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Sympathetic Verses



Published August 23, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

We tend to make certain assumptions about political poetry: that it's doctrinaire, one-sided, humorless. Maybe it's the result of hearing too much doggerel read at rallies. However, that's not how it has to be. In his famous Defence of Poetry, 19th-century radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that good verse is always political, though not necessarily partisan, because it encourages us to feel empathy for strangers. Poetry fights deeply embedded tribalist habits of thinking and shows us how to think as modern people must -- in terms of the whole human race.

A Possible Explanation, a short collection of poems by Peggy Sapphire of Craftsbury, gives us a sense of what Shelley meant. Take "For Sappho," which starts off as a fairly conventional lament for the oppressed, both their "scattered corpses" and the "survivors collapsed / on our knees / perhaps standing / in point-blank range." It's not too hard to detach oneself from these verses, particularly because the dead and their survivors seem generic. This could be a poem about the Holocaust or any other genocide or ruinous conflict of the past century. Given the range of possibilities and the bleakness of the world they delineate, sometimes our response to an elegy like this is compassion fatigue.

In the third verse, however, Sapphire brings the pain home to us:

no single voice or chosen words

approaches the silence

of blood-blackened shattered

thousands whose final breaths

forever shudder

across all our shoulders

whose semblance appears

in orphaned children       their eyes

reminding us in the language

of touch not voice of hands

upon hands       fingers woven

no spoken words     but arms

across broad backs and delicate waists

sweet curls and repeating waves of brown

blond       gray      plentiful breasts

with rested heads upon them

lips on lips       on cheeks...

Sapphire describes the dead and their survivors as part of a physical, tangible continuum, linked not just by DNA but by the gestures that convey affection. She puts us in the place of the orphaned children who will always recall a last embrace, reminding us that we too are physically, emotionally connected to people whom wars or disasters or political regimes could snatch from us.

The image reappears in the poem "Aunt Alice." Here Sapphire tells the story of her aunt who in 1938, at the age of 13, was placed on a train out of Nazi-controlled Vienna by her parents. She survived, part of the famous Kindertransport; her parents died in Auschwitz. The adult Aunt Alice remembers "her father's fractured hands / shattered in train doors slamming"; her parents' "last embraces survive with her." As a mother, she has sworn "never to / break a child's heart, never to abandon, never to deprive." But Alice's parents abandoned her to save her. We can count ourselves lucky, Sapphire's poem gently implies, if the world puts us in a position to stay true to our vows.

Other poems allow us to take a greater distance from suffering. In "Quarry Man," whose eponymous narrator supplies granite headstones to Arlington Cemetery, we watch a soldier's bereaved mother grasping a stone "like it was / her son's shoulders." Poems about Sapphire's upbringing and her activist family introduce themes of hope, struggle and simple pleasures.

But pain is never far away. The book's epigraph is "Suffering is good for you" -- a quote attributed to Jack Sapphire, the poet's father. "It came to me as I was putting the last touches on the book," Sapphire says in a telephone interview. "I grew up as an immigrant's daughter, with a message about the long struggles he went through. There's all kinds of suffering; we all have it, for different reasons, but we get to the same places. It's a teacher if you let it be."

Sapphire, 67, has been living in Vermont for six years and writing poetry for almost 40. When asked what A Possible Explanation is a possible explanation for, she says, "For me. How did I get to where I am?" Though she cautions readers not to assume that the poems are a "photograph" of her life, or an autobiography without invention, Sapphire does see them as akin to the oral histories she loves. In the first poem, "Where I'm From," for instance, we hear the strident voice of the poet as a young girl, Brooklyn-bred and adrift in the deep South. "You gonna make me?" she asks those who tell her to sit in the Whites Only part of the bus.

A Possible Explanation is also a family portrait, with a cast of characters that encompasses radically different versions of the immigrant experience. One of Sapphire's father's uncles founded American Greetings; his condescension toward his poor relatives is captured in "That's What I Heard." Another uncle was Abe Saperstein -- German for "sapphire" -- who founded the Harlem Globetrotters. Yet another was not so famous. He washed dishes for a living, but "could quote the Kirschel number / of any Schumann, Beethoven or Bach," Sapphire writes in "Uncle Nathan."

Sapphire's father was a man of convictions. At 17, he arrived in the States alone from eastern Germany. There he met Sapphire's mother, whom she describes as "a bright and beautiful young woman who had made a speech on the rights of workers." The family moved from Brooklyn to Miami and then frequently around the South, where Sapphire's father was engaged in the politically dangerous work of organizing migrant workers. Though he never joined the Communist Party, Sapphire says, her father still ran afoul of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which tried to force him to testify against his fellow activists. "He had attended a rally, and in the late '40s that's about all you had to do," she says. "Those were hard years."

Still, Sapphire says, her father never stopped believing that "America was what it said it was. A good life." In her poem "The Art of Making an Omelette," we see an aspect of that good life. The father uses Old World ingredients to prepare his daughter a delectable omelette, which the two enjoy even as they rehash the losses and silences in their common past.

Sapphire spent 28 years working in schools around New York State, often as a special-education counselor. She taught herself to write with help from workshops that also became valuable sources of support. The "Omelette" poem was one of the first Sapphire published, in the Partisan Press' Blue Collar Review. More publications in literary journals and anthologies followed. But she returned to the Partisan Press with her book manuscript, a collection of poems written over 12 years and not originally envisioned as a whole.

While many of the poems look to the past, others vibrate with the impact of current events. In "Not Yet," Sapphire reflects on the continuing plight of immigrants and the poor. In a poem written on the eve of the millennium, she wonders, "When we are gone who will / sing Dylan out of tune and out of mind / who will be the minstrels /... to The Children of Cyber?"

Is she suggesting that younger generations might have trouble carrying on an activist legacy? In her work with the Progressive Party, Sapphire says, "I meet some wonderful young people who are powerfully committed." Still, she acknowledges there's "a lot of comfort" in the affluent parts of today's America. "If you're very comfortable, you don't want to change that much," she goes on, her mild voice vibrating with conviction. "Only when you are in turmoil about something, for some reason, do you start to think about making a change. It's not about partisan stuff, it's about things that will identify us as people who stand up for civil rights and human rights. It takes a huge courage. That's not common."