There is No Place Without You

poems

by Maya Bernstein

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About this book

Maya Bernstein’s debut volume presents poems rigorously composed and delicately honed. It reveals the sensitive spirit and sharp mind of a mature speaker exploring the gaping space between the infinitude of the divine and the finite nature of human existence.

Authentic and honest, spanning the secular and the sacred, these poems challenge and speak truth to our fears and joys, navigating the complex intimacy and distance we experience as humans striving to connect to ourselves, one another, and to the forces that act upon us in the world.

Advance Praise

In Maya Bernstein’s debut collection, There Is No Place Without You, a speaker attempts to balance—impossibly, ecstatically—her roles as mother, wife, cancer survivor, and observant Jew. The “you” of the book’s title slips and slides from poem to poem, an elusive interlocutor who is sometimes the beloved, sometimes illness or memory, sometimes the divine. Always imaginative and often subversive, Bernstein’s poems compare the body to “the ancient gates / of the Old City // of Jerusalem,” the self to a predatory nightbird “on the prowl,” and even the heart to “a flopping fish” caught in a net. Bernstein reminds us there are traumas we cling to and traumas, in return, that cling to us, that all of us possess both hidden and visible scars.
Jehanne Dubrow, author of Wild Kingdom and Taste: A Book of Small Bites

Maya Bernstein looks underneath: underneath motherhood is independence; underneath death is time; underneath love is a long list of questions. In poems of ritual, unearthing, celebration, and lament, Bernstein reframes what is evident by asserting its necessity: a tree, a tradition, an absence, a presence. Through prayer and yearning, these poems give shape to desire, and each desire is filled with its own tension:  “Who will I be if I be / come capable of dreaming of linen, of lace?” Deft in form, and demonstrating depth of engagement with existential questions, these poems fulfill one of poetry’s vocations: to call our attention to attention.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet and host Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios

“Bernstein’s poems brim with energy and sound, moving the reader around a world mapped by motherhood, contemplation, religion, and the effects of illness on the body and spirit. Her language is lyrical, delicate, and poised; her lens is lucid and original. These are poems to savour, to return to, and to pack into the suitcase of life.”
Anthony Anaxagorou, author of After the Formalities

"Forgive the Nonsense of My Past Prayers"

Forgive the Nonsense of My Past Prayers

When you lose
your sense
of taste
and smell
the good disappears
too. Together with the bad.

I’m slathered in Vicks Vaporub and I reek, but don’t feel bad
because I can’t detect even a hint of camphor, or eucalyptus. I’ve lost
all gustation & olfaction. Not a fraction left. They disappeared
quickly; I didn’t have the sense
to see it coming, but if I had I would have quickly smelled
my neighbor’s beautiful basil that I pick in handfuls for pesto and tasted

the gazpacho to see if it needed more pepper. My tastes
have evolved over the years. On a bad
day I prefer a Bloody Mary to an ice cream cone. I smell
different too, more salty, more like the sea. But I’ve lost
my focus, which must dwell between nose and tongue. Mostly I’m incensed
at myself that for so long I implored that the pain in my life disappear;

I no longer want it to disappear.
What would the madeleine dipped in piping tea have tasted
like with faulty odor receptors? Scalding liquid and crumbs. The sensitivity
of our souls to the bitter, to the bad,
determines the sweetness of our bliss. How will I make up the lost
time? How will I recall these days in which I cannot smell

my shampooed hair after the shower, the smell
of a thunderstorm, drenched applewood, disappearing
smoke from the beeswaxed wick; it’s like I’ve lost
my life-force. I want to taste
sour milk again, a rotten peach, a bad
egg, please, forgive the nonsense

of my past prayers. I offer now this incense
on the smoldering altar: I want to smell
the terror, to hear the bad
news. Don’t let the hardships disappear.
My tastes
have changed. I’m ready to face the loss.

 

"Elul Ghazal"

Elul Ghazal

The new moon rises. I look beyond the windowsill, return
my gaze to God. Somewhere, a Shofar wails its cry, a shrill “Return!”

God, if You are King, I want to be Your Queen.
I’d write You love notes with my feathered quill, Return…

Come to my bed. If You’re a shepherd, I want to be
a sheep leaping through the grassy hills, returning.

I’m Seeking You, Your staff and flask and flute and sandaled feet.
I hide in my chamber. You made a promise I expect You to fulfill: to return.

The sun glares through the window. I pull
the curtains closed. I stray in my heart. I lie still, return.

I graze in the pastures of my dreams, I laze in my verdant bed, but
You’ve slipped from the linen sheets before I’ve had my fill, my turn.

I seek but cannot find You. I place a sachet of myrrh
between my breasts, hoping it will spill, return

Your hungry gaze toward me, so I will not stray
after the flocks of Your companions. I’ll despair till You return.

Then would the trees put forth their fruit? Would turtle-
doves begin to coo? Would You hear my voice and thrill at my return?

If only You would whisper, Maya, come to me!
Your love is better than wine! Then I will return.

"Why You Must Come Back to the City"

Why You Must Come Back to the City

When we are together we are
an exclamation, an obscurity, a meter.

No herd of cows or loveliness
of ladybugs or any gaggle of geese

could stop me trying to lure you home.
No bouquet of buttercups or dandelions

can compete with hot subway air,
and while we may not have brown bears

we do have pigeons. And reception.
Forget wrap-around porch perfection,

forget peaches, corn, sunflower seeds,
dispensaries of legal weed;

they have nothing over our fire-hydrants
and air conditioning. I just can’t

face the heat without you. Come on,
I’m not asking you to amputate an arm.

Give up your mountain views!
Worship me in city pews!

A sparkle of fireflies
cannot pollute night’s skies

like our light. Who needs stars
when we could stare, and stare…I dare

you: come back. (Alternatively, you might invite me
to be your guest in the country).

"18 Translations of a Line"

18 Translations of a Line

“Hakol bidei shamayim chutz miyir’at shamayim”
—Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 33b

  1. everything is in Your hands except for my belief in You
  2. everything I perceive is my perspective
  3. my skin is thin, slippery; I am what is left over of myself
  4. everything (everything [in my control] everything) everything
  5. nothing except interpretation
  6. if x (wherein x = I believe) then y (in which y = I’m more likely to feel safe)
  7. nothing (nothing [fear] nothing) nothing
  8. though I am alive, I am gutted
  9. x-y (where x = I’m safe and y = except when I’m not)
  10. everything floats cloudlike by; I impose shapes
  11. my scars look like angry silent mouths, grimacing
  12. (what remains of my body) > (praise)
  13. -x + – y = z wherein x = when I still believed in you, and y = when I stopped believing in you and z = it doesn’t matter
  14. I stand on my own shoulders reaching my hands towards You, since
  15. everything in Heaven’s hands. But You elude my grasp
  16. when {I clench my fists with awe} then {fear slips through my fingers}
  17. x (y-z) = xy – xz, wherein x = when You still believed in me, and y = when You stopped believing in me and z = the numerical equivalent of spiritual gravity

About the Author

Maya Bernstein’s writing has appeared in Poetica Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Lilith Magazine, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and the Harvard Business Review, among others.

She is on the faculty at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership, the Masa Leadership Center, and Yeshivat Maharat, and is earning an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College.

She lives in Yonkers with her family.