Reviewers have praised the exciting combination of passion, wisdom, and historical perspective present in this new poetry collection by Vera Schwarcz. Sam Hamill writes as follows: “These deceptively simple, direct poems are ‘organic’ in the best sense, drawing deeply from roots in Jewish, Chinese, and other ancient traditions and arising as naturally as a deep breath at the first light of dawn. They are a pleasure.” And Charles Adés Fishman adds this: “Vera Schwarcz’s words are precise brushstrokes that reveal and illuminate what she loves, celebrates, mourns, and desires.  For this poet, the past does not recede into the realm of forgotten history but rushes forward into the present. In this engaging and elegant book, Schwarcz wields the ‘chisel of remembrance’ that, delicately, delicately, finds its way to what is sacred, necessary, and—in the right hands—lasting.” Stanley Moss finds the work of Schwarcz to be “poetry of a very high order, simultaneously informed by English, Chinese, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Hebrew, and Jewish religious tradition. I place English first only because the book is written in English. But I hear Chinese, a language I do not know, as dominant while post-Holocaust emotion is ever-present... This politically charged poetry with its abhorrence of suffering also teaches a profound love of nature, while providing the simple pleasures Auden required.” And this from Michele F. Cooper: “Into the corpus of Vera Schwarcz’s shimmering poetry and meditations comes this outstanding book of new poems, Chisel of Remembrance, which offers the reader a combination telescope/microscope as the poet ponders Chinese, Jewish, and personal culture. Again and again it offers lines I want to read aloud, enjoying their chemical mix of feeling and intellect. You never know what’s around the next corner: an art collector, blinded clocks, wild chirping, alphabets, cherry bark, date fronds, the scent of peace, or Confucius himself... This bright and eloquent book will keep Vera Schwarcz in the light for many years.”

Vera Schwarcz was born and raised in Cluj, Romania, where she began her explorations of poetry in several languages. Her mother tongues include Hungarian and Romanian, with Yiddish, German, Hebrew, Russian and French added along the way. After emigrating to the United States in 1962, she pursued degrees in East Asian studies and history at Vassar, Yale and Stanford.  A member of the first group of exchange scholars to be sent to China in the spring of 1979, she has returned to Beijing repeatedly during the past three decades. All along, her corpus of scholarly writing has been accompanied by the publication of poems in several languages in the United States, Europe and Asia. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Schwarcz has made the quest for remembrance a central theme in all her works. Her writing has been nominated for the National Jewish Book Award and has been accorded several major grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship.  Currently, Vera Schwarcz is serving as Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University and holds the Freeman Chair in East Asian Studies. She lives with her husband and children in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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BOOK STATISTICS

ISBN: 978-0-9817883-2-6
76 pages, 6" x 9" perfect bound

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HANDS

Your hands come to me
veined, strong tools
for shaping wood,
Herman Schwarcz
Sculptor
on your grave.

I never knew you.
You died in bed,
a heart attack.
Jews did not just die
in 1944.
You had a bit of protection,
a local name as candelabra-maker
for shuls, an opera house.

Today, it’s not your name
or the few remaining treasures
left over from the war that greet me—
today your hands come,
planing coarse lumber;
today you stand in sawdust,
working an inlaid mirror,
mind’s eye placing blond shards
of maple alongside red sheaves of cherry
bounded by black mahogany.
Your mirror is a frame
for these words, my tools
for picturing eternity.

THE WHITE BUTTON

My mother,
seventy years ago,
sat between her parents
on a sculptured chair.

The man in the stylish hat
has one arm around the girl
with lace-up shoes, another
on his waist as if the world
were a leisurely place
where he might have taken out
a gold watch, counted the minutes
of daily blessing. His young wife
holds the hand of their daughter,
gazing inward, almost in a dream,
not yet alarmed by war. A wig
on her married head slopes gently
like a sumptuous robe, no armor
against the ravage when it comes.

War comes.

To all her children,
not just this serious girl in a dark sailor suit
with one white button, balanced
between parents she will not be able to save,
war comes. It comes to all her kin

and mine.
I refuse to let them vanish
speechless. I call them back
on this page. I strengthen
my hand around a child with dark eyes
and old fashioned lace-up shoes—

gone the aristocratic chair,
gold chain, hat, wig.
The white button remains,
a pustule of hope.

SCORPIONS FOR LUNCH

Beijing, 1990

To honor foreign guests,
recently purged academicians
are authorized to host a banquet.
We are served scorpions for lunch.
They lie curled up, bellies distended
like pregnant ladies beyond their time.

A grey-haired scholar who remembers more
than the Party’s ever-changing present
urges me to taste the flesh inside the shell:
“It gives one courage!
We Chinese have eaten many scorpions
and yet...”

And yet, the hard life after the latest crackdown
goes on: carrying out offal in old tin cans,
brushing teeth with yesterday’s rice gruel,
sweeping dust from one side of the alley
to the other as a few old ladies gossip
and a young girl, as if in a dream,
cannot resist a smile.

Blood washed off the streets
lingers on the poles
of vegetable carriers;
old men sell sparrows
behind the public bathroom—
a wild chirping serenades the stench.

Scorpions grow stronger,
not men.

LISTENING TO THE UNIVERSE

is no longer a Chinese pastime
since the Communists
shrank language, calling it
simplified…

Once, xian was a word picture
sages sang out with joy
at the idea of “idle” being made up
of two gates framing the crescent moon,
hinting at the art of listening to heaven,
lingering at the doorposts of the unsaid,
alert to what steals in and out of language at ease.

Today’s xian is a poor cousin
to the idleness of yore: a skinny, broken
doorway now frames a solitary tree,
like a broken finger wagging at anyone
who dares to linger
where no grain grows.

One word,
perverted, may leave a nation mute.

TRUTH IS WOVEN

into the fabric
of the universe, into
a reticent dawn,
into silence rescued
from loquacious liars,
into a fistful of dreams,
scattered, taking root
in daytime gardens,

into secretive mold nestled
among the old seams
of your mother’s coats
still smelling of war,

into a solitary magnolia blossom,
veined ivory on the verge
of withering, into an embering
eclipse, streams of starlight
guided by a darkening moon.

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