How to pin down a poem?
Or better, how to pin down a poet?
Maxine Silverman has been writing poetry and making art in Nyack for many years now. A conversation with her ranges far afield. Yes, there’s a poetry reading next month at the Edward Hopper House. She’ll debut a poem composed for the occasion: “Our Year of Edward Hopper,” recalling the year she did collage art at the artist’s house, now an art center and museum. A friend, who also has published poetry through Dos Madres Press, will read from her book “Hurt, the Shadow: The Josephine Hopper Poems,” which imagines the life of Hopper’s wife, model, and agent.
But poetry is about seeing, and about recollection. It’s about Ms. Silverman’s stories, the landscapes she saw, the texts she studied, the stories of loved ones she heard.
So fair warning. Be prepared to range as far afield as Texas and Missouri when you speak to Ms. Silverman.
The opening scene takes place in a small Missouri town.
Young Maxine is 9 years old.
“I was just sitting in my yard one summer day, sitting under a Chinese elm tree, and I just started writing this poem about spring,” she said. “It was a children’s poem, rhymed at the end. I ran up the street to show my neighbor who was a teacher.
“That was about spring so I had to write one about summer, winter, and fall. I never stopped. There were some times of quiet where I wasn’t actively writing. I’ve come to understand those sabbatical times are just part of the process. It’s like a garden in winter: It’s not really dead.”
You’ll come to expect garden similes, even full garden poems, from Ms. Silverman. Gardening is another of her passions.
“I love writing and I love the way you can get lost in writing and ‘oh my God it’s three hours later how did that happen?’ It happened to me in the garden too, in the old days when I was really gardening,” she said.
As to the roots of her passion for poetry — that leaves Ms. Silverman stumped.
“As far as I know, none of my ancestors is either a writer or an artist. You can’t go back too far because of the Holocaust and immigration,” she said. Her children, however, have inherited some of her artistic leanings.
So about that small town in Missouri. How did a Jewish girl come to grow up there?
First, it’s not just any small town. It was Sedalia, Missouri. Current population: 21,387. “It’s close to Green Ridge,” Ms. Silverman says, trying to indicate that the town is not in the middle of nowhere by pointing to a hamlet — population 476 — 13 miles away. Then she gives the grownup answer: “It’s about 90 miles southeast of Kansas City.”
A century ago, however, it was, if not big time, at least more important. It was where several major rail lines converged. There was an established, if not large, Jewish community, and a demand for manual labor when Ms. Silverman’s grandparents, Jacob and Sarah Silverman, and their first child arrived from Poland at the port of Galveston, Texas, before the First World War. So Sedalia is where the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society sent them.
“It’s a typical immigrant story,” she said. “My grandfather worked at the scrap heap at the rail yard. He was fired because he had really bad eyesight and management thought he’d be hurt. So he started selling fruit to the soldiers passing through on the train. He would go down to the station selling apples.
“From there he got a little pushcart. From there a horse and wagon. Finally they were able to buy this small grocery store. They lived in the back of it. That’s where my father and his brother and one sister were born. By the time of the last child, they had moved up in the world and had a separate house.
“The store expanded, became a general merchandise store. It became a going enterprise. It had a barber shop. Al of that was wonderful material for my early poems. And the town itself. The landscape around Sedalia was all farmland when I was growing up. Beyond the farmland was true prairie. All of that just fascinated me,” she said.
As did the people.
“I loved to hear people’s stories. Even as a little kid I’d sit on the porch with the grownups instead of playing hide-and-go-seek,” she said.
At her grandfather’s funeral, she learned more of his stories — about the role he played in town during the Great Depression. Sedalia was hit hard by the Depression; so hard it was written up in Life Magazine. Her father, Abe, had good credit from the bank, and he passed it on to his customers. He kept giving credit and credit. “I talked to one of the customers who owed my father almost $600,” she said. “My grandfather wouldn’t say no. He carried all these people through the Depression. He co-signed on loans for them. He did what he could pay back America, I guess.”
Maxine’s father grew up in Sedalia. He went off to Central Methodist University in Fayette, and then returned to work in the store until his mother closed it after her husband’s death. Then he developed his own business as a life insurance salesman.
(Is there a profession that so poetically straddles the line between painfully prosaic and eternally emotional as does that of the life insurance salesman?)
He married Jeanne Lane, a city girl from Kansas City who family had changed their name from Leibowitz.
How does a small town boy meet a big city girl?
“My father’s college roommate, who was not Jewish — his name was Tommy Van Heusen — was at a dance. He saw my mother dancing with some other guy. He later wrote my father: ‘I have found the girl for you.’
“Tommy Van Heusen contrived to be introduced to my mother so he could introduce her to my father, and two years later they were married,” she said.
And now we come to the moment of greatest celebrity for Maxine’s father, and the moment that answers the question that some of you may be wondering: Why does this name of this small Missouri town sound familiar?
The answer is “Rawhide,” the TV Western that aired for eight years on CBS, starting in 1959, and featured a young Clint Eastwood. The show took place on a cattle drive — and Sedalia was the destination, mentioned every week in the introductory voice-over. That fall, for the premiere, Mr. Eastwood and the show’s star, Eric Fleming, came to town. This was during Mr. Silverman’s four-year tenure as mayor.
“There was a parade down the main street. I have a picture taken with them,” Maxine Silverman remembered.
The road from Sedalia to Nyack, at least as Ms. Silverman told it the other day, was considerably less dangerous and exciting than the cattle drive to Sedalia as seen on TV.
“I got an MFA in poetry at the University of Oregon. Casting about, I didn’t want to go back to Sedalia. I wanted to be in publishing. That would be either New York or Boston. Since I knew people in New York” — including a couple of uncles — “I came to New York. Several years later, I met my husband, who is a Brooklyn boy. After we were married and had a couple of kids, we needed to move out of the city.” She had friends who had moved to Nyack and liked it. She visited them, and that was that.
“It’s a nice little town with a real walk-around downtown. I love the idea of being by the river, which came to feature in a lot of my poems by the way,” she said.
Her first published chapbook was called “Survival Song.” “That little press is out of business,” she said.
Her fourth book was published in 2013. “Transport of the Aim” takes its title from a line by Emily Dickinson, one of Ms. Silverman’s favorite poets.
At its center is a moment of historical irony she discovered about 19th century New England poetry. It involves Emily Dickinson, who published only a handful of poems in her lifetime, and a contemporary woman writer, Celia Thaxter.
“She was a big sensation at the time. One of the most widely published women, certainly. She was sort of like an international rock star. Now, no one has heard of her unless you’re looking for a topic for your dissertation. Emily probably read her work because she was so widely published.
“That’s the irony: She could be so famous in her day and then totally eclipsed.
“I began this series of poems about those two women, and it just fleshed itself out. Other kinds of people showed up. Mark Twain is in it, and Walt Whitman. A bit of research went into it. They’re true, but not actually factual — that’s a distinction fiction writers and poets get to make but journalists don’t.
“Both of these women were real gardeners. That’s sort of a subtheme of the book,” she said.
Ms. Silverman didn’t want to send out the manuscript until someone looked over the botanical terms to make sure they were correct.
“There’s a wonderful Dickinson scholar, Judith Farr, who wrote a book about Emily’s garden. So I took my courage in hand and I sent her some poems and asked her to take a look at them, to assure me that the gardening information was correct. She and I became dear, dear friends. We corresponded and finally met. She wrote an introduction to the book. I treasure that a friendship grew out of it as well as a book. It is the human moments that matter a lot to me,” she said.
In her most recent collection, “Palimpset,” “there are a lot of Jewish themes. A lot of poems that have to do with specific holidays,” she said. There are references to her son blowing shofar in her synagogue — Sons of Israel in Nyack — and of gardens and Sukkot. And lots of poems about the river.
And there is a series of poems about Helen, the African American woman who worked for Maxine’s family when Maxine was growing up.
“Later I came to find out she was only about 18 years older than I was,” she said. “She literally saved my life. She not only cleaned the house; she was supposed to watch my younger sister and me while my mother was away working,” she said.
Those were the days when children were left to roam relatively unattended. “You just ran around all day and came in for dinner,” Ms. Silverman recalled.
Those were also days when you disposed of trash by burning it in a metal barrel.
“We weren’t supposed to be near the trash fire. We had been taught not to play anywhere near it. But I did, a neighbor kid and I, and my blue jeans caught on fire.
“Helen looked out the window to check on us. She saw my jeans were on fire and beat it out with her hands.
“I stayed in touch with her until she died. She was a source of great wisdom and sweetness for me. She had a very strong personality,” she said.
Missouri was a border state in the Civil War. There were slaves there. Some counties voted to secede; some didn’t.
“All that stuff was very vivid nearly a century later. When Harry Truman came to Sedalia to campaign, he had to contend with the Klan. My dad was mayor of the town but we couldn’t belong to the country club because we were Jews.
“We called them colored people — that was the nice term. They literally lived on the other side of the railroad tracks. Helen didn’t have a car, so my mother would pick her up each day she worked for us so I got to see that side of town, which I wouldn’t otherwise.
“No dentist in town would treat Helen. She had to drive 100 miles to another town where there was a dentist who would drill her teeth, her and her family. I learned a lot about, well, how unfair life could be. I was really protected from a lot of that kind of stuff but through my love for Helen I got a certain glimpse of it. It was subtle but very, very real stuff. They couldn’t open businesses on one side of town. One guy who tried to open a little restaurant got burnt out. That was in the late ‘50s,” she said.
And her next book?
It’s going to include some poems related to the artist’s beit midrash at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. She also works in the visual arts and has been part of the beit midrash for several years.
“I read an article about it and I said, I want to do it. I love to study. I’m not a particularly davening sort of Jew,” she said.