Atherton Onward

Adventures in starting over

Month: March, 2014


So this is the cumulative result of a lot of random conversations and observing a few things over the years, and was finally spurred into a full poem after I had a moment of hesitating because I was embarrassed to admit I was Jewish. Since when is this a thing?! But it seems that at some point the only things that anyone has learned about Judaism or Jewish culture can be summed up by South Park, Borat, and documentaries about the Nazi party. None of which are exactly the best sources on which to base your assumptions. So, the main points to be learned from all this are:

  1. Stereotyping, type casting and making assumptions about someone’s life, attitudes and background based entirely on an accident of their birth is called discrimination. If they’re Jewish, it’s called being anti-Semitic. No if’s, but’s or maybe’s.
  2. The phrases ‘but that’s all irrelevant now, it was decades ago’, and ‘some of my best friends are…’ do not get you out of a hole when you’re talking about Jews any more than they do when you’re talking about black people, and they don’t stop you being an asshole. Take a hint.
  3. Please. For the love of all that’s holy, please do not ever start a conversation on finding out that I am Jewish with the words ‘oh but you don’t look/act Jewish’, or by saying ‘oh that’s amazing, so I saw a documentary this one time on the History channel…’. Just don’t.




I tell you I am Jewish.
You think smoked salmon
think nose
think Channukah
think Seder, think Matzes
think payas and beards and black.
Think Hebrew
think star
think yellow
think burning,
think gone.

This poem could have started with a joke.
‘In order to have peace and be happy,
you must kill all the Jews
and all the shoemakers.’
And you ask me, ‘But why the shoemakers?’
My mother emigrated twice so that I
would not instinctively grasp the punchline
but inheritance is not so easily left behind
on borders or at Customs.

I recently got talking to a guy on the train
and on noticing my necklace
he asked what it meant;
when I explained, his first reaction
was to tell me about how he once visited Poland
and we all know where this story is going.
Is this really what we have been reduced to?

We have all heard the stories –
when every family has a legend within living memory
of the one who made it,
the one who got away,
of the many who were dragged, blinking and dazed
from their beds in the dead of night
and never heard from again,
is it any wonder we all of us carry
the burden of survivor’s guilt?

My housemate Jules had a great uncle
whose tale is passed down like Shabat silver
of how he walked with the children
into showers which he knew
were not hot water,
just so they would not be frightened.
She did not need to tell me the look
her grandmother wore to recount it;
peel back the denim and the soft living
and we are all two steps from the doors
that only lock from the outside,
from unclaimed wedding rings,
shorn hanks of hair, false teeth and soap.

This is the legacy whcih I am not allowed
to publicly claim as my own,
the ugly cooked pork stink your schoolbooks
are not permitted to render,
and this is all that is really remembered of my people.
It took ten years of living here
before my mother would put a Mezuzah on our door,
and though I have not spoken Hebrew in years
she still flinches to see me wearing yellow,
cannot believe me when I tell her
that this is far behind us.

I believed it myself, once,
but somewhere along the line anti-Semitism
has become cool again
and believing can be hard some days.
My ex-boyfriend was Catholic
and he once suggested that it would be funny
to tell our kids at Easter
that mummy’s people killed daddy’s God.
I wonder if he ever realised how close
those words were to the gallows, to the cattle trucks,
to the gas chambers and incinerators
I wonder how he ever thought a couple of history classes
and a space in my bed gave him
a free pass to claim that by association
he had a right to make those jokes.

For the record – I do not keep my gold
in a pouch around my neck,
I do not play the fiddle and my fear of heights
means I would not be seen dead on a rooftop;
chicken soup really does cure everything,
‘oy’ is not a word, it is an entire vocabulary,
and telling me that I ‘pass’,
that you could never tell ‘what’ I am
is not a compliment.
I should not have to wash my skin a darker colour
to remind you that tact is not a priveliged choice
reserved only for those people who don’t look like you.

I am more than a barcode branded in the pages
of some textbook,
but when all you think when you hear my language
is smoke stacks, mass graves,
a pile of discarded shoes,
what does that make me but a dead horse,
feel free to flog?
Sure, identity gets a little fuzzy
when it is no longer delineated on your arm,
but I come from a culture of survival
and we resurrected our language
like the messiah we birthed,
and while its taste is bitter as Pesach herbs
banned for so many centuries that it feels foreign
on tongues born to speak it
every syllable feels like a homecoming.

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam
I come from the first generation to be born
with both feet on this side of a tombstone
Baruch atah Adonai
my culture is still a millstone of shame
that it does not do to speak of in public
but ours is the first generation
that has a voice to do so.
Baruch atah Adonai
mine is the first generation where it is not
remarkable that I have German or Muslim friends
or that the only arguments we have
are over a dislike of bacon
or the eternal question of ‘Lox or hummus’
(even though we really know the answer is
‘why not both?’)

We are the first generation
to not wear our identities like a battle scar
we are the first to step outside of the barbed wire
We are the first to realise we carry
the survivor’s guilt of our forebears
So why – why? – can we not be the first generation
to cast it off like shackles
and finally step forward wiht the grace
our newfound lightness affords?

I tell you I am Jewish.
You think kippah
think nose
think Hebrew,
think alive.



So I wrote this a couple of months ago but never performed or posted it… but it’s still one of the poems I’m the most proud of, writing wise. The original trigger was a DeviantArt submission contest on the subject of the Sandman, and his many incarnations in stories; I missed the deadline but the poem that grew from the original inspiration material was worth it.

Turns out I’m learning (slowly!) that sometimes the greatest courage lies in surrender, and that true creativity can only exist when you allow yourself to bare your soul completely and without compromise. It’s utterly, utterly terrifying, but that’s what makes it so damned rewarding.



The first time you saw me naked
had nothing to do with taking off my clothes.
It was 4am in a taxi rank, you opened your coat
and folded me into the warmth within,
it was the first time in months
I had truly felt safe,
and in those moments of drifting between waking
and falling asleep in the circle of your arms,
I dreamed.

Maybe I should have held something back
kept some secret back for myself,
maybe I should have flinched under the
thousand watt floodlights you pinned me under
but I couldn’t do it.
It never occurred to me that I should
to not share this with you,
to not open up my two hands and give
give you everything that I have,
everything that I am and more,
my heart yours indifferent to whether
you belonged to me or not.

Because with you, it was simple
and I could not find it in myself
to be selfish.
You were already growing through me
twisting like jasmine in summer
sneaking sweet scented tendrils
through my every capillary until my skin
was saturated in your name, in your voice
and I could no more unwish this
than I could have held back the incoming tide.

You lay cocooned in my skin,
held safe from eyes with whom
you were not ready to share this secret.
When I told you I loved you,
you did not respond, merely smiled
as if remembering the tune of a long ago song
and it mattered less than knowing
that at least I had told you.
The words themselves were less than
knowing that I was the one you curled into
when you dared not ask for arms
to shelter you from the dark.
Your acknowledgement was less
than the way you held my face like glass
that you held my hand for no reason
but that you knew I needed it,
the nights you told me you
“didn’t do contact” only to pull
my head onto your chest, stroke your hand
down the length of my hair
and bid me to sleep, that my dreams were safe.

Tonight, when I kiss your cheek,
when I take off the costume I wear for company
and show you the vines that run under my skin
do not flinch.
What I offer carries no charge,
no invoice to be paid in full
in words you will never be ready to tell me.
When you close your eyes and cradle me,
skin to skin, pulse to pulse,
do not draw back.
Your hands are rough, your chest stone,
but the breath you pass to me is sand
carrying only the sweetest of dreams.
There are no nightmares when I sleep by your side.


So I actually performed this tonight – and this was the first time there was someone I knew from ‘real life’ listening. The nerves hit again, and despite reading off the sheet, my hands were shaking so much that it was more of an aide-memoire than actually reading…. but it went so much better than expected and I was truly honoured by the reactions I got from people, and the comments afterwards.

Something that did come up as a result though was that this is begging to go with a short film, so now one creative endeavour has sprouted a new one to compliment it. I’d love to get a video together to go with the poem; just a case of finding time, volunteers, and memorising it!


The sky is blue outside today.
My collar is stiff with starch and work ethic,
but the sky is blue and the clouds scud by the window
and the air is clear and cool with the promise of spring
or snow, it hasn’t decided yet.
I can smell the mountains, lush forests
moss and cold streams running through stone
It will be spring in Freiburg soon
the snow will cling to the peaks til May
but the mountains will blush from the roots up
and all will be softly scented cherry blossom and
the fresh green of leaves so young they still
hold the soft fuzz of the bud;
I want to see the mountains again
wander the paths through the Black Forest
with their obscure markers and churches small as playhouses
lakes like glass, glacier cold nestled in valleys
I miss the quiet.

The birds are coming in from the south,
wind carrying bones like matchsticks
I have a tumbleweed soul, kicked
from coast to desert to mountain to coast
it never stops, only pauses
I am kite tails and paper lanterns
leaves gone gold with the first chill of autumn
I am paper in the neck of a bottle cast at sea
my veins, borderlines; fingerprints, passport stamps
I pray in the rumble of tires on asphalt
the shush of boots on loam, bare feet on grass, on sand
I am grit and dust and beach tar,
polka-dot handkerchief tied on stick,
the road is calling me.

I was named for my mother’s grandmother
for snow dusted braids, blueberry porridge,
hearth and home and place,
she named me for root, for settle in one place
for never standing out and never pinned.
But from her I took an ear for the music of foreign;
she named me for steadfast,
but it is she who taught me that roots are moveable
that moving can be life when the soil in which they stand
has been found not to their liking.
From her the Caucuses, flowers that bloom every ten years
camping beneath the river of the Milky Way close enough
to reach out and feel the cool dust between stars
from her sacred fires and stone caves, ice skates and
heat, heat and sand only just this side of glass
stones that hum with the whispered wishes of thousands
of a thousand years of root in rootlessness,
from her spine and strength and the call of wayside inns;
I miss the dust,
air rushing through windows cracked for cool
ripe with travel sweat and mosquito spray,
roadhouse coffee thick with bean grounds
scowling grandmothers in flour dusted aprons
hot soup in barrels while the rain falls outside.

Do you remember Seville?
The Khalif was a clever man.
When his Granadan wife missed the snows of her home
he planted orange trees, thousands of them
in every street, park and square,
they bloom white in the springtime
and the petals fall in May, Seville snow;
I remember orange blossoms and the acrid pall of incense,
blue skies so bright they hurt, the colour saturated,
copper tinged with heat and blood and the stink of the city
flamenco and cold beers, the river silent and green
under the shade of cedars, the air so thick with sun
that the sweat never shows on the skin
the birds come here in the winter, shelter in the palms
I come in the summer, skin burning the colour of walnut
I am remarked only for my eyes,
still the indeterminate shade of horizons at dawn
I got them from my father,
who never lost the salt water in his veins, the sound
of distant hills in his voice;
sixty years it took for him to settle and his eyes to pause
they were the colour of the earth viewed from space
and story time was an autobiography,
my sister and I perched one on each bony knee
a globe held round between us, small fingers pointing
stopping the spin, picking the story for that day
from him this face that blends into any crowd,
never pinned to one flag, I have a gift for chameleon
find me if you can, I am heat haze,
morning mist on hibiscus,
the sun calls me south, southwards to the Caspian sea
to the wild swell of the Atlantic
to cliff and cove and sheltered harbours on islands with no name.

My passport hums, singing of ports and lay-bys
and the lullaby of train tracks and steam.
I read itineraries like love letters,
read timetables like the stars; I read the stars more often
than I don’t, drifting from wave to stone to plane to wave to road.
I am a sailor with no destination, my rudder with a mind of its own
the compass no regard for north and the south calls to me
the road calls to me, singing of stone and spice and
the thin thread of frankincense and ichor,
of seashells like jewels, jellyfish the size of dustbin lids
and the sun setting like butterscotch,
the sun sets fast in the mountains, the stars pinpricks
I miss the cold air and the pines, the beauty that cuts like a knife
I have lost and found so many fragments of myself
left carelessly behind on train seats,
picked up off park benches, gifted to me by strangers –
a gypsy once stopped me in the street to read my palm
but she told me my road had more branches than she could trace
and refused to tell my fortune,
the breezes that take me from direction to place
and back to wandering,
but I have noticed that for every time I leave
the strangers look more familiar with every stop;
I know the stories before I speak, know the city map
I walk with the sureness of knowing and it is always the first time
no matter that I might have walked those streets before.

Some nights when the seasons change,
when the mistral blows in from the south or
the first chill bite of frost kisses the grass in autumn,
when the birds form V’s skywriting across the distant cloud,
some nights I dream of a river, that I am carried
over silt and stone, and I wake sure that I have been eroded
worn down to smooth edges, that there will be nothing left of me but sea glass,
that I will be carried, never stopping, never settling
that what roots I put down will be torn up
at the first grasp of the west wind, forced to skitter
and tumble across the earth rootless as a shadow
that there will be no evidence left of my passage,
no memory of me, the constant stranger
no more permanent than dandelion seed,
and wake, trembling, feeling the tide drawing me under,
under, ever moving ever tugging
backpack lying innocently by the wall,
I could step out of that door and book passage to India
I could hitchhike to Morocco
take the long rattling train line to the far shores of Baikal
I’ve an ear for language, I can learn it on the way
grab your boots, one t-shirt
the battered old jacket that has
been with me longer than some friendships, it’ll do,
they would never find me –
the alarm goes off for work, the tug pauses, life resumes –

But the sky is blue outside today;
behind my collar, I dream of birds.

On being unable to find the words

I’m avoiding a conversation again. Somehow I can never find the words, or when I can find the words I can’t say them, or they only come when I’m on the bus or at work and in reach of pen and paper, but never sound quite right when I try to say them out loud.

It was a surprise to discover you can write something which is a prayer, a celebration and a goodbye all in one.

It’s a special kind of cowardice knowing you’ll never give those words to the person they’re addressed to.




This is a year.

This is laughter, and friendship.

This is the first time you kiss me,
half drunk, overdue;
this is you putting me in a taxi
sending me home with a caress
down my cheek.

This is the time I did not cry
snow and damp benches by the canal,
you chaffing my hands for warmth;
this is learning wisdom,
swallowing, biting my lip until it bled,
this is you letting me cling,
letting me use you as my anchor
holding me until the shaking subsides.

This is being your counsel, listening
when you just need to talk;
this is making you laugh,
holding you when your stomach is rope
tangled and knotted tight.

This is contentment, summer heat
lying cradled to your chest,
your heart beating beneath my cheek;
this is tears shed in silence
for the peaceful dreams
you did not know you give me.

This is words murmured against my neck
where you thought they would go unheard.
This is open,
walls forgotten at their foundation;
this is letting you take,
find what solace you can
in what I have to give.

This is safe.
This is not flinching
when you’re angry;
this is giving you my arms, my neck,
the curve of my back;
this is letting you take.

This is never wearing matching underwear
so you wouldn’t mistake
giving for demand.

This is you taking,
finding strength
in the softness of surrender offered.

This is not talking about it,
or talking about it
but not saying it;
this is the elephant standing
draped in discarded clothes
in the corner of your room.

This is the sunlight in my chest
when you hold me.

This is couching hope in give,
in take what you need;
this is kissing you every time
like it’s the first and last,
making myself say goodbye each morning.

This is savouring the scent of you
imprinted in the cells of my skin.
This is open.

This is knowing the pain is coming,
but taking what is given
holding it in an open hand;
this is the scorch and blister,
the raw and naked,
this is my heart laid bare at your feet.

This is open,
this is steeling myself
for the pain to start;
this the pain not starting yet,
this is not daring to look up.
This is hope, and hope kills.

This is open hands, back straight;
this is finally meeting your eyes
and not hiding what lies in mine.
This is committing them to memory,
just in case.

This is hands shaking,
nothing asked for, nothing demanded,
this is waiting for the pain to start
but unable to hold back
even to prevent its onset,
this is yours.

Is this the last time I kiss you?

This, is open.