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Heads High: Three Poems of Unsung Women

by Emily Rand Breitner


The Courage of Anne

It doesn’t matter what
little Charlie did to provoke
his father, but probably
not much for the man
to whip off his worn belt
in that familiar motion.
This time soft-spoken
Anne – sister described as
afraid of her own shadow –
stepped between the boy
and the strap, and in a voice
she’d never used, said
If you touch him I’ll call
the police.


A stunned silence
struck the child,
the father, the mother, the young
sisters huddled in the peeling room
of the Lower East Side railroad flat,
this immigrant father
from pogrom-ridden Russia,
Cossack police bloodying
their way through his ghetto village.
How he raised his hands
to heaven after the birth of the fifth
girl in a row, Oh God, what have I done
to deserve this fate?

Anne in front of him,
and how he backed away.


Memoir of An Unknown Young Woman

I was sick the whole way over.
Jammed into steerage
I wanted the feel of solid
ground under my feet.
I kept to myself, as I do now.
I was afraid of the man
my father sent me to,
waiting on the dock holding up
his photograph, this stranger.

Our neighbor’s son went to the New World
to farm. The land in our village is thin,
played out, no money in that.
Many leave. Last spring one wedding only
when the fruit trees bloomed.
So they are sending me to him.
I hold his picture in my hand –
how dark his eyes stare.
I have never been with a man.

Mother cried and said good-bye
for ever. Father squeezed my shoulder.
“You’re a good girl,” he said
and walked out into the field.

Mother says I am a good seamstress.
I made clothes for my young brothers
and sisters. Grand-mère taught me to embroider.
I have a cushion with me that I embroidered
all over with poppies and vines. Months before
I left I came home with skeins of thread –
orange, gold and green. Mother didn’t scold
though we knew the cost. Each night
I worked the colors into the cushion –
flower shapes I know by heart.

It is to be a pillow on my marriage bed.
My children will see
how beautiful was their mother’s home
in her springtime.



Bien Sûr, Madame Mull-Aire

Madame, you come to me
waiting for us
in that familiar doorway,
bent and round-shouldered
with that strip of tape below
one eye as though to prevent
the wrinkles from collapsing
into your neck. You always wore
that cap-sleeved dark dress
like the ones on
women in creased photos
I found in a bottom drawer
at home, alien images with their
scratched, unreadable writing
on the backs.

Mesdames et Messieurs,
La Dictée,
you begin.

Always the soft voice invoking
the French r - a burr
as in bien sûr or sur la table
words we spit from American mouths
unable to find
those foreign sounds so naturally
in yours. Répétez, après moi, comme ça
persistent as water
shaping stone.

How we giggled out of class
at your obvious wig and straightened
in our seats when you entered,
how we strove to capture
those elusive
vowels, knowing
without words
we were outclassed.

March 24, 2010

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Emily Rand Breitner is the author of "A Knock On the Door," a poetry collection in preparation this year. She taught science and English, including in Bursa, Turkey, and has worked at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and Coastal Enterprises, Inc., a community development corporation. Her poems have appeared in Ibis review; Untidy Candles, an anthology of contemporary Maine poets; Potato Eyes; the new renaissance; Off the Coast; and Goose River Anthology, among others.

Also see “My heroines” by Marge Piercy in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See The Art Perspective Featuring the Work of Miriam Schapiro from Art Editor Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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