NEA Literature Fellowships

Jessica Greenbaum

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2015 - Poetry)

"The Two Yvonnes"

For help he said I should read the new translation of a Gogol story
called "The Two Yvonne's," but after I wrote down the title
of course I realized he meant "Ivans" which brought me to
the two Two Yvonne's, one male, one female, whatever her
story might be now that both of her exist in ballpoint on a
line of notebook paper. And because, at my age, facts tend to
switch out with mere notions like star actors being swapped
out for lesser-paid stand-ins
the same day I got the time wrong for a friend's book party—
and what could be more spazzy than arriving early for a book party?
Not being an important actor I stayed on the scene and talked
to my friend's husband: Paul, I said, I love your painting, Ezekiel's
, which I saw on that postcard you sent out; how big is it?
He air-sketched a rectangle, tall as an old school
window, and I said, Oh, I thought it was more wide
than tall,
at least from the postcard. Oh no, he said, it's more tall than wide. I
didn't believe him but I wasn't going to argue. How's your painting
going? he kindly asked. I don't paint, I said, barely wanting to admit it
since it's so rare to be asked about work. You're too modest!
he said. We had only met a few times so I explained, No really,
Paul, I only write. Go on! he said, imitating me, I only write.
Ha ha!
and this sort of exchange continued for some volleys, Paul's
guffaws escalating with each of my more earnest denials. Karen, I
finding my friend who was needed across the room because some
heavy guests had started arriving, Paul is mistaking me for another
friend of yours and he thinks I'm a really good painter! This is Jess,
Karen said
into Paul's good ear, a thought which went directly to the voting booth
and pressed the lever. He nodded, remembering, and then Karen said to
me, Your hair! It's so much darker! Darker? I asked . . . hmmm, I
stalled, trying not to embarrass anyone, Yes! she said, happy to be her honest self,
Much, much darker! You used to have much lighter hair! Who
was she, I wondered, this sandy-haired painter who doubled
for me in their imaginations—the second Yvonne in the new
translation— and who are you? You who I thought the star
of my story?

(Reproduced with permission of Princeton University Press)

Jessica Greenbaum was born in Brooklyn but didn't ascend to residency there until her 30th year, and lives there with her husband and two daughters. Her first book, Inventing Difficulty, came out from the Gerald Cable Prize (Silverfish Review Press, 2000). Her second book, The Two Yvonnes, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton University Press Series of Contemporary Poets and was voted by Library Journal one of Best Books in Poetry of 2012. She taught poetry writing at her alma mater, Barnard, in the fall of 2014, and has edited poetry for the print annual upstreet for ten years. As a social worker, she is creating a practice of reading and writing poems with groups (mostly) outside academia.

Photo by Leslie Jean-Bart

Author's Statement

Because I have spent the last decades of my life as the domestic scientist in my household, I recently went looking for a professional arc by earning a degree in social work—which, as night follows day (and expenses) would now seem to exact an actual job search in the social work world. The NEA's gobsmackingly fabulous grant—a kind of magic wand!—gives me the nod to first spend time finishing my third manuscript, well under way since Princeton took my book in 2011. I am hoping everything will somehow add up towards my goal of teaching not only in academia, but outside it, with those groups—older adults, communities that have experienced trauma, and generally interested parties—who might enjoy the community of reading, talking, and writing together.