May 17, 2022

What I Didn’t Know I Knew
Dear Good People,

Let me tell you a story. One of the first poems I wrote I called “Leaving.” It arrived on the page whole and complete, as if I were channeling. I was startled by how I seemed to know something I didn’t know I knew about the Old World.

I read the poem to my mother. She set down her knitting and stared at me. Not an effusive person or cheerleader known for her praise, I nonetheless knew she was impressed. “You’re a mystic,” she said, sotto voce. The shock of the epithet made me laugh. I had the giddy feeling that she’d said something true.

Of course, neither of us had ever met a mystic or had knowingly experienced a mystical event, and yet in that moment we were both aware of a kind of magic, the magic of imagination shaped by collective memory that exists beyond the personal, in timeless realms.

When folks ask me what’s it like to be a writer, I tell them it is like being a translator, a vessel for language, images, stories that are in me and beyond me and are brought into form—sometimes poetry, sometimes fiction—through hard work and grace.

Here is that older poem. I put it into your hands as a gesture of faith in our ability to tell and honor all our stories.


Dog-faced, the Czar’s livery boys
thick-set dimwits smelling of Kvass and onions,
“Old man,” they shouted. “King of the dung-heap,
rag-bag of lice, husband of fleas. We have a message
from your Czar. Fight for your country or die.”

But you, already a little detached from this world
stole behind our hut, davening,
your coarse dark clothes
in humble dance before the Lord:
and stroking your gray frayed beard
like the fringe of prayer shawl you pulled for an answer,
wept into the frigid air, “I cannot kill another man.”

Then kneeling to a stump matted with blood
and chicken feathers, you axed your trigger finger,
watched steam rise from the flesh, a red
pure as beet juice seep into the snow.

All that day goats and chickens wandered freely
in the yard, scratching at frozen earth.
I went to the well and drew water
for your maimed hand. Each hour you grew paler
and waited for a sign.

At dusk we lit Sabbath candles.
Mama’s kerchiefed head bent toward the flickering light.
When the golden challah
kneaded and braided that very afternoon
floated upward from our table
into the darker air
like Mama’s apron caught by sudden wind,
you turned to me and said, We leave tonight.

So why Papa, even now, in dreams do we run?
Anyatchka, Anyatchka you call…
Sallow girl, Thin Reed,
Little Monkey, tell me what you know.

The world’s on fire, and you,
Small Miracle, bring water from the well.
Night’s unquenchable. Here, grab a blanket,
your shawl. What do you know
of possessions? Come, Little One, quickly,
sing the old melody while night still burns.

If you read my blog, you know that, fifty years or so later, some of this poem’s themes still live with me: “Belonging: The Quest for Your Inner Home,” “The Power of Naming: How Our Mothers Coped and How We Can,” and, most recently, “Feeling and Thinking: How Both Logic and Emotion Shape Who We Are.”

On another note, I would be so happy to see old friends and new faces at the summer reading events for June and July listed below. (I will send another letter with fall events later this summer.)

Please note that some events require you to register. Some will be in-person only but some are both in-person and online! You can find more information on my website events page or my Facebook events page.

I’m delighted that my dear friend and Buddhist teacher, Mare Chapman, will moderate the reading on June 16th. Later in June, I will be joined by the former Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Marilyn Taylor, for Watershed Readings at Arts + Literature Laboratory. Then, in July, by local poet Carrie Voigt Schonhoff at Leopold’s Books Bar Caffé.

Dale Kushner in conversation with Mare Chapman
Thursday, June 16
Time: 6 PM CDT  (4 PM PDT  7 PM EDT)
Mystery to Me Bookstore, Madison, WI
In-person and streaming online – register for your preference at the link

June Watershed Reading: Marilyn L. Taylor, Jess Parker, Dale Kushner
Saturday, June 25
Time: 7 PM CDT
Arts + Literature Laboratory, Madison, WI
In-person only. No registration required.

Poetry Night featuring Dale M. Kushner and Carrie Voigt Schonhoff
Monday, July 11
Time: 7 PM CDT
Leopold’s Books Bar Caffe, Madison, WI
In-person only. RSVP on Facebook.

Barbara Graham in conversation with Dale M. Kushner
Wednesday, July 13
Time: 6:00 PM CDT (4:00 PM PDT, 7:00 PM EDT)
Mystery to Me Bookstore, Madison, WI
In-person and streaming online – register for your preference at the link

Hope we get to share some time together at one of these events.

Fondly, and with care,


Top image: La femme enceinte (Maternité) (1913) by Marc Chagall (1887‒1985) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam/Public Domain