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Free Verse

To celebrate the overlap of Passover and National Poetry Month, poets Andrea Cohen, Robert Pinsky, and Mark Levine offer some selections on the themes of liberation, ritual, journeying, and food

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(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

The alleged cruelty of April is mitigated, for some people anyway, by the arrival of two things: Passover and National Poetry Month. To celebrate this collision of good fortune, Vox Tablet asked some poets to share works that engage the themes of the holiday. Andrea Cohen, author most recently of Kentucky Derby, Robert Pinsky, author of The Life of David from Nextbook Press and the newly published Selected Poems, and Mark Levine, whose most recent collection is The Wilds, share some poems and speak about them with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry. [Running time: 16:22.] 


The flat bread
that scratched

our throats
was not symbolic.

We left too quickly
to bring the symbols.

Neither did the bread
portend of manna.

It was bread.
We left

with the skin
on our backs,

with the imprint
of whips.

The symbols
came after,

finding us the way
a lost dog,

crossing deserts,
pinpoints the master

who can’t
live without him.

—Andrea Cohen


I get it now.
You’re dead.
You can’t do
you used to.
Reruns instead
of new episodes.
I get it.
You can’t send
macaroons this Passover,
those dense confections
without flour, conforming
to the rules
of kashrut, the rules
of engagement, which
in the case of our people,
involved fleeing, trading
slavery for the desert.
The land of milk & honey
was a kind of paint-
by-numbers kit
everybody lugged
in his head through
sandy ditches. It’s
best not to commit
directions to Nirvana
to paper: they could be
stolen or confiscated, or
worse: the place itself
obliterated. Forty
years is a long time
to get where you’re going.
Where are you promised?
In the end you spoke
of a boat ride, of
booking passage second-
class, on a vessel that lacked
a rudder, an engine, a sail.
Kaput, you said.
You were looking
for a solution.
Why now? someone
asked—less question
than demand. You
had to go. I
get it. We prepped
you for a journey,
because the mind
gets stuck on the speed
bumps of Fin, of Finito.
The mind insists
on one more
road, one more hello.
I get it: you won’t
be posting macaroons
this year. No problem,
mom. Just send the recipe.

—Andrea Cohen


Easter was the old North
Goddess of the dawn.
She rises daily in the East
And yearly in spring for the great
Paschal candle of the sun.

Her name lingers like a spot
Of gravy in the figured vestment
Of the language of the Britains
As Thor’s and crazed Woden’s
Stain Thursday and Wednesday.

O fellow-patriots loyal to this
Our modern world of high heels,
Vaccination, brain surgery:
May the old Apollonian flayers
And Jovial raptors pass over us—

Those ordainers of suppers
Of encrypted dishes: bitter, unrisen,
Infants as bricks for the taskmaster
Quota. Fruit and nuts ground
In wine to recall the mortar:

On the compass platter, traces
Of the species that devises
The Angel of Death to sail
Over our legible doorpost
Smeared with sacrifice.

—Robert Pinsky, from Gulf Music, (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2007)

Refuge Event

was them in motion
beside the open cart on steel wheels
drawn by a tawny mule in the
modern day having bartered
for cart and animal in
motion beside orchards
bordering the receding town
receding crows on the roof and a boy watching
them above his shovel in his pose
animal poked with a stick
between lurid exhalations and
a finch flicking itself at
gnats in the air
in motion and the crate or cart
mounded with leathers
tools from the workshop
drill press/lathe/iron forms/dyer’s vat
them bartering in syllables
anonymously in August
in wool coats and hats in the
documentary evidence in stiff polished
boots laced high and
spring rain
had rutted the road
with a gap in motion
in eventual summer
axle needed mending
bucket needed washing
with the wash and the boiling water
(good-bye mother with her bag of wash)
in a surge of details past
slumbering countryside
in a past tense
wing or cargo hold

—Mark Levine, from The Wilds, (University of California Press, 2006)

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J Carpenter says:

Thank you. Our culture and our world needs a daily dose of good poetry.

Tamis Renteria says:

I read Andrea Cohen’s poem out loud and burst into tears at the end; she does what good poets should do, capture a thought, a feeling, in just the right economy of words and rhythms to make the heart stop for a moment. We never really do “get it,” do we?

Shalom Freedman says:


The poem of Pesach is Freedom-
Freedom from slavery,
Freedom from idols,
freedom for the people of Israel
as example to Mankind.


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Free Verse

To celebrate the overlap of Passover and National Poetry Month, poets Andrea Cohen, Robert Pinsky, and Mark Levine offer some selections on the themes of liberation, ritual, journeying, and food

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