liver and onions
for knish filling (though I am making curry),
to twinkle-eye my long-dead mother and snag
the kid brother’s privilege of the first
and only pre-meal knish, which he’ll hot-potato
from palm to palm, making a great to-do,
breathing out ooh and aah. Behind him my aunt,
elegant and perfumed, swishing in
in chiffon skirts, my cousins, one of whom
has long since disappeared; and in the steamy
kitchen of my mind, my dead father, reluctantly
be-aproned and conscripted for k.p. by mom
grumbles, “Oh, Stella! Now what?”
and grins. What a sense of occasion they have,
I have! my mother leading, her kinky hair
whipped into a steel wool cloud by her
exertions, wiping her hands on her apron,
lifting her cheek to accept everyone’s greeting,
my uncle bending to bestow my gift of Friendship
Garden bubble bath and talc, with a fanfare
of moustache tickles, my cousins
offering Barton’s Bonbonniere kosher-for-
Passover truffles. What a sense of
occasion.

I think of them, in history’s little pocket
of reprieve, mastering that ordinary
happiness, just a few years
after my father returned in his terrifying
army boots, a few years after my uncle returned,
head-wounded, from France.
I think of us passing the rice tonight,
drinking ice water, breathing the air-conditioned
air, toasting our hospitable ancestors
tucked in their quiet plots, while
Lebanon ignites, Iraq roars, and bitter
soup seethes under flashlight beams
in blasted kitchens, over sticks rubbed together
by the side of the devastated road—Here they are!
I am kissing my daughter, embracing
her friend. Take off your coats!
Sit down! Sit down!

Oh, all you new ghosts crowding around
my shoulders, who wanted nothing more
than to sit at your families’ tables,
come in, too. We are
living. Help us
think of you.

 

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