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Wesleyan University Press
Divine Honors / Edition 1

Divine Honors / Edition 1

by Hilda RazHilda Raz


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Winner of the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry (2002)

This elegant and moving collection documents Hilda Raz's experience with breast cancer. The journey, from diagnosis to chemotherapy to mastectomy, from denial to humor to grief and rage, is ultimately one of courage and creativity. The poems themselves are accessible and finely wrought. They are equally testaments to Raz's insistence on making an order out of chaos, of finding ways to create and understand and eventually accept new definitions of good and evil, health, blame, personal boundaries — in short, a new sense of self. These poems remain intimately bound to the world and of the senses, becoming documents of transformation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819522498
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 10/10/1997
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 117
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

HILDA RAZ is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor-in-Chief of the literary quarterly Prairie Schooner. Her books include Trans (Wesleyan, 2001), The Bone Dish (1989), What Is Good (1988), and What Happens (1986).

Read an Excerpt


I Hear the Name of the Moon and Am Afraid

Squeals, groans, chirps and whistles like red birds pinched in the crotches of yews and their pollen song, beaks.

Or window on rain, fire thorn tossed down by the instrument of his hand aloft, thumb letting go of the nape,
apex a great height, noise like a body breaking on ground.

Hiss, splatter pattern of wave,
wire at the nadir holding the blood fan closed,
blood fan open as red as a cardinal, an orange,
the moon with her blushing face, liquid earphone static through hot bindings where I toss and listen to the breakup, earth forcing flesh into new shapes whir and chitter of arm raising, arm falling, this arm, her name.

Weathering/boundaries/what is good

Your sweet silence, your hands, skin, your mouth.
On the telephone, sleepy, the son of my body.
The sun on my body. His alarm clock ringing. His birthday.
She, matter-of-fact, cool, saying what she knows, promising to discover what she doesn't know, at the library. Daughter of my body, Persephone and I Demeter. You with your $125 worth of spring bulbs divided three ways, three friends, three graces.
We plant them together, warm earth in the garden where your mother watches, who has cancer too. I make stew — you bring veggies I cook with meat — and rice custard. You build onto our patio garden. The patio is rich and crunchy with acorns. Cat and I stand on the driveway — warm — to find Orion. Now you are naked and sleeping as I write. Dear God, keep us all safe. My breast is healing well. I am supple of body. My spirit what? Still at home in my body.

Cancer is one of the few internal diseases that can be cured. I am a person who has cancer now.

You show me fronds of prairie grasses, beige/lavender in sun in your garden — sun, sun all day
— in high 70s — on your garden. On ours.

Waiting for oncologist with you, v. scared. I'm still me, same me no matter what he says. Biopsy report shocks me. You say, "So you know more than the doctor?"— you with me all afternoon, read report with me. Necrotic tissue. Adjacent cells abnormal. We go shopping, for a walk. His nurse says, "Recovery is partially dependent ?" on my attitude. I buy an expensive purse in the shape of a pouch, what's missing in my body, that last year's thievery. She speaks about her dream of ribbons and banners, floating upward into light, and her ecstatic sense of losing individual boundaries, losing them and merging into the natural universe. I am fascinated and afraid.

To Explain

The future is what does not happen — Colette

The euphorbia shot a pale rilled tube toward the light, so all week I have been grieving, pouring deep gutturals into the stone edgings of the back garden,
down on my knees, seeming to dig the impatiens.

Nobody heard me but the shade and rain in air.
I must have seemed from a distance doubled over a dumbbell (what you call weights)
so deeply did I hold my knees to rock minutes at a time, then stop.

Then once on Sunday as the sky cleared for an hour I wondered how to say why I couldn't say words had gone in their ashy fans,
and only the wrap of my body around loss, stayed.


... the old root giving rise to mystery was mu, with cognates MYSTICAL and MUTE. MYSTERY came from the Greek muein with the meaning of closing the lips, closing the eyes.

— Lewis Thomas

Misery a block in the head a block I hum mmmm through, the way mother mmmm helps me move to. Umber attaches to shadows in hedge-ribbons. Feet mmmmmmmm, hit-sounds like murder stitched to lips, the miles, hummm, eyes shut shuttered, cement walk studded with dark I'm afraid mmmmmo and now I am come alone at midnight onto the pineneedles of the park.

I am come to say good-bye in the dark but my mouth won't open.
What opens is my eye to the open edge of the metal tunnel under the curve of the spiral slide I'm afraid to rise to. I'm standing at the base to cry out at midnight Whose children will come down? Who bashes into my arms so we open our mou ths to this cadence no no no no mmm mommy up again to ride the big slide they and I falling into the dark air. Open is the mouth of the metal tunnel.
Tomorrow, mmmmu, the knife.

Coming Down with Something

Black plaques, the windows give back my face framed by its noose of hair and snow, one on one side the glass, the other out in the cold with bushes.

Sleep shoved away by prickers of pain flickers with streetlights now off now on as the cold limbs shiver.

What's gaunt and thin deep in the body thickens with phlegm — someone's hungry some woman with child and flies touching at breast and forehead.

I take tea from my kitchen,
a clear mix of water and leaves,
mild, pale, the color of saffron or urine, like blood like petals

like the robe she wears over her gray body impacted with jewels in gauze smuggled past her husband,
to come here for surgery.

Maybe an aspirin would help.
Certainly something's swollen under our eyelids.

Fish — Belly — Mound

Press in hard to hurt nine times, twice or more with your thumb,
the other hand on that puffed up place.
Thumb rigid and forefinger a rictus. Tight fist,
fingers merged. Now peace will flood you,
an overwash from some ocean of light.

We lay head to toe, neighbors on tables for treatment, both ill,
both having lost too much to mention.

The side of my body, numb forever,
my clothes hid, still drifted on.
He smiled through a red beard as our attendants strapped on electrodes.
And the while his naked foot jerked and kicked and we talked, I pressed and pressed and now have come home to shadows where I flail and sink in light these words swim through,
my fingers a net he tried to weave.

"Two Are Better Than One ... For If They Fall, the One Will Lift Up His Fellow; But Woe to Him That Is Alone When He Falleth, For He Hath Not Another to Help Him Up."

... opened my chest
... opened my belly.
You stayed close your food bowl empty your feet unclean. The steppes in your head filled with wind, static, a glow of sand and grit.
Or were you only sleeping those days you sat by my bed, our hands touching,
the concave round of your skull a focus mirror, your eyes radiant?

Several times when I slept you lifted the phone and whispered:
Later, sick, I knew whom you spoke to.
God! Your handmaiden, her fruit cheek rosy with health, not bloat.
The camellia she brought me floated in round water its petals germane — the only flower in that floral room I could see, night or day,
follow with my bare shoulders, shiny,
intact above the bandage wrapped like skin in moonlight, in midnight shadow.

In the mornings, in window sun I dozed and woke repeatedly, myself camellia on the skin of the hospital bed.
You never left me.
Now I call you scar.

Getting Well

If I get well ... I can take a walk in the snow and eat a red apple. — Anne Truitt, Turn

You gave me four fair hairs from your head, locked in the pages you left Monday morning in my mailbox,
a sign of the passion of your reading.

You would have me know how to write an essay, commissioned, on the stuff of my life on this model, Truitt's, or any other we might find together, the pleasure

of our reading in concert as colleagues hiding our camaraderie in health,
your sure recovery from the disease I'm sure will take me off.

So I touch the binding, unsure of what you mean to say. Work can keep us alive to the world?
Writing down some truth will help?

What I know today has something to do with your hair, caught in a book's pages. Fair you stand up in the world

to walk. Fair, you sit down in the sun to read, your head bent down to eat an apple. Here,
you draw in the breath of the air and breathe it out so we can write.

For Barbara, Who Brings a Green Stone in the Shape of a Triangle

From ocean this porous shape indisputably green color I tell you of healing, the color I have chosen around me like a vapor, this towel on my shoulders, its green drape an air over my scar,
then a shirt I pull over my head and let fall for the green lint-shed filaments of healing, moss some ancestor might bind up with spit and press onto my breast, no, the space where my breast has been.
  Yesterday for the space of an hour, a woman came here with her child, raised up shirt, her breast was flesh.
The child pulled where her nipple is, and touched his mouth to her and filled himself.
She talked as he drank.
I listened to nipple,
a hiss of milk.

In your photos of green ocean and boats, a line of women in green air,
their arms muscular, pulls against green water.
Their breasts are bare.
One, yours, shows a faint scar my skin wears.

  In the past year I have given up four of the five organs the body holds to call itself woman.
  Green healer, today my body carries in its clever hand the triangle sea gave up to you and you gave me.

  I press it to my chest,
empty of nipple, of milk, of nurture,
and feel you there: friend, lover of women, teacher. You speak to me each green vowel of the life language.

Day-Old Bargain

Bargain tarts, raspberry, goose,
he said, don't write about that surgery, women who have hacked off write all parts and natures of women who lose food in the bottom parts of refrigerators, onions, scallions,
sour tomatoes, tiny cocktail weenies lost in the airless dark write When you give over your breast to cancer, for God's sake don't write about it.

Write about silliness, holding hands in sandboxes, small girls playing fudge-and-find-me-alley-tag at dusk, Rochester,
state of pubescent, New Yorka roonie.

... day I learned to drive aimed car at horizon and floored it. Got there.
God in color, no cable, firsthand.
Going and coming back I thought I'd live.

Not much for visions, still at sink soaking pinkies in sweetalmond suds, I heard Mom.
Come on home, she said. Scared the witless bejeebies out of me. Next day I opted for surgery.
Cut that mama off and saved my life.
Big daddy surgeon said right on the mark, sweet honey.
It was done.

He's got a girlfriend works at his office, don't you know,
she thinks he's licorice stick swinger. I caught them hugging in the mimeo room. Ain't nothing to it, he said,
rolling his cup of a palm over the scar. Mmmmmm-mmmmm,
this hillock is a sweet raisin, roll over baby, pour me out.

What came next in the woods, woolly dark trees don't give a fudge if what's hugging them hard dents in two places. I hang on for dear life.
Filled pockets with seedpods, got bulbs I shoehorned into clay pots for life's sake.
Nevertheless the disc shone hard, or didn't.


My new breast is two months old,
gel used in bicycle saddles for riders on long-distance runs,
stays cold under my skin when the old breast is warm;
catalogue price, $276. My serial number,
#B-1754, means some sisters under the skin.
My new breast my new breast is sterile,
will never have cancer.

Once every sixty years according to the Chinese calendar comes the year of the golden horse.
Over me your skin is warm,
sweetgel, ribbontongue, goldhorse.
You suck the blank to goosebumps.

Howmlgonnaget there when you're gone back to your youngthing, sweetcurl?
He moans over your back twitching your buttons raw. My scar means nothing to him, a mapletwirl a whirligig, your center and maypole.

Death waits in the book, the woods,
the TV, the helicopter blades merging over the house, your hair a fine curl mist over your haunches, smooth hook near.
You'll curl red over him when I'm under the ash, gone, all mind or nothing.
Who the hell loves a tree?

Don't tell me on the phone your voice a fine ringing replica of mine that you've got sickies, fever, ticks from the job you won't worry about don't I either you nut, you bitch dog mother I bred you out of leaves and mash my blood on the floor my liver colored placenta curled in a cold bowl.

Who do you think you are with my sick breasts on your chest. Oh God let me live to touch her working out the next generation of women.


An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.

— Wendell Berry

Sarah's Response

Research is what she promises to do for me,
right now, immediately, she knows whom to call,
where to go, or she'll find out, I'm not to worry,
what there is to know we'll know. And soon?
I beg, far worse than any child terrified of disappearing, held down only by the thread,
her voice, pulled through the wire at 20,000 megawinds.

She calls when she finds out the bad news and the good to promise a package: tradition mandates gifts to make it better. A kiss is what I want, her hand in mine. But this is what she sends: a box.

The huge carton is heavy, cardboard walls they let me batter until I get to what's inside intact within a web of tape and swaying,
entire six foot stalk of brusselsprout,
a hundred knobs or more, each perfect head,
enfolded pattern. I know her message instantly.
In the world that gave us life, or takes it from me,
beauty so precise and orderly if seen by microscope,
or cell biopsy, or tissue through the light is what divided cell from cell and made her mine,
and him and her, and you, dear reader, whose gel-filled eye reads out this message written two years later by my pulsing hand to honor her, my harmonious daughter far away whose play is radiance. Let her live.

Sarah Among Animals

— Priam's Green Birdwing

Night. The elephant in his pen waits patiently for Sarah.
His vast ears inflate like sails as his head, the size of a ship,
veers toward her compound.
His great foot lifts.

Among her butterflies,
a golden handkerchief bordered with jet draped on her fist,
Sarah listens. She wants to go.
In her veins the thin blood flows.
Were she able to enter the field of light her arms would flood with veins, and lift.
She lifts her shoulders, shrugs off his charge.
Night. The arc sails on.

Sarah's Head/16 March, Four Months after Surgery

First the jaw goes, teeth and all hinges, intricate slivers of bone.
Then silence. Then the brain pan opens its lid, falls over with the velocity of a hard-pitch baseball, spit everywhere. Then nose in comic relief pops off, a sound like old bubblegum. What's left?
Light on trees, on sidewalks. Magnolia.

Into the null that clay head cries,
huge skull forced back against scream's lift, pulled from the void by Sarah's hands. It rests between glass shelves on a bronze collar, jagged edges cut to hide the scar from neck wrenched out of gray earth: no torso, only sob out of the gape of this head's loud mouth, and mine.
I conjure comfort with a table set with pottery bowls,
each open like my cupped hands for her newborn head,
tomatoes resting there,
chives the color of amaryllis skin before the bud breaks open, round bread,
and soup from cabbage and potatoes,
most homely food to nourish me and a friend, mother of daughters both.
A spring feast. All I can do.

Sarah Fledging

Soft feather heart blue jay and thrasher and eagle's down she has gathered,
each nail smoothing each barbed shaft oiled so her fingers shine.

Meadowlark and finch, cardinal,
the junco, right-upside-up nuthatch,
feather skim on teak where she dips from a bowl to chamois against afternoon chill,
pulls her needle through blood spots dried mahogany.

Flutter heart of feather bowl as she shakes loose another amber and dove wet pebble from the patch by her elbow,
reaches, gathers each shaft for a linen loop,
and waxes and ties off.

Whirl, circle, and wave of feather jackdaw, hawk, the golden swift scooping mosquitoes from the backyard lathehouse,
her hands reach to steady the softening cloak — it quivers,
air from the floor vent — she turns.
And now she reaches for the lamp and rises.

Sarah's Waltz

for Randall Snyder

Now she is gone she is dancing, here in the kitchen, the oven cold,
bare table a platform as she pounds her feet — one two three —
soles rosy with henna,
the old teak's oils rising to meet her to warm her as she twirls, linseed floating her as she bows, and dips, and bends to us,
and now she raises her arms.

Years ago I grew her as easily as the clay pot holds the primrose.

In her hands as she turns, light catches and flashes on crystalline bells she has fashioned,
carries and tosses,
and catches and releases into this silence their chime.

Wherever you are, Composer,
hidden behind the arras,
woven into the wheat hanging,
icy drop swaying on its filament fracturing the moon as she pivots and whirls and scatters her clamor,
please capture for us Sarah's heartbeat.
Sound it now.


Circular ear ornament inlaid with a mosaic of turquoise, mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, red Spondylus shell,
and green stone, surrounded by a shell ring and border of gold beads.

— Chimu culture, northern coast of Peru

Postcard from your drawer, daughter,
when the need comes and I pull on the handle to open, take,
and send away some message: come!

The last gift of earrings I gave came from India, silver lace fobs hung from a scrolled wire, tiny malachite tongues at the tips: Happy Birthday!

The last gift of earrings I got came from Indonesia, silver half globes with a golden nipple on each domed center, ear breasts we joked, touching and touching: Live!

The lobes of my ears are fleshy and large, flushed with health and sturdy for ornament. To pierce each I employed the services of a surgeon, bribed my best friend with a martini to come along.
In the waiting room she held my hand.
On the surgical table I stayed still while the nurse measured and marked with charcoal the equidistant point on each lobe where the needle would go in.

Tattoo the blank breast with a nipple,
alternative advice but I hold out for an ornament. In the long silver winter I recovered from surgery I pinned each day to my shirt some concoction of old buttons from her grandmother's legacy. She glued together what I seemed to need, pin for nipple I wore, day in day out.

Now I fancy some commissioned shape of lapis lazuli Yeats might like, or I fancy exactly in the proper shape of a woman who nursed babies two years of her lengthening life:
some mother-of-pearl drops for milk, some blue veined marble for the hardness of full breasts, some silky pin back, something new and fabricated by hands, by my daughter's human hands.


Excerpted from "Divine Honors"
by .
Copyright © 1997 Hilda Raz.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Narrative Without People,
Let's consider the consequences,
Isaac Stern's Performance,
I Hear the Name of the Moon and Am Afraid,
Weathering/boundaries/what is good,
To Explain,
Coming Down with Something,
"Two Are Better Than One",
Getting Well,
For Barbara, Who Brings a Green Stone in the Shape of a Triangle,
Day-Old Bargain,
Sarah's Response,
Sarah Among Animals,
Sarah's Head,
Sarah Fledging,
Sarah's Waltz,
Axe-earrings, abalone shell,
Hey You,
Grieving, she hits the red fox,
Sow Sister,
Bernini's Ribbon,
Petting the Scar,
Teaching, Hurt,
Chigger Socks,
Daylight Savings: Sandy Creek, Nebraska,
Cobb's Hill Pond,
Zen: the one I love most holds my tongue,
From Your Mouth to God's Ear,
"We don't deserve what we get",
G: But it's still not all right with you?,
Mutation Blues,
Insomnia Again,
Terror: A Riddle,
Lincoln, Nebraska,
Letter of Transmittal,
Who Does She Think She Is,
My Award/The Jews of Lukow,

What People are Saying About This

Susan Fromberg Schaffer

“Divine Honors is a rare book, one that foes honor to its subjects and transcends it at the same time. An unflinching account of the cost and the effects of breast cancer, Divine Honors illuminates much more about a women’s life that has, mysteriously, remained shadowy in so many other accounts of women’s lives. Few books change your way of viewing the world. This one does.”

Walter McDonald

"In Divine Honors, we're in for a head-on collision with grief, the inescapable fact of cancer. Raz conveys joy and hope and love of others and of the natural world turned into poetry, after that horrible discovery and ordeal. The best of the poems are breathtaking -- the sensuous imagery, the sounds she repeats for the pleasure of reading, and the surprising juxtaposition of images. I love this book of poems -- grief and longing turned into poetry."

From the Publisher

"In Divine Honors, we're in for a head-on collision with grief, the inescapable fact of cancer. Raz conveys joy and hope and love of others and of the natural world turned into poetry, after that horrible discovery and ordeal. The best of the poems are breathtaking –– the sensuous imagery, the sounds she repeats for the pleasure of reading, and the surprising juxtaposition of images. I love this book of poems –– grief and longing turned into poetry."—Walter McDonald

"Transgressive and transcendent, Hilda Raz's new poems are intimately involved with the physical, corporeal world, and constantly making the leap of faith necessary to its re-embodiment in words. These poems push the boundaries of what language can do to enunciate perception. Their beauty, their clarity, their mystery equally compel."—Marilyn Hacker

"Divine Honors is a rare book, one that foes honor to its subjects and transcends it at the same time. An unflinching account of the cost and the effects of breast cancer, Divine Honors illuminates much more about a women's life that has, mysteriously, remained shadowy in so many other accounts of women's lives. Few books change your way of viewing the world. This one does."—Susan Fromberg Schaffer

Marilyn Hacker

“Transgressive and transcendent, Hilda Raz’s new poems are intimately involved with the physical, corporeal world, and constantly making the leap of faith necessary to its re-embodiment in words. These poems push the boundaries of what language can do to enunciate perception. Their beauty, their clarity, their mystery equally compel.”

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