Gloria Gervitz’s monumental, 260-page poem, Migrations, has no narrative in a traditional sense, though often images or scenes rise up that offer a sense of what the poem is “about”—at least at the time of each reading. Long poems demand time and attention from a reader in a way that short lyrics don’t, meaning that each encounter with a long poem includes more of the reader’s life lived alongside the poem than is typical of, say, a single page lyric poem. Gervitz’s poem is often abstract, so the reader’s circumstances guide, subtly or overtly, what the reader “sees” in the poem. Long poems also demand more time of the writer, which is especially true of Migrations, which has been published in multiple versions and revised numerous times since Gervitz began writing it in 1976. (She says this version is final.) This edition has been superbly translated by Mark Schafer, who also translated some of the earlier versions.
Gervitz’s poem, written over the course of 44 years, is deeply feminine (and feminist), sexually frank, and threaded through with religious and spiritual imagery from across the globe. Most noticeable is the Kaddish, said as part of Jewish mourning rituals. The migrations of the title are manifold: the migration from youth to maturity, from sexual innocence to sexual awakening, from ignorance to self-knowledge (and, further, through knowledge back into uncertainty), and from self-knowledge into knowledge of the Other. They’re migrations of one version of the self to another version of the self. “I am the Word / I am she who is born giving birth to herself,” she writes. More literally, Gervitz traces her family migrations from Europe to Mexico during the Jewish diaspora of the 20th Century.
Despite its length, Migrations often moves swiftly, the pace of its flow changing with the changes in form and text density. There are no section breaks, per se, no titles or epigraphs to mark the movement. Mostly, each page is its own unit, sometimes containing only one, two, or three short lines, other times containing columns of left-justified text, and still others with text scattered across the page. As a result, no matter what form the text takes on the page, the space between words, lines, and stanzas plays a role in the movement of the text. In some ways, the page is like a piece of glass covered in paint: the more text on it, the more paint is scratched off, and the more that can be seen through it. With less text, the image is more abstract or symbolic. Take for example this page near the end of the poem which reads in full:
warm passionate body
don't leave me