Bereft and Blessed

Bereft and Blessed


Bereft and Blessed, Joan Seliger Sidney's third book of poems, focuses on the author's heritage, which is dominated by the Holocaust in Europe, during which many of her forebears lost their lives, and on the author's own personal holocaust caused by Multiple Sclerosis with which she has been afflicted since her mid-twenties. She has been doubly bereft. But because of the way she has come to terms with both forms of holocaust by writing about them and prevailing despite them she has been doubly blessed.

Published by Antrim House.

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Critical Reception

“In this, her third collection, Joan Seliger Sidney embarks on a journey whose destination is, according to her tutelary spirit Martin Buber, a secret, most especially to herself. It begins ‘in the orchard of memory,’ with a photograph of her grandparents ‘snapped by a soldier’ and it follows the ‘ghost road’ of history through mid-century Europe, setting in lyric stones the paths by which family and friends escaped. She searches in photographs for the past: in images by Koudelka and Vishniac as well as those whose identities will never be known. The journey resumes in the poet's American childhood, where ‘the dream radio reports’ on the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, and the carousel at Coney Island circles with its ‘two-headed horse.’ The illness that will present every imaginable challenge begins here, its central motif an apparition of deer in mist that leaves her ‘at once bereft and blessed.’ This is a journey shot through with moments of messianic time, salvific moments, and in the end hers is ‘a road with no other destination’ but this, taken all the way. Bereft and Blessed is a spiritual accomplishment.”
Carolyn Forché

“In Bereft and Blessed Joan Seliger Sidney explores family history, the way experience is passed on through generations and, blessedly, through that passing on, even redeemed – as when a grandmother's challah recipe is kneaded in the hands of a grandson and left to rise. Indeed, all those who came before are needed and made to rise vividly in these poems. To find gratitude, despite bereavement – whether from pogroms and death chambers, or debilitating illness – is one of art's, life's, hardest challenges, but these compelling poems do it again and again. Sidney lets us into her family's kitchen where grief is necessarily stirred, but also great warmth and compassion, which make this fine book a true blessing, a lesson in what Keats would call ‘soul-making.’”
Betsy Sholl

“In her perfectly titled new book, Joan Seliger Sidney sees clearly both her role and the role of art that Elizabeth Bishop made justly famous in ‘One Art’: not yet born at the time of the Holocaust, she is now the ‘granddaughter from the future’ who must right the past of her ancestors, and especially her parents, by ‘writing it.’ She must also, as she looks back over her seventy-one years of life, find the right music for the blessings that make the most of our ‘residency on earth.’ And she does both, beautifully, in poems that recreate Jewish life in Poland and in Flatbush, New York, and poems that sing the music of our lives in general – births and deaths, friends and neighbors, sicknesses and long married love, and the long helical skein of family. There is a wonderful honesty in these poems that marry the way life leaves us both bereft and blessed.”
Robert Cording

Sample Poems


Each week by heart
I punch your land-line.
Half the time it’s David

answering your phone. “Joan's
napping on the couch.” The old
days, that’s where we sat,

sipping tea while you
critiqued another new poem
I rushed to show. Last month

you called from the hospital.
Another transfusion. Your old
voice, sassy and strong. “Now

I know why vampires like blood.”
This first day of Hanukkah,
my kitchen smells of latkes

sizzling in peanut oil. For you
in foil I pack a batch, drive
quick before they cool.

A Bielski Partisan Speaks

Victory means each day
we stay human. Steal

only to eat, take from farms
rich in potatoes and turnips;

not from farmers starving
like us, fields stripped, barns

burned, cows, pigs, chickens
slaughtered by Germans. Deep in the forest

in darkness we cook our soup, the black
pot hangs from a branch, fire blazes

below. Safe for a few hours, no Germans
brave enough to enter the night forest.

Still we sleep dressed, ready
to flee our temporary tents

of tree leaves and limbs. What
a strange collection of runaway

Jews, our Bielski otriad! Old
people, young men and women,

children. To Tuvia Bielski,
who leads us on his horse

like a meteor, everyone is welcome.
Some younger men disagree, fear

for food, want revenge. “Feel free
to leave,” Tuvia tells them. “Better

to save one Jew than to kill twenty
Germans.” Not so for Belorusian peasants

who catch fleeing ghetto Jews,
keep them freezing in storage

rooms overnight, tie them up
like sheep, and sell them to the police.

With their own guns, Tuvia shoots them
and their families. On their farm doors,

in Russian he writes: Death to Nazi
. Now they know

we Jews, too, can fight. Our otriad
grows to a forest shtetl, our own Jerusalem.

July 1944: our exodus stretches almost
two kilometers – scouts on horseback, marching

fighters, horse-drawn carts for the sick,
a herd of cows, a celebration of survivors.

Edward Finds a Photograph from Zurawno, 1942

Who snapped this black and white
of Frederik, my older brother
and his friends? Except
for Igor, who's Gentile, everyone's

wearing armbands. Look at Henya,
my dreamsecret. Like Hedy Lamarr,
black hair tucked back. Mama used to say,
“After we're saved, she'll marry

an American officer.” For a few months
before the Aktion, all of us
squeezed together in one room, a world
away from the house we used to rent

from Henya's parents in the building
they owned before. Behind her, Ezio,
Papa's partner's son. Eyes like coal,
body thin as a fox. Nights

we raided neighbor's fields
for potatoes to take home. Never,
never enough. Papa lay in bed,
heels swollen from starvation.

Multiple Sclerosis


We live in bodies clumsy and disobedient,
wake to urine-soaked pajama pants, or a warning
twinge before bowels unravel, foul the bed;
wake to waves of chill-chattering teeth, fever
firing seizures, hallucinations of the dead
dancing in air above our heads.


Leg spasms
split night,
my right
toes twist
into tortured
poses, my
kick, kicking
my legs
in time
to an ecstatic
his djembe


at the gym
in the locker room
when the stainless
steel transfer bar
behind the slatted
shower bench
off the tiled wall
with me
a paraplegic
dangling mid-air
between bench
and wheelchair,
my guardian angel
cradled me.


It is good
to skim even a stiff body
through a school
of swimmers, catching
their kicks, free-floating
atoms of energy, back
and forth for an hour,
forgetting the invisible
hand, all night
squeezing an ankle
till sleep disappears
in tears and screams.

It is good
to loiter in the locker room
to watch morning
parade past in Speedo
or skirted suits, a one-
breasted woman
scratch her sprouting
scalp, an anorexic
with legs like toothpicks
skip the required shower, a senior
hunch her way to a bench.

It is good
to punch the automatic
door opener and crunch
through late November's
wind-blown leaves, to breathe
in cold clear air, a preview
of snow, to press one button
on a black remote and watch
my mini-van door
slide open, the ramp unfold,
to ride up, look forward, lock down.

First Visit to Maggie's Ranch

Summer sun bakes sagebrush, rattlesnakes
haunt the heat. Fearless, each day you stroll
your rolling hills of tumbleweed and dust, your prairie

paradise. “More miles than Manhattan,” you say.
You need twenty acres to water one cow.
We jeep around your boundaries

checking for cracked fences, unlatched gates,
stop at a windmill, watch water
fill a wooden trough. Further along at another

edge of your land a stand of weeping willows
where a creek from the South Platte trickles.
The perfect place to sit on stumps, chew

juicy papaya with dark, dark chocolate.
Late afternoon back at the corral you
whistle for your sleek black horse, saddle up.

Your ranch-hand steps out of the stable, lifts
me like a child to sit behind you. I look down
wishing the ground were nearer, wishing

all those years of watching “Bonanza”
could make me feel at ease. But, clippity-clop
as Thunder gallops I squeeze tightly.

“Relax! you're squishing my breasts,” you say,
laughing. “Sorry, it's my first time.” Your left
hand brushes mine, your right pulls lightly

back on the reins to slow the pace. We head
into the sunset singing “Don't Fence Me In.”

In My Dream

I am standing in a field of just-cut hay, the yellow straw
smell embracing me like a lost love. Gone are my wheel-
chair years, gone the rolling walker that came before, gone
my bamboo ski poles transformed to canes. If only Mom,
whose body last I knew these past eleven years was resting
next to Dad's in the New Jersey cemetery I never visit,
convinced as I am their spirits have long since abandoned
the dark mahogany coffins Mom insisted on ordering
to keep the worms away from their flesh longer than pine boxes –
if only she were here to see, after all those years paying for
uninsured alternative treatments while wishing, wishing, wishing
this illness would disappear and let me walk again.
As if this were not miracle enough, I look up to see Mom
come flying down the hill, holding tight to the handles
of her great-granddaughter Tali's jogging stroller,
smiling all the while those two take the ride of their lives.

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