Ilona Popper



Papa when you told me
I could see

the faint
green grey
sunken ship

............during the war
............the Germans used the Lake

I could feel
my own legs treading
water trying to go lower
my own tawny fingers holding my nose
my hair
waving on end
like seaweed

............the Lake was a battlefield

I could see
silent forms
sunlight filtering through water
the sun drifting
in white streamers across
strange shapes
furling and unfurling
billowing open folds
like legs and arms
streaming up
reaching for you must have been a delivery load
............sheets and towels

like legs and arms

you were just 15
in the Lake

...........a battlefield

you dreamt then in a tongue
that is foreign to me

even now

I feel my own body
my own body
small boned and light
like yours
buoyed up
against your will
always up
closer and closer
to the surface
of the water
staring as hard as you can
to the deep brown heart of water
staring at the shapes

trying to drop down
bring my feather bones
down through the years

through the
still grey tones of water
bring myself

down to that time

through the dark brown colors

through that war

to the wreckage


your memories
become mine
at the bottom


from BREAK

The narrator is a woman training in Aikido,
a Japanese martial art that emphasizes harmony
of movement and spirit in order to subdue an attacker.
The Sensei is the teacher.

sometimes after training with someone for an hour
it would seem as though we had fused
into one creature
moving the way a bird does
back and forth from the nest
sure and unbelievably quick
flitting in the blink of an eye
but not lightly
you know if you somehow stood in the way of that
creature you would feel a terrific impact
but there is no impact because we move
as though we are both the bird and the air
resistance only keeps us airborne
the pull of gravity the thin friction
of our bodies against air
against each other.......centrifugal force
these things become liquid
fluid.......we depend on them
and the touch of skin on skin
sweaty usually but that sweat becomes
part of skin and air and my skin
my molecules my smell merges with yours
my partner whoever you or woman
training together our skin our sweat
undergoes a change
ions charged.......we fly together...


Martha Tabor
Jacob's Ladder III

(sculpture) curly willow, 32" x 80" x 6", (1995)
see more work by Martha Tabor

............Sometimes the only way to teach people to humiliate them

Sensei was teaching that night
and this man bowed to me
my first partner of the class
he started by hitting me
harder than I could handle

crashing through my hand-blocks
smacking my forehead
I could not throw him

............try something else he said
and sucked his breath against his teeth
............when something does not work he said

I moved my other hand into his face

............when something does not work must try something else
............whether it is

he had left an opening
and I'd made a fake strike to his face
atemi a move to take his balance
he did not see it
my hand still dangling in front of his eyes
when we both realized
he had missed it

............this is not a game
............and if you want to play that way

I don't think it's a game I said

his eyes hardened on some point
just beyond me
and he motioned me to strike at him
along the side of his headI moved in slow motion
mimed an attack
but he grabbed my wrist
twisted it and pulled me
off my feet
slammed me into the floor
............I should get up and walk away
............refuse to train
............has anyone ever done that?
instead I stood
drifted toward him
like someone moving underwater
and he threw me again
twisted then whipped my arm
and something in my wrist snapped
burning in the joint

I ran from the mat
sat on the stairs
began to cry
and he came off the mat
and hung over me
I wouldn't look at him
my backbone rigid

............What can I say? he said I'm sorry but
............when someone puts their fingers in my eyes
............I get mad......OK?


In memory of Cal Revelle, 1952 - 1995

when I get off the plane
touch down on the opposite coast
............from yours
I will set my watch forward

I came across
the entire North American
continent to say goodbye
but you'd left without me
you'd left ahead
and I got there
after they had taken away
even your body
your empty form white on the bed
like a plant that has been torn up
and laid out on top of the earth
no longer connected
you had died
in the root

it was a slow death
it took one whole year
a look came in your eyes
like someone looking over
from the mountaintop
what you saw then
is not yet clear

we never spoke of it over the phone
the lines the long black buzzing lines
that carried your voice
weak and then strong
and once I even heard your smile
come to me over that long thin tunnel
the voice-wire stinging and snapping overhead
strung out over the hay fields
swaths cut out of the woods
so your voice raveled out
the length of the continent

maybe it took your whole life to die
the living brought on the dying
maybe we all go like that
in stages
and finally lie down from tiredness

like children we want to get up
to join the others
see what the voices are saying
in the next room
don't want to miss anything
but sleep is wrapped around the body
like wine in the blood
or warm milk

lying there unable to move
hearing the murmurs in the next room
the glasses clinking
someone dragging a plate across the table
in the next room
someone who is awake now
we still want to get up
to take one more look
to see what we are missing
to join in
but sooner or later
we all lie down
some stumble down to that place
but every body ends up empty and still
under the silent sun

those awake in the next room
making dinner
those are the ones who carry you now
all of us scattered apart
so far away from the others
each one of us is carrying you
the still pictures the sounds
the way you spoke
the exact inflection of
your children's names
the way you called Muriel

I carry you in the box the brain
in this air tight air-compartment
the airplane
and now as we touch down
on the opposite coast
I put my watch forward
and even your time is gone

you time is gone



he's praying for my poems
my dad the way he might pray
for a child of mine someone we
would hold and give food and pick up
when she falls down
tell her she's beautiful
beautiful the night falls
over sleeping children
every night it happens that way
there's no little one folded up in my arms
he and mom gave it up
about that.......I pray
to Jude
my dad says
patron saint of lost causes
you might say every child is lost
in some way.......the Lord too
my dad says if he gives me no answer
I still have faith might say
every child lives on

he's praying for me
my dad.......I don't have faith
exactly that way.......just go on
folding words together.......take these
for your little ones
or for yourself
for the time
when you need to feel that someone's


Ilona Popper's first book of poems, Break, was published in 2002 by The Bunny an the Crocodile Press. Her poems have also appeared in Weavings 2000: The Maryland Millennial Anthology, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Antietam Review, and other journals. Popper has performed her poetry at The Writers Center in Bethesda, MD, "Excavations: New Work in Language and Movement" at the DC Arts Center, Takoma Coffeehouse on Montgomery County Cable Television, and "The Poet and the Poem" on WPFW-FM. Recent work includes a poetry/dance collaboration of "Time Zone" with choreographers Therese Keegan and Lizard Walker-Keegan of Updraft.

Published in Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 2004.