Poetry Moment: Robin Becker and 'The New Egypt'
This is Poetry Moment on WPSU, a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. I’m Shara McCallum, this year’s Penn State Laureate.
Today’s poem is “The New Egypt” by Robin Becker.
Robin Becker was born in Temple University hospital, grew up in Mt. Airy, and graduated from Abington Friends School. The University of Pittsburgh Press has published six of her eight collections, most recently The Black Bear Inside Me. Becker’s poem for today is drawn from an earlier collection, The Domain of Perfect Affection. Robin Becker is a Liberal Arts Professor Emerita at Penn State University. She also served as the Penn State Laureate from 2010 to 2011.
The sonnet is one of the oldest and most recognizable forms in poetry. Originally Italian, it’s been reinvented by English-language poets since Shakespeare famously wrote about 150 of them. Like many contemporary poets, Becker loosens up the sonnet’s strict rhyme and rhythm in “The New Egypt.” But she keeps the tight structure of fourteen lines and that sharp ‘turn’ at the end. At its core, the sonnet is an argument the poet is having with herself. In “The New Egypt,” Becker wrestles with her identity, drawing directly on her Russian-Jewish heritage and deftly weaving in her experience as a lesbian. Across her many books, Becker has excavated the psychological condition of “exile” and how we see ourselves versus how others see us. “The New Egypt” showcases the poet’s drive to understand the nature of the self, with Becker’s signature storytelling voice and dry humor.
The New Egypt
I think of my father who believes
a Jew can outwit fate by owning land.
Slave to property now, I mow
and mow, my destiny the new Egypt.
From his father, the tailor, he learned not
to rent but to own; to borrow to buy.
To conform, I disguise myself and drag
the mower into the drive, where I ponder
the silky oil, the plastic casing, the choke.
From my father, I learned the dignity
of exile and the fire of acquisition,
not to live in places lightly, but to plant
the self like an orange tree in the desert
and irrigate, irrigate, irrigate.
That was “The New Egypt” by Robin Becker.
And with Poetry Moment on WPSU, I’m Shara McCallum. Thank you for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.
“The New Egypt,” from Domain of Perfect Affection, by Robin Becker, c. 2006. Aired by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.