Rochelle Ratner: A Living Narrative

TellingsThis is the first in a series of posts on Writers and Poets who were active in New York City in the late 1970s through the 1980s. One of these was Rochelle Ratner. She herself wondered whether her work was poetry or prose poetry, but whatever the category, it spoke to many people. Her long poem, “Tellings,” directed by Richard Spiegel, and performed by Barbara Fisher, was presented by the New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, on Monday, April 6, 1979.

Rochelle Ratner, born in 1949 in Atlantic City, NJ, authored seventeen books, including Practicing to Be A Woman: New and Selected Poems (Scarecrow Press, 1982),  Someday Songs (BkMk Press, 1992), and Balancing Acts (Marsh Hawk Press). A novelist as well as a poet, Coffee House Press published two novels: Bobby’s Girl (1986) and The Lion’s Share (1991). 

She edited an anthology, Bearing Life: Women’s Writings on Childlessness, published in January 2000 by The Feminist Press. Her poetry and criticism appeared widely in literary journals, including Library Journal, Nation, Poetry Review, and Shenandoah.

Over the decades she contributed to literature, serving as an editor for a number of periodicals, including more than twenty-five years as Executive Editor or Associate Editor of American Book Review. Rochelle Ratner died after battling cancer on March 31, 2008.

Review of Someday Songs

“Personal and religious encounters provide the raw material for Ratner’s 13th collection of poetry. And the poems, which evoke Jewish ritual and communal life, are remarkable for their simplicity, clarity and depth of feeling. They are not so much “about” religious experience as they are moments of it …. The poems are declared imitations, representations, and as such gain their power from their exactness of observation and from the poet’s use of language as a mimetic tool.” – Publishers Weekly

Tellings, Rochelle Ratner, an excerpt

The voice is familiar
Power transferred to the brain
And then the heart
Or is the heart first?

Two weeks ago
mother asked what she’d taught me.
Hands twisting in her lap.
Sure she’d given nothing.

These are all her stories,
chants before bed
to make the shadows vanish
or on rainy days
to remember sun by.

I knew her childhood
better than my own.
Easy to get lost there

so that, some twenty years later,
we come back, join hands,
turn the light down.

She searches for her mother,
I search for my mother.
Is she under the bed,
beneath the glass of a picture,
in hair which even now
hasn’t lost its color?

I’ll recognize her on sight.
She looks like both of us.
She comes in, sits by the door,
loosens the scarf from her neck,
turns to her good ear, inclines her head.

*

I will be doing a series of posts on Writers and Poets who were active in New York City in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Why, do you ask, is this of any importance? I’d answer that this era was a time of transformation, and that every era has its vitality, its moments of contribution and destruction, and its value to the universal flow of human endeavor.

For several years I assisted Richard Spiegel (poet and small press publisher) with the New York Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s on Manhattan’s midtown West Side. Many poets and writers came there as readers or to have their works performed by others.

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