The Firmament Between Worlds: Barbara Goldberg on Myra Sklarew’s Harmless

Myra Sklarew, Harmless, Mayapple Press, 2010

Anyone who knows Myra Sklarew knows how modest she is, how uncomfortable is in the spotlight.  In art, as in life, she steps aside for those who are, in her view, more deserving.  In “Keeping Silent: for Stanley Kunitz”  she says, “Like the others, I lay claim to you.”  But despite his fingerprint on her work, despite his being a family relative, she closes this way: “perhaps those who knew you best, loved you more,/ must write their verses for you.  I move out of their light.” If not the spotlight, there is a territory where Sklarew is more at home:  the interstices, the space between this and that – she is, after all, the middle of three sisters!  More to the point, what is the space between memory and forgetfulness, dream and reality, the right arm and the left. In “Crossing Over” she describes the area between heaven and earth as “the firmament between worlds.”  Here is where “the breached parts come together/ again in wholeness” (“Tell it Not in Gath”). That firmament is illuminated by imagination, which bridges the “space between wisdom and madness.” (“Harmless”)

…In this poem, I ask that the transport

of frozen children

be transformed, that

in the morning when they come to unlock

the ice-covered door, from each golden


a living child will emerge.

The poem goes on to show the role of the artist:

…the artist, between dreaming

and reality, opens our eye and places

before us

twenty girls, intact.

It is art that transforms us, allows us to “open our eyes” and give life to the dead.

There is an incident etched in her memory.  It is June 24, 1941.  The family has gathered in her grandmother’s house.  Sklarew’s father is pacing up and down the room, a letter in his hand.  It is from relatives in Lithuania pleading for help.  Of course the letter was heavily censored. “You live in the Garden of Eden,” it said, “and we in the valley of Gehenna [hell].  We would like to meet with you ”   Unfortunately, the letter arrived too late. The holocaust is at the epicenter of Myra’s material.  It comes from hell.  In biblical times, this valley southwest of Jerusalem, was the site of a cult where children were burned as offerings. But there is also the Garden of Eden.  And from its earth comes Sklarew’s exquisite attentiveness to the living world. “I had a third grade teacher who used to cry a lot,” she says.  “I found I could make her laugh if I told stories about the ants living under a mushroom.”  Even then she trained her eye on the teeming life underneath.  She says, with complete sincerity, her close observation of living things – insects, cicadas, even bacteria – is her redemption, her true religion.  “Just think,” she says.  “There are 10 times 10 trillion bacteria in our gut.  Without them, we couldn’t live.”

There’s a wonderful poem entitled “Misreading” that begins with an epigraph by Adam Czerniaawski: I’m packing my bags, flames burn us. “I’m packing my bugs” she writes. “The enemy is at the door.” Sklarew can look for hours at a cicada under a magnifying glass, marveling at its colors, designs and its structure.  “My bugs and I, we have no opinion today/  on the jurisdiction// of righteousness, on who/  owns the air.” So why does Sklarew, who grew up in Long Island and Baltimore, have a special affinity for Lithuania, the land of her mother’s people,  “no matter the massacre places, the brutal untimely deaths.” (“So Far”).   She continues, “I lay claim/  to their lives.” They are hers.  Through her poetry, she breathes life into them.

I like to think of Myra Sklarew as Malakh, the angel in the Old Testament whose name means messenger.: “In all their affliction [Malakh] was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bore them, and carried them all the days of old” ( Isaiah 63:9). It is a privilege to be the receiver of memory’s texts and the restorer of wholeness. It is life affirming:  “an old man unburdening/ himself, lifting the dead// from the massacre/ pits that they may breathe again/ in the air between us.” (“By Telephone”).

“Lithuania is a land of so much suffering,” Sklarew says.  “I want to tell the stories of those who had never given voice to them before.”  She actively seeks out the townspeople, visiting with them and taking down their memories.  Many of the older ones alive during World War II have a kind of amnesia about events that transpired.  They remember that they befriended the Jews.  They don’t remember taking part in the killings.  Or stealing their possessions.   Sklarew’s mission, it appears, is to go beyond these one dimensional memories and flesh them out in all their contradictions and complexity.

Hers is not easy poetry.  It can be smothering, as hiding under floorboards or in a suitcase under a bed in a forced labor camp   Or being buried alive in the forest.  How can one go on living?  How can one ever laugh again?  As Sklarew sees it, only someone like her cousin Leiser, who has “risen from the cellar/ of the murdered, this blind man/ who has outwitted death can laugh.” (Leiser Is Singing) Sklarew herself dredges up the mass graves, because not to is a sacrilege, a betrayal of all those who suffered.  Memory must stand guard. Sklarew’s close study of memory after trauma dates back many years.  Consider her early study of biology and bacterial genetics, or later at Yale University School of Medicine her work on frontal lobe function and delayed response memory in Rhesus monkeys.  Her absorption with neuroscience and memory continues till this day.  For years she has attended lectures at NIH and elsewhere and written numerous scientific articles.

Despite being self-effacing, Sklarew is a powerful presence.  And exerts a powerful moral influence on all who come in contact with her.  Perhaps it’s her incorruptibility, her belief in the almost holy work of the artist. And this she has transmitted to everyone who gravitates towards her – as a professor at American University and as President of the artist colony Yaddo.  “It has been a real gift,” she says, “to be entrusted with the heart work of others.” Similarly, it is a real gift to delve into the heart of Sklarew’s poetry.


Barbara Goldberg’s most recent book, The Royal Baker’s Daughter, received the Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press).  She with the Israeli poet Moshe Dor edited and translated two anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace (University of Syracuse Press/Dryad Press).Her work appears in the Best American Poetry 2009, Paris Review, Poetry and The Gettysburg Review.  The recipient of two NEA fellowships and other national awards in translation, fiction and speechwriting, she is a former senior speechwriter at AARP.