Karen Poppy ’98

Karen Poppy ’98 was a member of the the first class to participate in The Poetry Center at Smith College. She came back to writing poetry and fiction in 2018, after an almost 20 year creative silence. Most of her publications to date are poetry, and can be accessed through her website: https://karenpoppy.wordpress.com/publications/
She recently put together her first full-length collection of poetry. The poem below was published in 2019 in the American Journal of Poetry. It is also included, along with another poem, “Austria by Train,” by Poppy under Holocaust Poetry in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Library and Archives in Washington D.C.
This photo from Smith College Mountain Day, September 22, 1997, shows Karen Poppy in the front, on the right side, with Sarah Mulrooney, Katherine Riley Harrington, Liesl Miller Hargens, Melisa Ruiz-Gutierrez and Mara Levinsky.

Walt Whitman Celebrates Himself
for my late grandmother, Myrna Sisson Kopp
(Portions in italics quote Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.)

On my grandmother’s door,
Walt Whitman knocks like Elijah.
On other doors, Gestapo
Kick their boot-soles.
No help from God.
Seasons pursue each other,
Allies and Axis Powers at war.

When she debuted the year before,
Fabric and sugar scarce, she longed
To be older, wiser, more knowing:
A Walt Whitman, meandering
Through that great consciousness.
Poet of body and soul.
Large, yet modest in her existence.
A song to herself,
Silver brush and vanity mirror, hair
Brushed to a shine, like satin.

Bombs dropped like limitless leaves in the fields.
Wars come and go, so who’s there?
Me myself, singing of equalities—
Clear and sweet
Not yet of death,
That great equalizer.
My grandmother examines
Her Jewish nose
In the mirror.

Walt Whitman’s poem starts
With his name, titled all in caps.
He smokes and belches his words,
But we love him. He is a man.
Red-blooded American—no matter
That he’s gay. He’s shamed
By the mare. Babies just pop out—
Exclamations taken suddenly.
Soon, he’s everything and everywhere.

To look beyond your nose is dangerous.
The Holocaust is great, larger than us.

Bodies drop like mossy scabs
Of the worm fence, heaped stones,
Elder mullein and poke-weed.
A child said, “What is the grass?”
Fetching it to me with full hands.
A child said, “The last, the very last…
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live here in the ghetto.”
How could I answer the child?
I do not know any more than he.
How could I?
How could she?
My grandmother was 17.

Walt Whitman,
We can beat and pound for the dead,
But their lives are lost, an ocean
Dried by great fire.
We do not contain enough multitudes
To contradict their deaths.
We do not contain enough music or poetry
To honor them justly.
Then death stops somewhere, like it did
For my grandmother,
Waiting for you.
Waiting for me.

In my grandmother’s copy
Of Leaves of Grass, inscribed
On January 1, 1945
In careful cursive,
and with her girlhood name,
Myrna Skalovsky.