Praise for Fire Ashes Wings:

The poems in Fire Ashes Wings follow—with cunning originality—in the footsteps of Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Alicia Ostriker. These poems are probing, widely and wildly imagined, and, best of all, deeply human. Ruth Kessler’s poems are multifaceted lyrical jewels, sparking, igniting, shining. Their refracted light is most welcome.— Ralph Black

Fire Ashes Wings contains many wonderful poems with striking imagery. In them, Ruth Kessler explores mythic female figures from Leda to Alice in Wonderland like “a timeless messenger of the Muses who/... mend[s] this world into song.”— Enid Shomer

A portrait of any mythic figure is a portrait of us, and what we want from a mythic redux is not merely a re-telling but a fresh bodying forth of old truths from the untold interstices of extant story. In this sequence of choral voicings, often dramatically monologic, Ruth Kessler allows Daphne, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Degas’s Absinthe Drinker, Ophelia, the Biblical Ruth, and a host of other female personae from myth, art history, and literature to speak or be seen, each newly imagined in a counterpoint both mercuric and illuminating…— Lisa Rass Spaar

The Window Wide Open: the Poetry of Ruth Kessler

By Barbara Jordan

(Adapted from an essay for a Hallwalls catalogue)

Ruth Kessler was born in Poland, emigrated to Israel as a child, and later moved to the United States to finish a graduate degree in English literature. She’s proficient in more than three languages, and publishes translations and short-fiction as well as poetry. The fact that she does literary writing -- particularly poetry, with its associative nuances -- in a language acquired later in life, makes her work that much more impressive.

In the work one finds a richness of imagery and pattern, a fine lyrical imagination, and the cosmopolitan sensibility and erudition of a woman who has traveled and read extensively. At the same time, perhaps because her first experience of travel came as part of the cultural displacement of many Polish Jews, Ruth Kessler’s writing often explores a sense of geographical and spiritual homelessness -- or perhaps better to say the faithlessness of certain kinds of knowledge.

One of the poets that Ruth Kessler most admires is Rilke. “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness,” he said, and again, “here there is no place that does not see you.” To conflate the two statements brings me close to certain ground that I find in Ruth Kessler’s poems -- first, a sense of exile or homelessness, and second, a sense that in the work of art, in the poem as it expresses an existential position, one is vulnerable both to mystery and to scrutiny. More often in Ruth Kessler’s poems this scrutiny arises not from the eyes of others, but from the “eyes” of the natural world; and between us and the things which share existence, there is only shared estrangement.


...Kessler's poems reiterate separateness as a condition of being. “We are deaf to each other,” she declares in “Reply,” a poem written in response to a letter (“unsealing a past nearly forgotten”) from a childhood friend. Elsewhere, time an events destroy evidence, muddy the waters of a personal past. “The War. / And The War even now madly scattered, / charred puzzle pieces,” Kessler says in “Unlike Cain Angel-Like,” a poem about a Passover eve in Paris during the course of which the hostess is discovered to be a Righteous Gentile. This inability to reach through to another in any essential way becomes the primary cause of sorrow and yearning... As a consequence, the search for a shared ground emerges as a theme that runs through many of Kessler’s poems. It is not surprising that a poet who has been uprooted so many times would turn to the continuity of nature for a kind of comfort. If we cannot know each other, the poems say, we can know that we are together in this isolation:

If we live our lives forever taking leave,
here is the evidence we are not alone:
Merely to watch the tree-tops relinquish their crowns
of gold at day’s end.
Merely to know the scent of desire and longing
the rain leaves us as a farewell gift after its lifting.
The sight of a doe gracing the path after days and days of waiting.
Her flight...
-- “Saltonstall Chronicle”

The stance of any lyric poet is essentially solitary. Although the term “lyric” encompasses a wide terrain, on some level a lyric poem necessarily lifts out of the particular toward the eternal, the unchanging. It is a cry from the heart. And what is called “the lyric moment” describes the point where the poem undergoes that shift into some crystalline perception to which its whole momentum has been directed. Ruth Kessler transforms experiences of departure and loneliness into lyrical passages which become the backdrop for her meditations and lead, as in “Country Dusk,” to such a realization:

To sail into a kingdom of rumors and
invisible boundaries,
the world’s cargo of ornaments in the hold...
Through the hatching dimness to
watch birds carry their evening names
under their wings...
at the edge of the orchard bloodied
by the jagged wound of a
the white lamp of a daisy keeps asking:
What have you done with your life?

Art is another ground that can be shared; it is the place where “the evening names,” the most private designations and ways of knowing, can be spoken and laid open. Art also makes use of a common vocabulary of myth and legend, for these too stand outside of time; and it becomes to some extent self-referential, in the way that the ending of the above poem recalls Rilke’s famous line, “You must change your life.” A poet transforms personal experience into a language with its own rules and duration. The poet’s task, as Ruth Kessler sees it, is to strike a balance between the world and the heart, to find a means to remain open to both, to “leave the window wide open. / Always.”