Rachmones - Poems of Compassion
I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing my friend and fellow poet, Dr. Pearl Ketover Prilik about her lastest chapbook, Rachmones - Poems of Compassion, which will be "coming soon." Pearl is an gifted writer and it is a joy to share her interview with you all. I hope you will find something that touches your heart and soul in the following.
Thank you Linda, it means a great deal to me to hear that you enjoyed the poems.
Could you tell us a bit about who you are, what you do professionally and why you write poetry?
First of all, I think it was a wonderful intervention of the universe that this interview came to me via my commenting on a wonderful poem of your own. In what I term a “previous life-time,” I was a teacher of English and Reading in NYC and prior to that -- a long story in itself -- randomly came to teach little children in St. Croix and St. Thomas, where I lived for six years at the beginning of my twenties.
I had always wanted to be a psychologist or something of that sort and have been a practicing psychoanalyst for the past twenty odd years. I have a doctorate in social work and 4 years post-doc at a psychoanalytic institute. Finally, after that training, I felt ready to “graduate,” although, I still adore any sort of formalized study.
Mhmm, what was the question? Oh, what do I do professionally and why do I write poetry. I am a psychoanalyst/writer/poet. I began writing poetry as a very young child, but frankly aside from a few elementary school poems, never considered myself a poet or aspired to be one – poetry for me was always an alternate language, a way of speaking at multiple levels and layers in a way that sequential, linear writing did not permit – unless one was in a particularly psychologically scattered state. Nevertheless, poetry was always a part of my life as a teacher and in personal life used to communicate personal feelings, mark special occasions and so forth. In the meantime, I fancied that eventually that great American novel would come to me…while I waited I did write several nonfiction books and was fortunate enough to have them published on the subject of step-parenting and being an adult stepchild. I do not diminish this accomplishment, but though I am now far more grateful for this achievement, this was not the “real writing” I yearned to come to me.
Through the years I put together a few novels, or partial novels and let us just say, that as an avid reader I know junk when I read it – and what I was writing was stilted junk. Finally, six year ago, just as I had heard about such things occurring, a character appeared to me, a little girl by the name of Kaitlin, who was four years old and had been raped and murdered. I wrote a series of poems about her (always having to explain that she was fictional!) and a novel. Just prior to Kaitlin’s “arrival,” another character appeared not as fully fleshed out as Kaitlin by the name of Josie and I wrote a novel centered around her struggles. As said, ahem… I know junk when I read it and although I was and am delighted that these characters appeared, a worthy novel did not magically materialize.
At any rate, back to poetry. About eight year ago, I dipped into the pool of online writing at a site called Poetic Asides and became quite an avid contributor. At that time, it was a rather small group and the community of poets was quite lovely – and close – we enjoyed reading and commenting on one another’s work and I enjoyed the immediate reaction to my writing poetry, which I can unabashedly proclaim is something that comes quite easily to me. I say unabashedly, because the poems seem to arrive rather than be created by me – and as I’ve shared with my attempts at novels – I do know the difference between working ‘hard’ at something and having a gift delivered to me from where I do not know – perhaps somewhere in my unconscious or somewhere beyond consciousness or some combination of both, or as I suggested a bit earlier – simply a way of speaking that is as a first language composed of images and bits and pieces.
To answer the question – why do I write poetry? I write poetry, because I must – it is the medium that organizes swirling passions and emotions and the writing out of all writing that I have done that leaves me with a sense of ease when I have delivered the poem demanding to be born.
So, there you have it, part mystical and part comedic – because at this stage of life, after trying for years to be a novelist, and having accrued a list of three non-fiction books and well over fifteen hundred poems while I was waiting - I recognized, with a dim-witted sort of clarity, that perhaps those poems that had come to me in a flow since childhood indicated that ahem, perhaps, just perhaps, I was a poet.
Well, I would say that you are definitely a poet, given what I have read of your work on Poetic Asides and elsewhere online! That said, congratulations on your new chapbook, Rachmones - Poems of Compassion, which is why we are here today.
Could you tell us a little bit about the title of your book and why you felt so strongly about writing these poems?
The word “rachmones” is a Yiddish word. I was not raised speaking or hearing much Yiddish. It translates as a sense of compassion for another that is akin to the feeling that a mother feels for a child of her womb. I grew up hearing, as I write in the introduction to the little chapbook , “that you need to have rachmones” for someone or some state of affairs. This admonition was proclaimed as a moral imperative and early on, I took it to heart. I did not so much write the poems for the book, as realize that poems that I had written partly for a contest had this common theme and that much of what I usually write falls under the umbrella of the etiology, example and plea for rachmones/compassion for all of us on this spinning blue marble that we all share. I decided to try to use this little known word, frankly to catch one’s attention and perhaps provide another expression of and way of looking at compassion. The poems in this book cover various situations, some personal, some public.
For me, the fact that these poems are both personal and public, yet universal really touched my heart and soul. What was the most difficult poem for you to write?
I think the hardest poem to write – was "Coordinated Horror." I did not want to “use” the image of the toddler, who washed up lifelessly ashore and yet the image of this toddler seeking refuge dressed in primary colors would not leave me, until I did write something. I hope that I honored his memory in some small way.
Do you have a favorite poem?
I cannot actually say I have a "favorite" poem - the poems in this little volume are snippets of diverse aspects of rachmones. (Of course, my personal 'favorite' would be the poem about my father, "The Inevitable Creep of the Tide.")
However, in terms of rachmones, two stand out for me for different reasons: “Omran And His Bloody Buddies” is a straight-forward clarion call for rachmones/compassion for the children of this world. The horror that is being perpetrated upon the children of this world is unconscionable. If the past years of horrific terrorism and hatred in our own country and around the world has taught me nothing more, it has taught me to take a careful look at myself and the way that I view such horrors. When the picture of this little boy appeared around the world - his small face bloodied, his hair covered in red dust, shocked, and still -I recoiled at myself as I realized that I was quickly scanning the article to see “who” this child belonged to – in that moment of deeper moral reckoning, I realized viscerally, that these children could easily be scooped up and rescued. There quite simply is no “them” and “us” – we are all connected and all to blame, when toddlers sit with bloodied faces and poets write of horror.
“An Imbalance of Power,” is my second choice. This poem is important to me because it memorializes a childhood day that had a lifelong impact in the development of rachmones/compassion. It describes a day in kindergarten, when I was subjected to a child being treated cruelly. Most significantly for my own personal development, it illuminates the day that I realized I would never bear witness to another’s mistreatment without action. It was early in kindergarten and I loved the peace and order – the teacher used three chimes to get our attention Stop, Look and Listen. One day, she rang the chimes and then asked for one of the little girls to get up and stand on a desk in middle of the classroom. We were all instructed to sit. The teacher then proceeded to treat this little girl with unconscionable cruelty announcing that this was the way a child, who could not afford milk money, looked. I felt “Amy’s” pain – and as I wrote: “I wished to rise and rush and grab Amy down from that table but I did not – and her brown eyes locked on mine – burn brightly shaming me through a lifetime." I credit that extraordinary lack of compassion with branding my soul for a lifetime.
There are so many layers to these poems, so much to take from their reading. What do you hope readers will take from this book?
I hope that readers will see that rachmones or compassion is not some grand notion – belonging to the province of spiritual leaders – that rachmones does not spring from nor require some grand statement or actions. I hope that readers will see that rachmones begins with a child’s recognition of unfairness and evolves to an adult’s acceptance of responsibility to seek and embrace and advance opportunities to make the world a better, kinder, more compassionate place.
If the world could experience a “contagion of compassion” – life as we know it, would be profoundly transformed. For, that which we resignedly accept as simple unavoidable horrors of human nature, would cease to exist. My passionate belief is that cruelty, in forms ranging from the intentional squashing of an ant to the carefully planned strategies of war, is completely incompatible with compassion. In a bumper sticker articulation of this concept of truth, cruelty is incompatible with compassion! This is what I would hope readers would be able to raise to a level of consciousness, because each reader, virtually every human individual unhampered by severe mental illness is capable of compassion and kindness and yearns to be both its giver and recipient.
Compassion is so needed in this world. Do you think people learn to be compassionate or is this something we inherit -- something in our DNA?
I believe that some children are born with more of a hard-wired nature for compassion. For example, there are toddlers, who will stroke a mother’s tearful face; very young children, who cry at scenes of pathos in films. Yet, I do powerfully believe -- professionally, personally, poetically and spiritually -- that all children have the ability and must be taught compassion.
Children do not always come hard-wired and ready for understanding of themselves and others, more often than not, they are quite typically concerned with only their own most basic needs; however, teaching a child compassion is, I truly believe, one of the most sacred and important mandates for any parent or parental figure. As the old musical song proclaims “children must be taught, carefully taught to hate” – concurrently, children can be taught, must be carefully taught to love – and as each adult teaches the children in their charge, the adult sense of compassion expands as does hope for a more peaceful world for each and all. So, in answer to your question. Yes. Compassion is part of our DNA and it is also something that is taught.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
As Anne Frank said in her oft-quoted biography – “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too. I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end..”
I believe we all have to have a little rachmones to set things right. This is not always an easy path and when I encounter particular challenges, it is helpful for me to remember the gentle words of the philosopher, the departed and yet always present, Mr. Fred Rogers, who instructed us to “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I do look and I do see.
Thank you for sharing yourself with all of us! Many blessings with this book and the work you do to make the world a better place.
Thank you so very much for giving me this opportunity to speak with your readers. I wish waves of positive energy to one and all and hope that all seek the bright spots, in the darkness, the sweet spots in the sour, and the love and kindness in the cruelty. It is only through the continued seeking of the positive that we shall continue to keep hope alive and actualize the possibility of a more peaceful compassionate world for one and for all.