Elizabeth Poliner

Two Poems

Perfect Season

“Tyree Makes Catch of a Lifetime in Super Bowl”
Headline, Associated Press, February 4, 2008


We were talking of the New England Patriots,
how close they had come to it—a perfect season—
16 and 0 and but one game left, that Super Bowl
that some weeks later we still couldn’t accept.
New Englanders, all of us, except my sister-in-law

at whose table we sat enjoying a traditional
Shabbat meal, brisket dripping in juice, platters
of potatoes and green beans, plump miracles
of challah. We’d stood behind our chairs, lit the candles,
blessed the wine and bread, and all of us

had felt a little taller for the effort, as if we’d bathed
and ironed and deliberately calmed ourselves
for the Sabbath, as if we were still as good Jews
as the generation before hoped we’d be. The prayers,
more familiar than nursery rhymes, the food, redolent

of another era, where a gathering like this was routine,
a big table, a bundle of relatives. Uncle Sid sat across
from me, and to my left was long-lost cousin Jan,
who looked just like Sid’s mother, my grandmother,
now ten years dead: same nose, smile, chin—

same face. Midmeal, struck by the uncanny resemblance,
I doused Jan with questions just to see her head turn,
to glimpse that essence of my grandmother
I didn’t even know I missed. Sid, stiff and formal,
wasn’t speaking to her, and if he noticed the likeness

he resisted its pull, for What kind of Jew, Sid has said
of Jan, becomes a Christian? Rumor was her wish for change
began early, with Hebrew school teasings, with isolation,
sadness, fear—and maybe with this family,
expecting so much, judging so harshly. What kind  

of Jew becomes a Christian? is the reason
my uncle won’t talk to her, considers Jan dead
as my grandmother, the turn an unforgivable
betrayal. “We talk to her,” my father whispered later,
“she calls sometimes and we talk,” but even he

didn’t advertise the connection, as if he—we—
were so different, as if pain and its consequences
hadn’t touched our lives and something else
wasn’t anything any of us had ever wanted.
Yet “some Super Bowl,” someone said,

and each of us, instantly, longed for something else,
the Giants to have gotten fourth-quarter jitters,
say, and simply fallen down. Sid, eyes popping,
gave it to us play by play. “Got a minute-fifteen
remaining on the clock, the Giant’s wide receiver

racing down the field, the quarterback wriggling
free of a sack, the ball soaring, the tension
mounting, the crowd roaring—” and Jan and I
leaned forward, cheering, laughing, and though
we’d seen it before, that leaping, one-handed,

ball-slammed-against-helmet, utterly improbable
catch, the retelling made it new, chancy as ever—
Would he drop it? Would there be a touchdown?
By then Sid was helpless, succumbing as he did
to the claps and squeals of someone so like

his mother, and soon enough the telling
was for her—only her—and time, though ticking
in his account, in real life stopped, reversed,
Sid was young again, we were young again,
every reason for hatred gone, every impulse

set on pleasing, and in this momentary suspension
it hadn’t happened yet, the game wasn’t over—
Tom Brady could still heave the ball the entire field’s
length, could land it in the hands of his running receiver,
and the perfect season could still be ours to have.

Barbara Frank, “Floaters/diptych,” acrylic on canvas, 54″ x 52″


The old gym bag—bathing suit, cap,
shampoo, razor—as ready to go
as it was four years back, autumn,
the onset of illness, the last time I used it.

Today it became the mikvah bag,
bathing suit and cap superfluous,
but shampoo and razor essential
for the priming, the cleansing,
the ritual before the ritual bath.
This Rosh Hashanah we would bathe for rebirth.

Lynn was there without her breasts.
Jan was there without some of her colon.
Barbara was there soon to be without
her thyroid. All of me was there,
but each cell without its energy source.

As is the custom, I dipped three times.
Nothing happened.
Floated face down, floated face up.
Soon a prayer—my only one—emerged:
“Help me, please.”
Then a need, instinctual,

to dip three times more.
There was a time for sobbing,
a time for floating,
and a time, finally,
for moving

into a deeper kind of prayer.
Not much of a pool, that mikvah,
yet I stroked, grabbed the wall,
turned, stroked, grabbed the wall, re-
turned. Incredible, this sense,

again instinctual,
to dip three times more—
a third, final immersion—
before rising from the waters,
swimmer that I always was,
tired as if old,
wet and dripping as if new.


“Perfect Season” reprinted from What You Know in Your Hands (David Robert Books, 2015) with permission of the author.



Elizabeth Poliner's books include the poetry collection, What You Know in Your Hands (David Robert Books), a Beltway Poetry Quarterly Best Book selection for 2015, and the novel, As Close to Us as Breathing (Little, Brown & Co.), winner of the 2017 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in Fiction, finalist for the Ribalow Prize for Jewish fiction and the Library of Virginia’s People’s Choice Award in Fiction, and an Amazon Best Book of 2016. Her poetry has appeared in The Sun, the Southern Review, the Hopkins Review, Ilanot Review, and Seneca Review. She teaches at Hollins University where she directs the Jackson Center for Creative Writing. To read more by this author, see the Spring 2000 Issue, Whitman Issue, and Evolving City Issue.