At 96 the Queen dies this week, as does my friend Sophia Rivkin, 96, a Queen of Poetry. Both were indominable spirits. Our Sophia I can attest to far more since I knew her personally: kind, charming, enormously witty – and writing award-winning poetry until the end. Not long ago, one of her poems won such an award from the Poetry Society of Michigan, although Sophie didn't know it until a peer who had entered called to report the news, an anecdote emblematic of my friend's humility and priorities.
We are fortunate to have a unique writer's community, filled with talent and closeness. Sophia was not only admired for her eloquent, startling poetry, but as a visual artist as well – what paintings and prints! She was also a woman who loved the Jewish people, whose poetry was infused with references to it – whether cooking chicken soup or writing about her uncle, who dug his own grave at Baba Yar.
Gracing the cover of one of her books, The Valise (May Apple Press), is a photo of her Russian grandmother, dressed in black, wearing a gold chain, holding a Bible, looking straight on. When the book was first released, I studied that photo, knowing my family came from Eastern Europe, as did my former husband's grandmother. She was also a feisty woman whose quick wit exuded a timeless intelligence and gave much pleasure. For my 40th birthday, this elderly, spunky grandmother-by-marriage gifted me a gold locket on a gold chain, dispersing her jewelry while she was alive. I loved her and that locket, too, with its clasp of a hand integral to the design, one I liked right off the bat and still find intriguing.
Sophie's Russian grandmother could have been my relative – easily. It wasn't merely the familiarity of our backgrounds; the woman in the photo was wearing the locket that looked just like mine! Immediately, I called Sophie, wondering if my treasured heirloom had once been in her family. Were we mishpoka by marriage? Or might it have been crafted by the very jeweler both families used in the old country?
Such is the overlap of her poems – the multitude of images, edgy yet often with traditional subjects, her ancestors, a lifelong marriage to her beloved Joe, a pediatrician, her three living children, another daughter's tragic death, her renourishing derived from nature, and juxtaposed among such descriptions are many surrealistic ones, reflecting her love of contemporary art and writing alike – references from Pinter or Skoglund side-by-side with Russian classics.
Beloved in our literary community, Sophie embodied good will and independence, a spirit evident in her singular voice. Even in her nineties during Covid, she was off – solo – to the grocery store. She wouldn't let me take her. A social visit was welcome though! She wound up selling her familial home in Southfield, a wonderful mid-century structure filled with books and art, leaving Max, her cat, for the neighbors. She missed him when she moved into a one-bedroom at Prentis, yet felt at home there with the Yiddishkeit around her and because Eleanor, her sister-in-law and now neighbor, was an anchor.
When she was quarantined with Covid, I stopped by to bring flowers and a little food. Masked, in the hall, I stood with cautious distance. She was delighted at the unexpected pleasure of a friend while in isolation. Inside her apartment, she beckoned me to join her, even briefly, to see how well her Tulip table – the dining room table from her home – anchored the living room. We'd sat for hours around that table at her house, drinking tea, eating snacks, a group of women working on our poetry. Now, I was in a quandary: Do I go in? I thought not. After all, Covid was wildly contagious. I paused, kept my distance, and politely refused. We laughed as I stood my ground.
Later, as her pain grew while her cancer invaded her slender frame, she relied heavily on pain killers while still maintaining her valiant humor. When asked what I could do, she quipped, "Well...if you can get me a new body!" I put forth my best Yiddish accent, explaining "I lookt and lookt – vut Himelhoch's storefront vas gone and so vas Hudson's – vat trouble I vas havink to find just vone body from your generation right now!"
We laughed, as usual. Of course, in reality, she was sui generis, impossible to find again.
Postscript: Jan Mordenski, a local poet and dear friend of Sophia's, spearheaded the creation of a calendar, The Art of Days, which will be available in a few weeks, exclusively featuring Sophie's artwork and poems by local writers. Details to follow.