“Occupational Hazards” by Mónica Gomery is the winning poem for the 2022 Sappho Prize, selected by Jos Charles. We’re honored to share this moving poem as well as an interview with Mónica about her work both on the page and beyond it.
Not only do we name things, we make names continuously, naturalize them, holy or otherwise. Reading “Occupational Hazards,” I’m struck by naming’s liturgical function. How we name deeds, yes, but might initiate deed by naming, word-to-world, like a prayer, and pierce that wall—brick, clay, steel—carve a window. Maybe, at times, a tunnel. And that’s how it starts—don’t you see?
—Jos Charles, guest judge
One should not pray in a room without windows.
– Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 31a
I wake and the world is shaking again birds
slam bouyant voices bruised goldmorning light
Blessed are you, Provident, who gives the birds
of dawn discernment to tell day from night
in Gaza, buildings brought down as if built from sand
In Minneapolis a murdered year publicly funded
on camera phones Blessed are you Fashioner
of Worlds who stretches forth the earth upon the waters
crow eyed muzzle bright I pour coffee down the dog’s ear
morning angel-battered wings jab wheels spin beneath them
Let God’s name be made holy in the world
north and south and west of me ferns thrash in forests
unspool chemical economies Thank you for returning
my soul in abundant generosity soul like planet monster toothache
conjure Thank you wind romances trash bins for returning
sour smells war wounds gauze soaked in brine and rain
of bullets in Colorado soul leans away from photographs
of children birds mangle in great generous faith morning
I reach for any smallness that hummingbirds me nerve cells
wings You said live out loud and die You said lightly
and over and over again You said, see?
Interview with Mónica Gomery
by AT Hincapie
AH: Your writing often includes experimental forms that test the boundaries of fragmentation, as evident in your winning poem, “Occupational Hazards”. How do you see these fragmented visual elements as supporting – or even complicating – the speaker’s voice and emotional state in this poem, or even in some of your other work?
MG: I admire fragmentation, am sometimes scared by it, and have been inviting more of it into my writing recently. I especially want to write in a fragmented form when it cultivates an experience for the reader that can’t be contained by linear language. Many years ago when I was trying to write short stories, my teacher Jill Magi said to me, “I think you’re struggling with the constraints of the full sentence.” She guided me toward poetry and gave me permission to write how my mind actually works, which includes fragmentation, interruption, and juxtaposition.
This is a morning poem, and I’ve written many versions of it, because I’m a morning writer. In the morning, the world is blurry and precarious. There’s a hopeful wonder, a sense of renewal, as well as fear and trepidation over what I’ve missed while asleep. It’s all too normal to wake up to bad news: calamity somewhere, unspeakable violence, human destruction, climate disaster. Mornings are also when I pray, and so the language of prayer, of waking, and of the world, all float through me as I groggily return to consciousness.
Woven through this poem are images of waking into domestic life (coffee, the dog, the birds out the window), the liturgy of the Hebrew prayerbook (praise, blessings, expressions of thanks), and the news I most frequently woke up to in this period of writing (Israeli occupation and devastation in Gaza, police violence in Minneapolis, a mass shooting in Colorado). In earlier versions, the lines were punctuated and the sentences were complete, but as I revised, I broke things apart, spaced them out. I let the language echo and reflect my experience, these different sources and visuals all morning-ed together. They contrast, collide, and hopefully create something new. I hope that the emotional state of the speaker is captured in the dissonance of experiencing these fragments all at once. When I spread the poem out and let go of linearity, the poem and its concerns revealed themselves to me.
AH: The epigraph introduces the poem with a reflection from the Babylonian Talmud, and this phrasing suggests a penitent connection between the self and the external world. Similarly, the final lines of the poem make reference to Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Why is it important to begin and end with this meditative awareness, and how might these texts influence the speaker in the intimate moments where “I wake and the world is shaking…”?
GM: We often think of prayer as a turning inward to the self, or as a turning upward to a divinity that’s depicted as hierarchical, heavenly. But the Talmud makes a radical claim: that a person should always pray in a room with windows, that prayer is not a separation from the world. Rather, it is a joining with the world, a reaching for greater access to the world. For me, this epigraph is the windowframe of the poem itself. The news, the prayerbook, the birds… they’re all invitations into wakefulness. They meet in the self, a speaker who rises into this complex set of intersections. The epigraph suggests that the external world and the interior self are not a binary. I think this integration of self and world is a huge part of the project of prayer.
The lines borrowed and adapted from Rilke at the end of the poem are from his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, a book I’ll never grow tired of rereading. In poem I.9, he writes: “You said live again, and die you said lightly,/ and over and over again you said be.” I love the directives Rilke imagines that God gives us: live, die, be. But when I brought Rilke and the Talmud text together, I felt that something was missing. God doesn’t just tell us to live, die, and be. We are human, self-aware and self-reflective. Whatever God is, if we are guided by a greater wholeness or spirit, it tells us to perceive, to look. To ponder our surroundings and our place in it. This looking and reflecting can be brutal. When we follow the directive to see, we find warfare, violence, the suffering of the earth… and yet both prayer and poetry are longstanding traditions of praise.
The entanglement of praise and grief is one of my obsessions. Many poets have been a guiding light. I’m thinking of Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” And Mark Nepo: “Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.” And Lucille Clifton: “after the cancer i was so grateful/to be alive. i am alive and furious./ Blessed be even this?” I’m inspired by poems that put the horror and gratitude beside one another on the page and say: this is what it means to be alive. There’s a resilience and an honesty born from that kind of looking, and that’s what I hope both faith and poetry can cultivate in me.
AH: Much of this poem emphasizes place and location, often allowing site-specific imagery to drive the physical action of the poem. How might these disparate cities, countries, and even specific global markers help to ground the poem in a physical reality, especially when the speaker looks “north and south and west of me…”?
GM: I think the speaker of this poem is trying to trace a wide circle around her, through language, prayer, and naming; a circle that draws all of these disparate places closer to her. She’s trying to draw connections between them, and she’s struggling to focus, to know where to look, to know what to do with the enormity and gravity of the world. Each place named and described, whether it’s Gaza, Minneapolis, Colorado, or ferns thrashing in forests, becomes a part of her prayer. I think the speaker is trying to dedicate herself to these places, to the people and living beings within them. But I don’t want to present the project of this poem as a clear or noble solidarity, or as a representation of action. It’s pre-action, it’s blurry morning light and the chaos of paying attention. I think the speaker is saturated and overstimulated, and her overstimulation is actually the physical reality that the poem is rooted in. She’s taking up the Talmud’s instruction, to open her windows and to let the world into her prayers, her conversation with the cosmos, her soul’s toothache.
AH: In addition to your prolific work as an accomplished poet, you also serve others through your work as a rabbi and community leader. Other than the inclusion of scripture in your writing, how might this personal vocation influence and contribute to your poetic voice?
GM: Being in the world as both a poet and a rabbi feels like an ever-evolving practice, and I’m learning as I go. I love the balance of being in an outward-facing public service role as a rabbi, focused on others, and then getting to turn inward through poetry and reflect on my own experience. Like poets who are also painters, carpenters, scientists, nurses, who teach in schools, or who work in any other field, serving my community as a rabbi keeps me connected to multiple ways of being. It weaves a rich web of stories, tools, and relationships that I draw from in my poetry. It invites me to spelunk in an intergenerational echo chamber of texts, voices, and questions. I often feel relief and release when I can swap hats, moving from rabbinic leadership to poetry, and from poetry back to my pulpit. They oxygenate one another. If I lay one fallow for an hour or a day, I come back to it renewed by the gifts of the other.
Judaism is a communally oriented tradition. You can practice almost none of it by yourself. I hope this contributes to my poetic voice by rooting me always back in the collective, by holding my language accountable to other people, to histories, ancestors and peers, and also across communities, threaded together by values and ethics. I write from within an ocean of inherited text, and I often find myself asking: How can these poems reach for an empowered or liberated voice in a patriarchal tradition and vibrantly reclaim that tradition, while still holding oneself responsible for the parts of it that perpetuate nationalism, racism, and violence in the world? And how can this grappling work be done alongside the ecstatic, joyful, reverent, irreverent, and strange parts of spiritual experience?
I think of creative process as a spiritual practice, and in both art-making and ritual it can serve us to be non-judgmental and curious toward ourselves, to let ourselves be transformed by what we discover in these generative forms. Poetry and prayer are both also somatic practices rooted in the breath and body. Poetry and Judaism both help me process the mysteries and wonders of my human experience. Both are paths to create structure, make meaning, and build community. In this way, they reinforce one another, and they both fortify me.
AH: You have also previously published a chapbook as well as two full-length collections, and your voice continues to grow with each new work. What major shifts – even changes in craft and style – have you noticed across these three major publications, or how might the work from your chapbook have helped build towards the work in your full-length collections?
GM: My chapbook Of Darkness and Tumbling, and my first full-length collection, Here is the Night and the Night on the Road, were both chronicles of a traumatic loss in my life– the car accident, coma, and subsequent death of my partner at the time. Over the first few years of grieving, my attention span for reading was only for poetry, and specifically for poetry that plumbed the depths of loss and mourning. I’m indebted to so many poets who have gone deeply into the realms of grief and written records of it. Those poems and books saved my life. Writing my own was an act of survival, and publishing it was an offering back to the community of writers who had sustained me through that time, as well as a hope that my own contribution could be a resource for other mourners.
It took a long time before I was ready to write something not born solely out of this loss. I’m still writing poems about it––because, after all, we’re never done grieving–– but when I felt able to turn my gaze in new directions, I began the seeds of the poems that became Might Kindred, my second full-length, which will be out in November of this year. The subjects of these poems are wide-reaching, and draw upon my many obsessions, but they’re all oriented around the possibility and impossibility of belonging–– to people, to places, to language, to God.
I experience both my chapbook and first full-length collection as one long poem, broken into parts, but ultimately each poem a unit of a larger unified whole. With Might Kindred, I taught myself to write individual poems, and to understand each poem as its own tiny universe or ecosystem. The poems in Might Kindred differ more from one another, they each have their own rules and concerns. This book contains more poems in form, something else I was learning as I worked on the manuscript. In many ways, it’s a collection of my origin stories–– a map of the places, people, and politics that have shaped me. I studied with some incredible teachers while I was writing Might Kindred, and I was able to build poetry community that I couldn’t previously prioritize during ten years of rabbinic training. Both stretched my writing in new directions– I learned to trust language in new ways, to listen more deeply to the poems, and to be surprised by my writing process. I swapped poems for feedback with many peers and friends while I was writing Might Kindred. There are a lot of eyes and hearts on those poems– they belong to a web of kindreds.
By the time I was in final revisions for Might Kindred, I was so sick of writing from an autobiographical “I,” and I found myself turning to Jewish textual tradition as a way to inhabit something new. I felt done for a while with my personal origin stories, interested instead in our communal origin stories, through persona poems, centos, translations, and the braiding of my own language with ancient Hebrew sources. “Occupational Hazards” comes out of this period, a period I feel I’m very much still inside of. I’m really curious about the proximities and touchpoints between contemporary life and ancient tradition. In many ways, it’s where I live out my days, and increasingly, I hope for it to be the margin from which my poems emerge.