Karen Alkalay-Gut: Mechitza

English originals Copyright © 1986 by Karen Alkalay-Gut

Originally published with translations into Hebrew by Raquel Chalfi, Rina Klimov, Eyal Megged, Elan Sheinfeld

For permission to reprint, contact the author at gut22@post.tau.ac.il

a poem
Crossing Legs
Much Laboring
Last Portraits: Anne Sexton
"Jeannie and Me"
His Neck
You Always Loved Me
"His Body's Silky, Like a Girl's"
Augustan Reflections
"If Ever You're in My Arms Again"
Tel Aviv
Israeli Proposal
I Knock
Skiing on the Sea of Galilee
I'm So Glad
You Lie Long and Still
A Lithuanian Legacy
Friend and Foe
To One in Beirut
Here & There

a poem

a poem
the size of my
diaphragm     closing
out     all     germs     sperms
and loving     from my womb
sealing         growing          off
making         our         act
end  when  we

this     is     not     a     trick
i think of my sex life
as         an         intensified
m i  c r o c  o s m
of  the  world  outside
The snide remark you
may     have  made  not
withstanding             there
are  no  truths     greater
t o  m e  t h a n   those
proven         in     the         hay
o n  m y  own  b o d y

Crossing Legs

So much of poetry depends
on keeping legs crossed
at the right moment
but whether at my knee
or your neck
is the question.


Don't waste time
wondering when our paths
   or legs will cross.
They won't or if they do
   it won't be because
   of a promise
   in a poem.


With high heels that place my ass
prick level     like a cat
in heat stretching out her toes
to accommodate whoever comes
and curled hair to remind you
of what it feels like
down there     I wet my lips
in labial readiness
shade my eyes for that overwhelmed
orgasmic look
and say
I dress up
to appear

Much Laboring

I said: It's certain there's no fine thing
Since Adam's fall but needs much laboring.

- Yeats, "Adam's Curse"
"God!" said the young poet
when he entered my bathroom,
"So many creams!" And there they were
on the shelf by the mirror:
cleansers and cottonwool, tonics
and softeners, tweezers, pencils
and shadows. "And I loved
your selflessness -- your body unaware:
you must spend hours on this."

I might have quoted Yeats
but shied of discovering
artistry. Once I too
had been shocked
when a wise mentor confided
her body was her pride
and she exercised long and hard
for the look of the aesthete.

This is no vanity of women:
my father powdered his face
to hide his beard in the afternoon
and the ladies revered
his wise innocence.

I too admired
but I knew
about the powder.

Do you suppose you
could love me despite
the creams despite
Adam's curse
or worse
because of it?

Last Portraits: Anne Sexton

(March 1981)
A crooked, close-mouthed smile
(I know that smile
gingivectomies make us hide
our new long teeth)
in a wistful crooked face.
(Your left eye wanders;
it must have taken years
to focus on the A B C
and no one knew   thought you
a problem child.

You seem
so demure
(but not demure enough
to cover what you knew
you could be). How did you bear
those loves that damned you
for so long?
If you'd given them up
let yourself be named
"Bitch"   with no hope
of husbands, children, a split-
level dream no plans
for professorships, sanity,
the love
of the right people:
could you have stirred your cauldron

and stayed free
from your summer hote1?

Would you have been here
to let me
take an open-mouthed snapshot
of you?

"Jeannie and Me"

To strangers on the street
we were women: They could see
protruding from caressing sweaters
breasts riper than their bearers
wills tugging whole bodies
passively, unknowingly behind

The men from the factory windows
cheered as we passed by
and we passed by
for their cheers
walking a naive dog every day. They
knew more than we
of what our bodies could don
"Jeannie and me"
knew only the joys
of an afternoon stroll
passing by
strangers in the street.


Through the plexiglas shield you
can see her quite clearly nude body
writhing against the exposure.
The chair, the bed, the toilet are all
transparent and there
are no covers, no protection
from curious eyes, from the crowd
which has come to see
the sentence carried out
for failure to fulfill
the promises of voluptuous flesh.
She shrieks
but her mouth distorts its loveliness
needlessly since we
can hear nothing not even
the fingernails that scrape
the plexiglas.

When she sleeps, her legs
wrap around each other,
yet darting movements under eyelids
reveal her secret dreams.

Mostly she shades her face
with long hair and fingers
and rocks on slender knees.

But she refuses to eat, the keeper says,
in hope that once thin
the sin of seduction will no longer
stick. The trick
is to lose all beauty
and yet remain
alive. The line
is fine: To be released
while wasted flesh still throbs.


My thickened ankles at this time of the month
remind me of Mother

I don't hate her anymore

A sudden secret exploded in the midst
of an argument

My child and I don't really talk

No clothes suit her body
lengthening into my shape

Inherited flaws shame her

How long it takes

When the sin is within




droplets of water
on a floating leaf
that weigh it down
to nothing


1. Bank-withdraw $400
2. Optician -- adjust lenses
3. Dentist
But the man who is known to wear
a white jacket
to cover
wild curlicues of hair
is absorbed in the cracking
of a tooth
of a woman not much older
than I
and I have read
All the English magazines
and have leafed through
the Spanish
and have thus been committed
to the whiteness of the waiting room.
And the protean lips of my mind
open suddenly and release
beckoning heat.
I shudder in the joining
with it n But let my tongue
meander through its bone
and membrane
the widening and tapering shapes

from above
vaginal folds, coral
in their promise.
The white door opens.
Oh, let me enter farther

You can
go in now
I am seated
bibbed, injected
the rot is removed
to my ears
4. Fix sandal buckle
5. Buy turkey breasts n

Not enough
not enough they say. The list
is too short and the dreams
disproportionate My mother
would agree, and the children
are fighting again,
so that I will turn
from the window and look at them.
And there
I remember
Lunch. Margarine
in a pan schnitzel
and salad and the song
of the stalactite cave
comes back Bach
sings straight up
from the floor
and I melt
down to meet him
in the redness the spike of which
I remember
from the waiting room. Hear...
and I poured
the juice on the floor.

My slippers will have to be
shampooed. The world
would be saved
if there were something good
on television tonight


1. Order television repair service
2. Check boiler for rust
3. Shampoo slippers
Where would a poet be
without lists of things
to do? -- no ideas
but in frames, lists, theories
to escape...


Our flesh remembers its loneliness
from the day
and will not let
the night join us.
Though we lie naked
and open like spoons
under one warm cover
I will awaken


All there is to know
of love
I learned
from your back.


To wake up each morning to a murder.

Stale air from wrinkled sheets.

Don't roll over and open your eyes.

Too many bloodstains to begin a day.


I am thinking of you and watching this fly thinking of eating
lunch on the backstairs and waiting to be taken to dinner thinking
of writing you the truth and scribbling
a poem

His Neck

moves out from vulture shoulders
craning round a perfect face
to smile at me.

I am
no longer carrion, have
pinched myself alive
yet quiver in sudden grace
each time that perfect face
smiles down at me.

You Always Loved Me

wrong, pushed me to the wall when
I needed soft holding,
defended yourself in the mirror
while I licked my wounds,
fucked without your mouth
your eyes I was not wise
and thought you didn't care
now I know you loved me

"His Body's Silky, Like a Girl's"

We're on the bed she lies
under the covers, and I
sit on the edge, sorting threads
from the sewing box.
"Tell me about your lover," I say.

She is sleepy and speaks in blurs
but loves
to relive his flesh in words:
"His body's silky, like a girl' s
slender and soft and kind,
gentle the way my husband
should have been."

She reaches for my hand
and sleeps. I leave, weeping
for what love
could be, knowing
what I would have done
had I been he.


If parallel lines do not meet it is not because meet they cannot because they have other things to do.
-Nabokov on Lubachevsky
"You drive all right," the dentist says,
"I drove behind you all the way
And you didn't make
A single mistake."

I know only
That I began at home
And ended here,
In your office, in your chair.

I was thinking about
How I'm going to get myself a style
That will show the whole of me.
There's a hole in my daughter's thigh
Climbing a fence, she was impaled,
And I lifted her off the spike

Now on the table,
The surgeon breaks open the foil package
And she asks, "Will it hurt?"
He is tired of questions
"Just shut up and don't move"
He barks at my little girl.

"All right. I'll think about something else."

I nudge her, "Orit, how do you feel?"
"Quiet! I'm thinking about something else."
Strange to have exotic blooms
In this tiny flat the rented couch with faded
Red roses bare stone floors
I sleep on a child's mattress
And dream of my wars.

Into this austerity of divorce
Comes a rich suitor, the old fashioned kind.
Tiger lilies and birds of paradise fill
The empty room. Vases and diamond
Earrings, candies and a toy horse.

When the gifts come
I tip the boy and count what's left

For milk this week?
Dina takes notes at a lecture
The professor sits, thighs spread,
Telling his plans for research.

I watch the way his body moves
The fat, I'm sure, is recent.
He must be athletic. Does he still play
Around? He would like to, I conclude,
If just to feel
Warmth of a girl.

After, Dina has a lot of questions,
Some even impressive. I want to ask
If his wife is good in bed, if
He dreams of dying young,
If he wakes at night afraid
He won't manage to pay
His children's tuition.

I wait in the corner
Until my chance
Has passed.

"You hide your light
You're always quiet
Why didn't you ask a question?"
This from a technician
Who has recorded the session
For television.
"It would have been
For your good
To be seen
To be heard."

I was off
In a different world
My eager questions
Would have been absurd.
V "Pay attention.
Does it hurt when I hit this tooth?"
I can't tell. The pain
Is somewhere else.


The loom unwove while I slept...

Though I wanted it finished, decided, one
suitor selected, even if it meant
the world would topple
tomorrow the tapestry
would be a tight weave
with a brown
border so that nothing
could escape. I have not the heart
to start again.



There is danger
in these depths
that are too soft
too warm.
There is danger.
We may never emerge
forever be lost
never return
to our homes.


Arachne, weaving at the window,
lifts her head and looks at me.

Maiden light, sombre as a crone,
her tambour web glistens in the sun.

"Better than your de Kooning,
I would have been
an emblem for women
centuries from now.

"But you, jealous like Athena,
goddess of your household
plan even now,
the destruction of my art."

Who says this place is falling apart?
I think I'll sit down and string
a poem from my bowels.

Leave spring cleaning
for another day.

A different start.

Augustan Reflections

Lady Mary Wortley Montague:
It' s the old craftsmen that make it through.
I have thought about this a lot sitting in my chamber
with my powdered wig askew white stuff
sprinkled on my shoulders, petticoat stained,
pimples, billet-doux, blotting grains
messing up the paper, the poems, the lines
while that obsessive little dwarf climbs
to the top. Each time he writes a verse Swift sighs,
wishes it his. God, my life is such a mess,
and I have to show it not just on my dress.
I want what' s on the page to be as pungent
to the nose as I am when I can't get myself together
for the ritual of ablutions. the rites of Pride.

What is all this fuss about form?
Maybe Pope' s verse will outlive that little
hungering wonder of a gnome. But it won't
have a damn thing to do with him
like when you leave fragments of your statue in the desert
so people will assume you were quite a man.

Crafty truth is an oxyrnoron.

Come, lets go to the bathroom
I want to show you something.

"If Ever You're in My Arms Again"

It never ends...
You break with a snakeskin lover
crawling, only looking forward
to a fresh pact, a clean

But it's not a test:
No amount of examination avails
to know
for sure
that it couldn't have been better
with him.

Tel Aviv

(December 20, 1981)
Four fingers in the fob pocket of my jeans
the tail of my suede jacket moving
with my fast walk high boots clacking

on the broken sidewalks of old Tel Aviv
(cloth bag heavy with books sways from my shoulder)
on my way to an office with a patterned stone floor
high walls lined with books on self-help,

the Holocaust    Nancy Drew    and the poems of my friends
narrow arched windows in a rounded wall
the paint on the outside mottled from many layers

many peelings: an office for the Turkish police chief
once now a publisher I am on my way
here now on a clear fall day
when every detail every ornament of this
convoluted city is part of an arabesque
a single line forming
a perfect design.

Israeli Proposal

This is just a grove
you told me and the fruit
no sweeter than those you can buy on the street
but here we can sit
beneath the lemon tree its sweet acridity
reminding us of other groves
earlier springs

I Knock

on the wall of your skin at night,
Say, prisoner, let me in. You scratch your leg
as if only you could tend to your itch.
I grope for your latch to near you gently
but all my hands touch is too rich to skim
and I cannot rest with just fingertips.

Where are your dreams, what
is your heart? When it seems
that you start in your sleep
and your soft breath moves
from deep to fast pants,
how can I move with your dance?

Skiing on the Sea of Galilee

(a love song for Ezi)
A rainbow flies in his wake
each time he slaloms starboard.
I lean against the windscreen back
and cannot take away my eyes.

Aboard the ancient fishing boats
brown faces turn up from their nets,
smile at the moving halo of spray.

I have vowed not to cross men
with gods. Yet as he holds
to the tow.
easy on the water
when my hands
would long have given out
glowing, alone
with the early-morning fishers

I would pass my bread
to him
to cast



I'm So Glad

I'm so glad we're not virgins
Or have to pretend ignorance,
Decorum. I mean you know and I know
We've been through or seen or dreamed it all.

Look, I've given birth
Facing an open door to a busy hallway
Split the front of my dress before an audience like you,
Said the very thing I was afraid I'd say, promised not
to say
(And heard about it from my aunt the very next day),
My parents, and my children,
Time and time again
And lived through it all
And confess it all
And laugh.

What pretensions to propriety could I have?

And you you've heard this kind of thing before
Maybe not here, not from me
But how different can what you've lived or will live be
From what I know or will
So we can relax treat one another like cats
Who smell impersonally, affectionately
The private parts of guests.


Sometimes sex is an excuse to touch...
I dip my lips in the multicolor
wonder of your hair -- here soft
like underfur of kittens,
there like briars to my cheek.

My fingers probing feel
the softness of your skin
and we begin
and there is nowhere for me
to be
but into you
into me

You Lie Long and Still

I sit in the middle of the bed
look up to your face
down to your feet

Like cotton wool like snow
you lie
and allow me
to make of your quiet
what I will


If you stop me in the middle of anything,
and ask: "What would you rather be doing?" --
"Fucking" slips out before I think of the question

Though I have crawled out of bed boneless
only seconds before, would probably not even know
what was being done to me, so numb from sensation.

You say it' s an escape or a metaphor    for intensity,
contact. Teaching, talking, performing at peak
does just as well. Think of all the pricks
You've turned down. I sigh. It wasn't the sex,
I didn't like, but the men
anyway, that was when
I was young, and didn't know what really counted
in this world. The fine thing about screwing

Is that it is always good. Anything else
you take a chance.


There are signs in the morning -- hairpins,
stains. Once I even found a jacket
pressed between the seat and the back door.
I left it there, and then it was gone.

On my way to work, I think of them meeting
in my car at night,
the only shelter from parents or mates
This little love nest
I leave unlocked.

A Lithuanian Legacy

The soldiers would come
into my grandmother's yard
pull the head off a chicken
and thrust it into her hand

Cook it    woman

The Russian soldier the German
the Russian again


The morning fills with the chime of the Glockenspiel
delighted tourists lift their eyes
at eleven sharp to see
painted brass knights joust to the music,
Bavarian dancers spin on their toes.

I look down when they look up
hoping to trap some truth in smiling eyes.
As if the museums had not filled me
and a good stein of beer not quite
what I needed right now
we continue in the late afternoon
to search for Koenigsplatz.

I can't remember its name
only that Thomas had once
brought us through, on some
rainy day we were en route.

He didn't have to identify
this place here
I was no naive visitor.

I saw a man standing on the stairs,
his salute answered by a mass
of radiant soldiers
looking up all in tune.

I blinked
and a slim blond girl was roller-skating
in an empty square


(Austria April, Israel June/1982)

"I do not perceive my individual existence
apart from racial identity,"
I hear myself say two months after
I've returned to Tel Aviv.
The blond Englishman in the beige raincoat
encircles the Jewess with his arm
whilst strolling on cobbled Getreidegasse
between the show windows and the shoppers
and asks her why she lives in Israel.
covers a fierce warmth that wells
with    "I have no choice

"Born like you in London, but of survivors,
raised with the ghosts of all destroyed the aunt beheaded in the forests,    the grandmother
you can fit
in an ashtray,    the whole    gallery some whose fate
remains unsure
I must live in a land where I make the rules."

The arm
draws tight
"But that
shan't happen again.
How can you
believe it of us?"

Getreidegasse becomes Judengasse,

we enter a shop
where thick-braided salesgirls
disdain to show their wares.
To my question "Why is this called
ėJudengasse' when there are no Jews here?"
they stare blankly.

Back home I warm
to the Englishman
I kept at such a distance
in the twisting alleys
of Salzburg. I clap
a souvenir from him on my car window.
does not write.
As announcements of funerals drone on
like a class list at the university,
Yoram frowns at the BBC sticker on my windshield:
"Did you hear what those assholes are saying- -
Israeli aggressors? They defend England
by bombing halfway around the world,
but we can't stop the Katyushas
from destroying our kids."

I think of you, Glynne, in your beige raincoat,
and me, that apologetic, stubborn Jewess at your side.
"I am not against Zionism, you understand, but
a country born in blood
must expect
to live in blood."
Near Mozart's birthplace, young Tom,
your urbane colleague from the broadcasting service,
told me: "It doesn't matter now
whether we should be in Falklands.
We'd just better win."

You were a boy
when I was born,
both of us
in the Blitz.
Now a white-and-blue 707
flies overhead towards Lod, and I think:
what if it brought you here,
what if you could see me
checking people's bags as they enter the school
making packages for soldiers at the front,
calling every friend with a man or boy up north,
spinning the dial for more
more news

Would I be the romantic Jewess
or the racist one?

Friend and Foe

(June 10-12, 1982)
Skyhawks fly over my city
on their way to bomb yours.
We are awakened by the noise
and I fall asleep restlessly
dreaming of you and your daughters.

"If anything happens to my girls,
I hold you personally responsible."
April 25. Israel is bombing Beirut.
You and I stick to wine with our
lamb casserole in Cyprus
and discuss politics.

Spinning the dial now from BBC
to the Israel Army Channel
I don't know what to believe.
The thin voice of an 18-year-old soldier
telling how a Lebanese
kissed him when he jumped out
of his tank, is muddled with the British
accents of the newsmen estimating
half a million homeless
in southern Lebanon.

Minutes after the cease-fire in Beirut
CBS photographs antiaircraft fire
from a small apartment building.
(Is that where you live? Then
who lives with you?) The Skyhawks
go down on the city again.

Friend! My husband is in civil defence
and my sons are too small for the army. You
have daughters and are old and alcoholic.
We can't fight this war.
But both of us are in it
and responsible.

To One in Beirut

Not a day goes by without my thinking of you...
as in a clandestine affair I am reminded
by the newspapers, the sounds in the air,
that you are there, and I in Tel Aviv.

Today brings a letter, postmarked Princeton,
sent through Jounieh to Larnaca on its way here.
You are well, as of the sixteenth of July, 1982,
and today is the 30th. Last night
on the news, we were still pounding the city.

As long as we kept from politics, we were friends
strolling together down the sea road in an Austrian town,
shocking the guide with our nationalities
and talking Pound, sex, divorce, food, wine.

How our lives would be fine
now, if that was all there was
to talk of. But where we live
we speak only of death and think
of somewhere else.


Our portion is a porch
a side room with two small, curtained windows
opening into the synagogue.
We, who meet at the pool in bikinis,
sit modest and kerchiefed
humbled to our place

And listen. There are no books,
so I cannot review
the chapter of the week
or follow my son's bar mitzvah reading.

Standing around the Torah,
joining in turn in the service
each man has his honor
as he welcomes a new member.

When my son completes his prayer,
we women will throw candies
from behind closed curtains.

I find my place next to a crone
who shares the book she has brought from home,
and, as she points to each word,
cries with joy "So lovely this chapter
such luck to be able to read this portion."

She compares my boy to hers
killed in the war,
and tears spot the page.
Sitting in the closed-off porch,
candies in both hands,
I weep with her.

Here & There

Here a few poems,
there a few tears
what more do you need
to give shape to your life?



To divide
is difficult.
You close me
and we know
that you are
after all
in your own book,
I in mine.

Women Writers Chapbook 5
Series Editor: Stanley H. Barkan
Cover art Copyright 1986 by Bebe Barkan


Some of the poems in Mechitza (Partition) have appeared before in English in the following journals:
Great Britain/ Argo; New Zealand/ Pilgrims; Israel/ Tel Aviv English Poets Broadsheet, Shdemot, ARC, and Voices; Sicily/ Trapani Nuova; U.S..A./ Bitterroot, Cedermere Review, Home Planet News, Lips: An International Anthology, Massachusetts Review, and Webster Review.
Hebrew versions of these poems have appeared in Yidiot Achronot, Ma'ariv).', Al Hamishmar, Moznaim, Eton 77, Migvan, Proza, Achshav, Isha Ohevet: An Anthology 0f Women's Poetry in Israel (Stavit, 1985) and in the author's books Making Love: Poems (Now, 1980) and Pislei Chem'a (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1984). The editors and publishers are gratefully acknowledged.
Many of these poems are available in two recordings at the Library of Congress.
The author wishes to thank the Jewish Agency for the 1985 Arie Dulchin Prize for Literature which provided time to complete this manuscript.

Cross-Cultural Communications, 239 Wynsum Avenue, Merrick, N.Y. 11566 U. S. A.

First Edition
Cross-Cultural Review Women Writers Chapbook
ISSN 0271-6070
Regular Editions
ISBN 0-89304-420-2 Clothbound/ISBN 0-89304-421-0 Paperback..
Palm sized Editions
iSBN 0-89304-422-9 Clothbound/ISBN 0-89304-423-7 Paperback
Designed by Bebe Barkan
Printed in the United States of America

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