A Poem for Cassia Berman

What a shock: Cassia Berman dead, who’d always seemed so young with her moon big cheeks and world-spreading smile under that great curly crop of white hair; an unabashed hippie in her long flowing clothes, stylish and true to herself. When she joined us one winter day for a poetry salon at the Saugerties lighthouse, which entailed walking out to the lighthouse point along beach sand and marsh ice and snow, I complimented her on having the best boots in the group, rugged as rubber fishing boots but purple and pink polka dotted. Playful but tough. She had a childlike sweetness in her enthusiasms, a sharp steeliness in her principles. We served together as Woodstock Library trustees, a position I quit after six months due to my impatience with meetings, but one that she flourished in for years because of her belief in community. We’d also taken a course together in nonviolent communication. She was that rare upstater who didn’t drive—truly a purist of sorts—so on occasion I picked her up or drove her home; in those twenty minute car conversations I got to know her the best. There was no bullshit with Cassia. We got straight to the heart of whatever we talked about. We were quite different. She was a deeply spiritual person; I’m not. I spend my days stewing over my writing. She contributed articles to the Woodstock Times, I suspect, without worrying so much about them. But she was so honest and genuine that I felt a kinship in her presence even if we weren’t close friends. She seemed to carry no bitterness. She was strongly hopeful but grounded in life.

My late friend Saul Bennett once dedicated a poem to Cassia. They knew each other, if I’m not mistaken, through the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. I don’t know the story behind this dedication, but he must have been grateful for the inspiration she’d given him. Here’s the poem from his book Harpo Marx at Prayer.

A Tattooed Man Awaits His Execution

My grandmother’s porcelain egg cups appeared
wrong for the Bronx
walkup in the heart
of the heart of what today some see
as terrifying “Fort Apache.”

Egg cups to a boy looked lordly,
grand receptacles, made maybe for
Roosevelt, reigning then, or God
help the Jews if he got in, some said,
Dewey. Dainty, they were, brought over,

I wonder, from a shtetl? Wiggly violet lines
embracing the faintest remains of
daffodil adorned their ivory skin,
corseting the soft boiled shells within.
Hunkering into a cup an egg was a tiny
tattooed man shaved bald for electrocution.

–By Saul Bennett

For Cassia Berman

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