Guest Post: Annette Libeskind Berkovits Shares a Poem from her Collection, Erythra Thalassa

Erythra Thalassa by Annette Libeskind Berkovits is an autobiographical poetry collection that unites around the powerful image of the Red Sea as a dual symbol for both fear and larger-than-life hope.

Learn more about the book below and stay to see a sample poem and a bit of inspiration from the poet.

Book Synopsis:

Libeskind Berkovits’ words are accessible and raw in their honesty, etched from the sorrow of a bereft mother who, despite her decades-long science background, was helpless when her 46-year old son, a devoted and engaged father of two young daughters, suffered a devastating hemorrhagic stroke on an otherwise ordinary day. With her poems, she immerses the reader in the Red Sea—her Red Sea—a pulsing, emotional voyage from the very first uncomprehending ride to the emergency room, through ICU’s, tests, procedures and pain, recounting hopes raised, then dashed, then restored, later becoming an elderly caretaker for her son.

Throughout the collection, readers will be heartened by the promise of survival, the faith in science, the mystery of the human body and, most of all, the courage that remains after tragedy.
Matthew Lippman has praised the collection as “not afraid to confront the break in the body and to head straight into the red.”
And Story Circle wrote in their review, Some of the poems are meditative; others, cries of anguish–but all capture a mother’s inner struggle with the realities of the imperfections of life…. a wonderful book for anyone, whether serving as a family caregiver in overwhelming circumstances, or merely needing to be reminded of the temporal nature of what it means to be alive on this earth.”

Please welcome Annette Libeskind Berkovits:

1-800-Please- Help

There weren’t any virgins.
Not 72, not even one, but
I clearly saw them:
angelic telephone operators
at an old-fashioned switchboard,
sitting in neat rows
far enough from one another
so their wings didn’t tangle.
Through the buzz and celestial
interference they strained to hear
the earthly pleas, but maybe,
maybe, I thought, they’d hear mine.
‘Just let him open his eyes’
At first I whispered shyly,
didn’t want to overwhelm
them with my greed.
Didn’t want to say plain and
simple: I want him back
whole, the way he was,
seeing as they already granted
him life. Then I got bolder,
more urgent.
I shouted, then screamed
but they still refused to hear.
Just kept fussing with all those
cords, keys and jacks,
as if they really meant
to be helpful.

When my heretofore perfectly healthy and robust 46-year old son suffered a massive brain bleed—a hemorrhagic stroke—I could not sleep. The few hours I had to rest, after spending days and nights in the hospital, I lay awake, dreading that should I fall asleep, I’d miss a call from the hospital that the unimaginable had happened. If I did fall asleep, I’d wake up in a sweat and run to make a phone call to see how my son was doing. For weeks on end, the answer was “He is still in a coma.” Well, he’s still alive, there’s hope,” I’d console myself and return to bed to rest, sleepless, for a couple of hours. The sleep I wished for rarely came, until one day.

I awoke with a start, my eyes still closed, trying to tether the dream I had had to my conscious memory. Even before my son’s traumatic brain injury, dreams came to me rarely, if ever, and the ones that did, evaporated on waking, like dew on a sunny day, no matter how hard I tried to remember them and analyze in the light of day. But the dream that stuck with me vividly for six years is the one I memorialized in the poem 1-800-Please-Help.

I saw it as if it were a movie, so real I could swear I was physically there, with all the sensations, the light breeze on my skin, the cloudless sky and the expressionless Stepford wives faces on the angelic telephone operators. I struggled to make sense of it.

REM sleep, the sleep cycle in which one dreams, occupies only 15-20% of your sleeping time and since I had been sleeping so little, that vivid dream might have only taken a few minutes, maybe less. And yet, it was there, planted as firmly in my memory as an old oak tree. I knew that research has shown that dreams help you deal with stress and I surely had plenty of it, so I took having a dream as a good sign, if not the actual contents of this particular dream. Though it wasn’t of a nightmare quality exactly, it promised neither hope, nor help. It didn’t frighten me, but it increased my anxiety. I had to decipher its meaning.

It turns out that according to dream researchers, it was an epic dream in which I eventually came to a realization that unless I myself do things to help, no one is going to help deal with the tragic situation. It convinced me to act, to find ways of helping my son and his struggling, inconsolable wife.

I found the symbolism of the dream particularly interesting. Angels in dreams imply a deep spirituality. This surprised me because I am not a religious person. Could there be an inner me I know little about? Telephones, too, have particular meaning in dreams. They deal with communication. The fact the angelic operators simply fiddled with the wires without placing the call could have been suggesting I am unable to express or convey a message to someone. I don’t know.

After a while, I did not want to analyze the dream any more. To pick it apart logically seemed as if I were destroying a work of art. I just wanted to preserve the image, neither fully understood, nor diagnosed to maintain its poetic quality.

Thanks, Annette, for sharing this poem and your emotional journey.

About the Author:

Scientist, educator, conservationist, and author, Annette Libeskind Berkovits, was born in Kyrgyzstan and grew up in postwar Poland and the fledgling state of Israel before coming to America at age sixteen.

Culminating her three-decade career with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York as Senior Vice President and recognized by the National Science Foundation for her outstanding leadership in the field, Annette spearheaded the institution’s science education programs throughout the nation and the world.

Despite being uprooted from country to country, Berkovits has channeled her passions into language study and writing. She has published two memoirs, short stories, selected poems, and completed To Swallow the World – a debut historical novel.

Erythra Thalassa: Brain Disrupted is her first poetry chapbook/ memoir about her emotional response to her son’s stroke. It is available on Amazon, or can be requested through your local bookstore.

Her stories and poems have appeared in Silk Road Review: a Literary Crossroads; Persimmon Tree; American Gothic: a New Chamber Opera; Blood & Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine; and The Healing Muse.

Her first memoir, In the Unlikeliest of Places, a story of her remarkable father’s survival, was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in September 2014 and reissued in paperback in 2016. Her second memoir, Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator, was published in April 2017. For more about Annette and her other books visit her website.