Migrations (Poem, 1976-2020) by Gloria Gervitz
translated from Spanish by Mark Schafer (NYRB/Poets, 2021)
Gloria Gervitz’s monumental, 260-page poem, Migrations, has no narrative in a traditional sense, though often images or scenes rise up that offer a sense of what the poem is “about”—at least at the time of each reading. Long poems demand time and attention from a reader in a way that short lyrics don’t, meaning that each encounter with a long poem includes more of the reader’s life lived alongside the poem than is typical of, say, a single page lyric poem. Gervitz’s poem is often abstract, so the reader’s circumstances guide, subtly or overtly, what the reader “sees” in the poem. Long poems also demand more time of the writer, which is especially true of Migrations, which has been published in multiple versions and revised numerous times since Gervitz began writing it in 1976. (She says this version is final.) This edition has been superbly translated by Mark Schafer, who also translated some of the earlier versions.
Gervitz’s poem, written over the course of 44 years, is deeply feminine (and feminist), sexually frank, and threaded through with religious and spiritual imagery from across the globe. Most noticeable is the Kaddish, said as part of Jewish mourning rituals. The migrations of the title are manifold: the migration from youth to maturity, from sexual innocence to sexual awakening, from ignorance to self-knowledge (and, further, through knowledge back into uncertainty), and from self-knowledge into knowledge of the Other. They’re migrations of one version of the self to another version of the self. “I am the Word / I am she who is born giving birth to herself,” she writes. More literally, Gervitz traces her family migrations from Europe to Mexico during the Jewish diaspora of the 20th Century.
Despite its length, Migrations often moves swiftly, the pace of its flow changing with the changes in form and text density. There are no section breaks, per se, no titles or epigraphs to mark the movement. Mostly, each page is its own unit, sometimes containing only one, two, or three short lines, other times containing columns of left-justified text, and still others with text scattered across the page. As a result, no matter what form the text takes on the page, the space between words, lines, and stanzas plays a role in the movement of the text. In some ways, the page is like a piece of glass covered in paint: the more text on it, the more paint is scratched off, and the more that can be seen through it. With less text, the image is more abstract or symbolic. Take for example this page near the end of the poem which reads in full:
warm passionate body don't leave me
While direct, this passage can be read as literal, metaphorical, spiritual, and a variety of other ways.
While the poem is one single unit, there are remnants of earlier versions which did contain section breaks, section titles, and epigraphs. (An illuminating interview between Schafer and Gervitz included at the end of the book provides much of the biographical information and composition background included in this piece.) Phrases and lines in Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek, Spanish, and many other languages are scattered throughout, often quoting others. Among them are Charles Olson, George Seferis, and William Blake, which gives a sense of Gervitz’s influences, though comparisons to Walt Whitman and H.D. are also apt. These quotes, cited after a glossary at the end of the book, but not directly in the text, feel as if they’re epigraphs that can still be read after Gervitz erased the boundaries between sections.
The opening ten or so pages are notable for the fact that they do feel like one extended section before the pace of the poem begins to change. I want to quote the beginning of the poem because it introduces many of the motifs that continue throughout the rest of the poem, but will also give a sense of Gervitz’s voice. In the interview with Schafer, Gervitz says, “I had a few words, a few lines that start the poem—‘en las migraciones de los claveles rojos donde revientan cantos de aves picudas / y se pudren las manzanas antes del desastre’—and then the next two or three lines. I especially had those first two lines in my mind, but they didn’t really make much sense to me.” Here are those first lines, plus a few extra:
in the migrations of red carnations where songs burst from long-beaked birds and apples rot before the disaster where women fondle their breasts and touch their sex in the sweat of rice powder and teatime vines of passionflowers course through that which stays the same cities crisscrossed by thought Ash Wednesday the old nanny watches us from a shaft of light pools of shadow breathe purples rain down nearly red the heat opens its jaws
Just in these eleven lines are colors and flowers and sex and religious rituals and heat and decay. It’s no wonder that within these lines Gervitz found a whole life’s work.
Later in the poem, the conjunction “and” becomes increasingly prevalent, functioning as a Whitmanesque democratic leveling. On one page, “and” is used an astonishing 53 times: 23 times at the beginning of lines and another 30 times within the lines, including a single line with 5 total uses of the conjunction. The page in question occurs in roughly the middle of Migrations, shortly after this passage:
and it’s the first morning of the first day of spring and I leave your dream to enter mine and the light is white and day dawns hot and my white bodice squeezes me and fondling my small breasts I push down my underpants pull the starched sheet over me and touch my young vulva
While this isn’t the first point in the poem where “and” is used so frequently, this passage does come at the beginning of a roughly ten page section that uses “and” to stretch time and space. By the page following the passage quoted above, the poem has shifted from the girl’s bedroom to a plaza in Oaxaca where “the market starts to bustle with activity.” Within a few pages the poem has spiraled from a hot spring morning and a girl’s sexual awakening across towns and countries and time. “Where’s what I’ve lived what I thought I’d lived? / where’s the dream I once was the one I continue being?” Gervitz writes. Between these passages, the word “and” is used to link each moment to the next, making all of the poem exist simultaneously.
In the opening lines of Migrations Gervitz found a whole life’s work, but as she writes late in the poem, “I have no other life / than this one / that lives me.” Long poems demand an investment of time both of their readers and their writers, and in the case of Migrations the poem demanded to be lived and to live its writer for almost half a century. A poem of this magnitude should be celebrated, should be read and reread, it should be lived and, if we can, we should surrender to it and let it live us as well.