These essays were broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio’s popular show “Roundtable”

Keyword: Haggis
© 2004 Judy Polan

Now that we have all -- metaphorically, at least -- put away our turkey platters, menorahs, tinsel, and embarrassing party hats, it's time to get ready for the first big blowout of the new year. I'm referring, of course, to celebrating poet Robbie Burns' birthday on January 25

All over the world, there are holidays honoring patriots, warriors, saints, royalty, the signing of treaties, gay pride, children, parents, workers, animals, foods (witness Blini Day in Russia and the Feast of the Radishes in Mexico), culture in general -- even April fools -- but how often do we pause to reflect upon and tip our hats to the artists who have brought grace and beauty and a bit of the eternal into our lives?

As far as I can determine, Scotland is the only country in the world to have created a national holiday in honor of a poet. It's part of why I find the Scots so lovable, beyond their great good humor and love of the underdog. An appreciation for the romantic -- the sublime even -- always struggles to the surface of their persistently restrained and impassive culture. Not to mention their having found a way to turn the imbibing of profuse quantities of whisky, whilst declaiming indecipherable poetry, into a patriotic responsibility.


A Very British Thanksgiving

                                                                            © 2000 Judy Polan
Broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio’s “Roundtable” and “51%”

It’s probably just as well that I don’t remember my first Thanksgiving. I was six weeks old, and -- according to family legend -- my jokester father thought it would be quite hilarious to present me to the dinner guests on the turkey platter, parsley garnish and all. Apparently my debut was a big success because from that year on, my parents’ home became the family’s Thanksgiving venue.

I loved the rhythm and ritual of those Thanksgivings -- the vision of my mother’s table perfectly set with her blue and white china, used only on cherished occasions; the laughter; the unspoken alliances amongst simpatico cousins; the sharp sound of glass shattering as a football was inevitably kicked through a basement window; the introduction of paramours (some for a one-time-only appearance) and new babies, who were non-rescindable. One year a guy named “Butz” came, and now nobody can remember who he was. 

Years moved on; the holiday remained my touchstone. When I was a kid, the interval between Thanksgivings seemed interminable; as I grew older, it came faster and faster, like dates flashing forward furiously on a movie screen.

In 1952 my parents moved from downtown Albany, NY to their newly-built house about five miles away in rural Slingerlands. My Grandma Goldie called it “The Vilderness”. There were only four houses on our side of the street. Along the entire opposite side were a sprawling farmhouse, apple orchard, barns and horses. Our across-the-road neighbor was known as “Professor Blessing”. He wasn’t actually a professor, but he deeply respected educated people; and was amazed to learn that my Russian immigrant grandparents had made sure that all four of their daughters -- daughters! -- attended college.

Until third grade, I was the only Jewish kid in my whole elementary school -- something I certainly wasn’t ashamed of, but not something I exactly advertised either. Our day began with the Pledge of Allegiance, which had been taught to us; then a quick segue into the “Our Father” prayer, which, it was assumed, everyone already knew.

I recall my utter bafflement when all my classmates launched seamlessly into this bit of oratory that made me feel as if I were from some parallel universe. I became quite adept at lip-synching the words, all the while trying to figure out what they meant. For months I presumed that “thy” was a noun -- as in “THY ... will be done”. I figured it must be something good, since it was apparently done both on earth AND in heaven.

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© 2002 Judy Polan
Broadcast on WAMC’s “Roundtable” Dec. 2004

The Blind Bard

The Blind Bard

© 2001 Judy Polan
Broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio’s “Roundtable”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
                       last night at Smith
Creaky college auditorium chairs
           Filled with much-pierced students, cracking gum
               and graying veterans of the anti-war
To my left an Italian gypsy woman
       All red swirls and gold hoops

The air crackles
               As we await our bard

He appears, stage left
                           But wait, what’s going on?
His eyes are veiled by a velvet mask -- or is it sunglasses? --
       He waves a white cane about
Reaching, lurching toward the podium
               He is our Homer, our blind poet

Well, what do you expect? I ask myself --
                           He’s 81 and has seen it all anyway
From the Normandy invasion to the heyday of the Beats
   San Francisco and the City Lights Bookstore
       Marched with Caesar Chavez and the civil rights workers
                   Translated Karl Marx’s love poems
Even read to the Delphic oracle.

Suddenly the mask comes off, the cane is discarded
     It was all a joke!
He is simply a man who knows how to make an entrance.

                   Ageless hipster, bearded clown
Proud constituent of the huddled masses
       Bereft compatriot of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso
Stirrer upper
                       Historian of colors
Painter of sounds

All night long I dream of fireflies
       Immaculate conceptions and spontaneous combustions
       Van Gogh’s crows
                       Limousines and VW bugs
Ocean wave bongo drums
Beating hearts
                       flaming Greenwich Village prophets
Roman dogs receiving communion

Just as in life
Nothing rhymes.

April 4, 2001
Northampton, Mass

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