Poet

As a writer and as a poet especially, Hollis believes that nothing is ever wasted. Any observation or experience, any snippet of conversation, is fair game, and so she is never, ever without a notebook. Worlds can be created with very few words doing double or triple duty until they sing or hurt – or both.

Hollis’ poems (one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize) have been published and/or are forthcoming in multiple journals, including Rattle, Barrow Street, Phoebe, the Ocean State Review, VIA, AMS/Cipher Literary Magazine, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Root & Star, Global Poemic, Lilith, Carmina Magazine, and Scoundrel Time. She is also contributing Editor on the Board of Barrow Street Books in New York City.

Hollis studied poetry writing with Sharon Olds (Southampton Writers Conference) and Daniel Hoffman (Penn), and she has Peter Covino to thank for his boundless inspiration and critical eye. She loves doing readings, from the formally organized to the joyful chaos of a slam or an open mic.

Below are some of Hollis’ poems that have been published in print and/or online:

Cherry Picking at the Altar

Roughly translated,

it means

a smoke pot, burning red like gold.

Then many ways to say greatness

and forgiveness, witness

as a goat is sacrificed

in the bloodiest of detail,

body parts and sacred drips.

And though I am riveted

by the red gold, the smoke,

my spirit stilled and inward,

the goat gets in my way

every year,

its eyes open and helpless,

its throat open, hooves

upward

while I flip pages backward,

looking for a place to rest.

Published in Carmina Magazine, Mythology for the modern day – september 2022

Author’s note:
The root of this poem is the scapegoat ritual as told in the traditional Yom Kippur Torah reading. The reading tells of Aaron’s offerings to God as atonement, including a bull and two goats. Living in Amsterdam, and not especially religious, I would go once a year to services at the magnificent 17th century Portuguese Synagogue. Perched on a cold wooden bench in the women’s rafters, I’d spend the day in an entranced state, alternating my gaze between the cavernous, candle-lit space and the prayer book. I don’t speak Hebrew and therefore would follow along in Dutch, its harsh consonants and twisted diphthongs somehow making the telling of slaughter and sacrifice even more graphic, riveting, and unsettling. As synagogues have come to feel less safe, I no longer go. But the scapegoating feels more poignant every year, and myths are alive and well.

Essential

For those who take our midnight calls who cry
who seek our voice in the dark who imagine
who create who connect who listen who swab
who run back into the fire for us who poke
through rubble who turn off the lights in the lab
Let us pray
For those who scan and stack who make us laugh
who look into our eyes who make us forget
who feed us who bleed and breathe for us
who tell our stories for us who take us
to breast who sing to us who purr and slow blink
who wag and bark for us when we open the door
who say here take mine for I have enough
who give us the dignity of work when there is
none
who give us reason to get up
who remind us of when
who remind us
Let us rise

and take
3
steps
back

Poem published on wine cellar press in the Defense of Democracy issue, June 2022

Ask the Children

The youngest know.

They know boot crunch from tank whir, missile whistle from rocket whine.

They can count seconds to boom and brazen light bursts, the broken nights.

They can nod off to anthems, echoed tunnel cries, or blast-bitten lullabies.

 

They can draw it all.

There’s the house as it stood where it stood when it stood. There’s the tree.

There’s grandpa’s face in the house window and papa’s face in the bus window.

There’s the dog that didn’t come out of the rubble. There’s his empty leash.

 

They know the colors of blood on flags and sunflowers,
just the right blue, the right yellow, the right red.

​On this World Poetry Day 2022, all my words are for the brave, brave, children of Ukraine.

The Pupil

Vowels in the trickle of a fountain,
chasing mosquitoes over a fake pond:
‘A’, ‘E’, ‘AA’, ‘EE’, ‘EI’, ‘IJ’, ‘UI’…

Bueno. De nuevo. The low drone of a plane,
too close to the city on its way wherever,
distracting, vuelos y viajes, here in the wet
breeze in the wet leaves, anemic sun

a tease through the grey, those vowels
are just not round enough, twisted as
the church bell, whose half hours sound
like one o’clock, always one o’clock,

hints of a lunchtime not yet deserved,
missing a radio’s stadium static, el partido.
A bird screams, I’m landing, and lands.
Bracelets jingle, silvered circle punctuation

between enunciations. Try again, mija.
A motorcycle boasts the wrong way down
a one-way street, ay no mas, not this time,
‘O’, ‘OO’, ‘OE’, out of reach.

‘The Pupil’ (published in Songs of Eretz spring 2021 issue)

Poet’s Notes:  “The Pupil” is one of my migration themed poems, a subject that is an important part of my family history, my life interests, and my writing. My Cuban neighbor in Amsterdam and her efforts to learn the Dutch language and culture are what inspired this poem. Those vowels are just not round enough…

Editor’s Note:  Kurman constructed a poem filled with fine descriptive language and the senses. TLC

Just Girls

We were black and white girls with backyard passages so we
             wouldn’t have to go around the block and knock, wouldn’t
alert our brothers or interfere with their one-on-ones or alert
             our parents making dinner, mine likely easy leftovers so our
working mom needn’t fuss, hers likely grit and greens working
             their organoleptic magic in my mouth; at her house I watched their
ways for clues, whatever I could borrow or pocket, studying her ways
             of belying her stature, a wisp of iron, cool little ocelot, afraid of
no one, all protection and sinewy strength at my side, no one
             color barred, oh and next to her black limbs mine of no color
felt futureless and blank, though we shared skinny and felt
             forever in friendship, would tiptoe around her father forever,
but even before our friendship faded I saw how she squirmed but
             still sat by my grandfather and relived his tales of escape, still
listened to his ocean crossings, radiating a respect as she listened
             that the white girls just couldn’t muster, and I knew then that
home was near, that we’d laugh our way out of danger all the way home.

‘Just Girls’ (published in Lilith magazine, Winter 2020-2021 issue)

Lilith Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments:

“The perspective of the poem is the perspective of a young girl, full of specific experience. Starting with the title, where the word “just” has the contradictory double meanings of “merely” and “righteous,” this poem about an interracial friendship is light and serious at the same time, and feels deeply truthful. Its truth includes the “backyard passages” needed to create and sustain such a friendship, and the rarely-expressed truth that white people may wish to emulate Black people. There’s also the beauty of the language and rhythms, with their brilliant alliterations, assonances and imagery. And I’m left with two questions: Is the Black girl learning from the Jewish grandfather what a “tale of escape” might mean for her? And what might “home” mean for these girls and for us?”

And Now

If butterflies could claw deep, draw
blood, not just light and flutter, then
they would be our conversations, our not
touching, anchors as winds steal pages,
flit and table tilt, our magnet energy and its
skittish opposite; our breath unbreathed.

All sleight of wing and distraction, the
burn and zag turning heads despite
bright blossomed backgrounds, touching
just enough to stir, heal, droplets recalling
pools, occasional oops, never long enough
to wound or unwind, unholy time this time.

 

‘And Now’ (published on Global Poemic, with art work by Eva Mantell)

Oxygen

A machine detecting dye, the parry
padding into the room where he lies,
wordless, feet stilled and arms bound.
His glasses have been removed,
his pockets emptied.  A life fills

those pockets, the tokens and coins,
addresses and appointments. Cash, still.
Hints of barter expired.  I clutch his coat
and dapper hat in my lap, breathing in
deeply, as he cannot, to record his scent.

The apartment chokes on his clutter
and unfinished, unopened, unpaid.
Beyond his windows the not yet sun,
bouncing upward from building angles.
We pace, sit, wait.  Television grates.

From the doorway I see only
sheets and blankets in tangle;
a rise too small to describe
a man.  How many hours ago
had the coughing commenced?

The whoosh of car tires in the rain white
noises our sleep. For one slow moment
the high floor nights return, doormen guarding
our years-of-taking-things-for-granted, so sure
we had a right to that address, to one another.

He was a perfect tweed, a dimpled felt hat,
not yet visored souvenir nor hospital cap.
Lonely yet stately at home, his pride in saving
lives. The city would greet him, “Ah, Doctor,”
not yet tempted to take his elbow or to cry.

When the phone call comes, crumple
and break.      Wait, we’ve not yet
spoken today; wait, take my oxygen;
wait, the policemen called you “sir” in the
middle of the night, carrying you back to bed.

Wait.

‘Oxygen’ (Intima, Fall 2018)

In her May 2020 article on the Intima Crossroads blog, Sophia Wilson quotes Oxygen extensively.

February On the Herengracht*

Snow,
not the kind that heralds frozen waterways,
an eleven-city race on skates, but a change
on the cheek, a white sky smile.
Slow mist and snow, gulls
glissade low over the canals,
grey-on-grey then gone.

Curtains
wide onto feathered white, lacing
branch by branch into city time.
To be consumed by this pale
portrait, where all is stillness
save for our two forms, slow, slow
under layers of white then gone.

‘February On the Herengracht*’ (Cipher/AMS, October 2018)

 

   

Photos by Hollis Kurman

* Canal in central Amsterdam

The farm

In fits and starts, births and afterbirths,
there was blood in the grass that year.

Later, she would remember everything
but the news; adventures need endings.

The waitresses called her honey and pretended
to serve her coffee while everyone else pretended

that things were as they always were, or at least,
as they wished things had been and might be again.

In their shared, cramped, close room at night,
she spied her mother’s naked outline under

a sheer nightgown. Why a sheer nightgown here,
now? Was her brother already asleep?

Had they been informed while out walking,
cicadas hammering along the narrow path,

crunch of small feet in dry grass? We won’t be
sharing the bed we never shared, anymore.

Her mother had geared up for this non-conversation,
for this cluster bomb and its legacy of delayed

explosions; rehearsed as one might an unreasonable
request, before mirrors, at steering wheels, alone.

They too had had their weekend wake-up rituals,
the climbing in, the gambolling, but it was first the one

then the other, one pillow each. She could feel
the flaw in their private permutations, even then.

No one is equipped to deal with gone, and
part-time arrangements feed on blame for balance.

They worked out the standard deviation by themselves,
little by little, through lack of lines on classroom forms.

Much later, she realized that they had been not two,
but three, children on the farm that year, making steps up

as they went along, forging ahead because
forging goes only in one direction.

‘The Farm’ – nominated for a Pushcart Prize (The Ocean State Review, OSR vol. 6 nr. 1)

Cacao

There are mornings when the city still
smells of chocolate, inchoate, industrial.

No one notices. Yet many find themselves
suddenly slipping, talking of other gone things,

lovers or songs or shops, stopping
by the bakery, fishing in their pockets

or staring out the window, without
knowing why. They might breathe in

a little more deeply, just on their way.
When you inquire, shopkeepers nod,

the movement a mnemonic.
It is not talked about, but some say

there was an accident, a melting,
a pouring, a certain chill to the cast,

a powder, time-released in a blast,
now a random hint in the wind.

All know of someone who may have
worked there once, a man in a hat,

or a woman who was someone’s.

‘Cacao’ (VIA/ Voices in Italian Americana, vol. 22, Spring 2011 [pdf])

Scavenger Hunt

And at the end of the day
we felt we knew him less.

We’d started with objects
and foibles gathering dust.

The Oriental Lady with chipped fingers.
The Empire Globe fallen on its axis.
The Bronze Monkeys among more monkeys.
The Wooden Boxes with their cacophony of cufflinks.

The photos of smiling women.
The pens and prescriptions, filled and unfilled.
The eyeglass cases housing collar stays.
The glowing, gushing letters.

With fresh purpose we mined
the pockets, the pocketed.

Matchbooks,
dinner mints,
crumpled tissues,
bus transfers,

phone numbers,
divorce decrees,
verboten photos,
envelopes fat with cash.

Pocket vaults,
tucked enough to harbor
ex-wives, army lives,
unsavory alliances.

But there was no
chamber lost enough

for traces of us.
His children.

‘Scavenger Hunt’ (Rattle, #17, Summer 2002)

Poets & Writers from the Sewanee Writers Conference:
Charles Martin, Erin McGraw, Andrew Hudgins (American Book Center https://abc.nl/, Amsterdam, March 2016)