Naomi Replansky, revered poet of hardship and hope, dies at 104

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Naomi Replansky, revered poet of hardship and hope, dies at 104
Her verse examined social history through individual lives, including her own, in which she later found love. Yet for all the admiration she inspired, she was unheralded.

by Margalit Fox

NEW YORK, NY.- Naomi Replansky, a self-taught American poet — for decades keenly celebrated yet curiously unheralded — whose work portrayed a world of labor, oppression and struggle but was no less hopeful for all that, died on Saturday at her home in Manhattan. She was 104.

Her stepson, Uri Berliner, confirmed the death.

Born and reared in New York City’s Bronx borough, and as at home on the factory floor as at a coffeehouse reading, Replansky wrote of subjects long considered no fit fare for poetry: manual labor, poverty, disenfranchisement, racism, exile and the Holocaust.

Her work, critics concurred, was not so much standard protest poetry but rather a minute examination of the vicissitudes of social history through the lens of individual lives, including her own.

“Poetry for me,” Replansky told the Jewish feminist journal Bridges in 2002, “is a way of mastering the world.”

In its settings and sensibilities, Replansky’s work married the vernacular blue-collar world of the former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine, who often acknowledged his debt to her, to the leftist New York Jewish milieu of short-story writer Grace Paley, a longtime friend.

“No other North American poet I’ve read has been able to incorporate the fire and brilliance of Latin American surrealism in original work of such startling authority,” Levine wrote of Replansky in the Los Angeles Times in 2003, adding, “And a lot of us have tried.”

Critics lauded Replansky’s poetry for its translucent, plain-spoken language and impeccably worked-out, songlike cadences that recall the oral verse of old. Her acknowledged influences — among them William Blake, Emily Dickinson, children’s street chants and English and Scottish folk ballads — can be readily discerned.

Consider, here in its entirety, her stark, powerful poem “Epitaph: 1945,” written after the atomic bombing of Japan by the United States:

My spoon was lifted when the bomb came down

That left no face, no hand, no spoon to hold.

A hundred thousand died in my home town.

This came to pass before my soup was cold.

Yet to the end of her long life, Replansky remained far less well known than Paley, who died in 2007, or Levine, who died in 2015.

She had only two major volumes of poetry to her name in the 60 years preceding the release, by Black Sparrow/David R. Godine, of her “Collected Poems” in 2012.

“Naomi Replansky must be counted among the most brilliant American poets,” poet George Oppen said in the early 1980s. “That she has not received adequate praise is one of the major mysteries of the world of poetry.”

The solution to the mystery hinged on several things. For one, Replansky, a perfectionist, would cede no poem until it shone like a mirror; she thus published rarely.

For another, there was the disruptive necessity of earning a living, for although Replansky was long in the world of poetry, she was in many respects not of it, working variously as a lathe operator, an ocean-liner stewardess, a medical editor and a computer programmer in the punch-card age.

A 1953 work, “Factory Poem,” whose alternating four- and three-beat lines and A-B-C-B rhyme scheme echo the structure of many old British ballads, begins:

The tool-bit cut, the metal curled,

The oil soaked through her clothing.

She made six hundred parts a day

And timed herself by breathing.

What was more, the subject matter of Replansky’s work, which also included celebrations of sexual love between women (published in at least one anthology as early as the 1930s), discomforted some critics.

Finally, much of her poetry made meticulous use of rhyme, which by the mid-20th century was disdained by the poetic establishment as inimical to the making of serious art.

Replansky persevered, continuing to write through lean times, sporadic critical hostility and the rigors of aging, a fitting response for a poet whose work is ultimately about resilience.

It seems fitting, too, that she chose to wield rhyme and meter, the most conservative of poetic devices, in the service of ideological radicalism — an act of subversion if ever there was one.

In a late poem, “About Not Writing,” Replansky wrote:

Tongue-tied, I stand before

Myself as inquisitor.

I loved to mark time

With a beat, with rhyme.

It continues:

Time marked me with its thumb, Slowed down the pendulum.

Slowed it down or stopped: Words were lopped, words dropped —

No use to devise Reasons or alibis.

Now, strangely, I draw breath Well past my ninetieth.

What’s begun is almost done, Still I must brood upon

The much that I sought, The little that I wrought,

Till Time brings its own Lockjaw of stone.

The daughter of Sol and Fannie (Ginsberg) Replansky, Naomi Replansky was born in the Bronx on May 23, 1918. Her father was often unemployed, and her mother supported the family as best she could through secretarial work and by giving private English lessons to new immigrants.

Replansky’s poem “An Inheritance” reprises those years:

“Five dollars, four dollars, three dollars, two,

One, and none, and what do we do?”

This is the worry that never got said

But ran so often in my mother’s head.

And showed so plain in my father’s frown

That to us kids it drifted down.

It drifted down like soot, like snow,

In the dream-tossed Bronx, in the long ago.

I shook it off with a shake of the head.

I bounced my ball, I ate warm bread.

I skated down the steepest hill.

But I must have listened, against my will:

When the wind blows wrong, I can hear it today.

Then my mother’s worry stops all play

And, as if in its rightful place,

My father’s frown divides my face.

A poetic prodigy, Naomi was writing remarkably capable verse — much of it with a social conscience — by the age of 10. An effort from that period, inspired by seeing “Metropolis,” Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian film, began:

Hark, hear the bell’s sad muffled roar

And through the open door

Come millions of workers with bodies worn.

The overseers look at them in scorn.

After graduating from James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Replansky attended Hunter College in Manhattan, studying history, but left before graduating to go to work. Years later, in the 1950s, she earned a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Her first collection, “Ring Song,” appeared in 1952. Though Replansky was in her 30s when it was published, the poems it contained had been written in her teens.

A finalist for a National Book Award, “Ring Song” drew critical praise from many quarters. But it received a caustic review in The San Francisco Chronicle by Lawrence Ferling — better known afterward by his family’s original name, Ferlinghetti, which he resumed in the mid-1950s.

Chastened by his review, Replansky did not publish another significant volume until 1994, when her collection “The Dangerous World” was released. (A chapbook, “Twenty-one Poems, Old and New,” appeared in 1988.)

Replansky lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco over the years before moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she made her home to the end of her life.

She would dearly have loved to have settled in Paris, she said, but throughout the 1950s she was unable to leave the United States; the State Department, evidently moved by her leftist ideology, revoked her passport.

In Los Angeles, where she lived at midcentury, Replansky befriended Bertolt Brecht, whose work, including the play “St. Joan of the Stockyards,” she translated from German. She also translated the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal and, from Yiddish, the poet and playwright Itzik Manger.

Replansky taught poetry at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan. In the 1980s, writer and literary scholar Eva Kollisch became her companion, and the two married in 2009. In addition to her stepson, Berliner, Replansky is survived by Kollisch and a step-grandson.

Replansky enjoyed some recognition late in life. She received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2013. A profile published by The New York Times in 2020 heralded her and Kollisch’s “fearlessness” confronting misfortune throughout their lives, including confinement during the coronavirus pandemic.

If Replansky’s work was suffused with loss and longing, it was also rarely devoid of hope. This was perhaps nowhere more evident than in her poem “The Oasis,” about finding love late in life, as she did with Kollisch.

I thought I held a fruit cupped in my hand.

Its sweetness burst

And loosed its juice. After long traveling,

After so long a thirst, I asked myself:

Is this a drought-born dream?

It was no dream.

I thought I slipped into a hidden room

Out of harsh light.

In cushioned dark, among rich furnishings,

There I restored my sight.

Such luxury could never be for me!

It was for me.

I thought I touched a mind that fitted mine

As bodies fit,

Angle to curve; and my mind throbbed to feel

The pulsing of that wit.

This comes too late, I said. It can’t be true!

But it was true.

I thought the desert ended, and I felt

The fountains leap.

Then gratitude could answer gratitude

Till sleep entwined with sleep.

Despair once cried: No passion’s left inside!

It lied. It lied.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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