NEA Literature Fellowships

Judith Berke

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(2001 - Poetry)

The Returner

Maybe it was the missing front teeth
but the message on my machine didn't sound
right, so that when it said, I'll wait
for you in my taxi, I got afraid
and told the doorman to watch for him
and maybe send him away. So when he came
and held out the wallet I didn't even know
was missing - I was amazed
in this city, in this time
when hardly anything comes back
to you - not even your name
most times, if you give it. He had driven back
to the store, and now was here, saying no
to a reward so peacefully
I almost hated to make him take it.
Then when I saw both of his middle fingers were missing
I thought maybe he came from another
time: one of those ones
who used to be called a returner:

A child would die, and the mother would cut off a part
of it, so when another was born with the same part
gone, they knew it was the dead one come back -
and sometimes it was not like a baby
at all - not old, not wise exactly, just patient -
like maybe it was glad just to be back, living.
Anyway, he wasn't. He was William Smithee from northern
Florida, and when I asked why did he return
it, he said the money would be red
in his mind, like trouble. He talked to the sky
about it, I think he said, but the sky moved so fast
then, it was just another thing
to me, like the weather, the front door
where I lived, the missing part of the taxi.

Real Audio"The Returner" read by the author

Judith Berke has explored several other art forms in addition to poetry. After attending Smith College, she studied painting at l'Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. One of her sculptures "Dachau '44" is in the permanent collection of the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem. She studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Tamara Daykarhanova; designed puppets and was a puppeteer; did enameling on copper (each piece a painting); and sang with the Opera Guild of Greater Miami.

Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Ohio Review, Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, Field, and Denver Quarterly. Her first book White Morning came out from Wesleyan University Press in 1989. A chapbook Acting Problems came out from Silverview Review Press in 1993. She has just completed a manuscript entitled Square Dance at the Asylum and is working on three more, one after the work of Vincent van Gogh, and one a collection of prose poems and fables. She grew up in Manhattan and lives in Miami Beach.

Author's Statement

How the Woman Writes: THE BIRD: When I see her scribbling
in that notebook in her lap, sometimes talking (to god knows who)
I wonder why she doesn't trill, or at least warble or chirp.
Once she left the cover on my cage, and it was nighttime for three
whole days...THE CAT: She thrashes in her chair, she fidgets,
she twists - almost as undignified as the dog - who might have a few
ideas for her, if it could speak, the way its eyes go right and left
under its eyelids, when it's asleep...THE DOG: Everything she does
is wonderful, even the way she crumples the paper, when it's
a mess, the way she threw her pen across the room, when it
didn't obey her...THE WALL: She'll sit there, her face almost
as blank as mine before they hung that ridiculous painting up;
before she began projecting those images on me, ruining
my perfect stillness...THE PAINTING: Look, I'm a landscape:
a beach, a few rocks. That's it. Yet there the woman sits,
changing things. Making me part of her plot. Making a big deal
out of it