ruth knafo setton ruth knafo setton ruth knafo setton
ruth blog books writings contact
facebook twitter goodreads instagram


Anthologies  |  Poems  |  Essays  |  Fiction


Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration

Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration

This provocative anthology of writings explores immigration from a number of perspectives. It includes my essay, "Living Between Question Marks," as well as a poem, "My Father Eats Figs." In this essay, I tried to crystallize in a few pages my complicated responses to my hyphenated identity and my emotional relationship with punctuation.?!

Indiebound Amazon Barnes & Noble Books-A-Million

The Flying Camel

The Flying Camel

This is a wonderful one-of-a-kind collection of memoir essays by women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish heritage. My essay, "The Life & Times of Ruth of the Jungle," explores my relation with my Moroccan family and my grandfather's legacy.

Indiebound Amazon Barnes & Noble Books-A-Million

Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female

Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female

Woohoo, that's my piece alongside those by JK Rowling, Maya Angelou and Kate Winslet, among others! We're all sharing memories and experiences of what it means to be a girl growing up in our world. My essay, "The Smell of Women," goes back to the first short story I shared with my middle school English class and a teacher who found it "filthy." Sigh.

Indiebound Amazon Barnes & Noble Books-A-Million

Desire: Women Write About Wanting

Desire: Women Write About Wanting

This anthology examines how women of all ages feel about desire. My essay, "Women Writing Desire," interweaves my life as a daughter and mother with the daily discipline of writing.

Indiebound Amazon Barnes & Noble Books-A-Million


Queen of the Air

     September is mine:
he stands at the edge of the cornfield
in maroon fez and dripping brocade.
Sunlit and weary, he holds up
his palm in greeting. I shudder
my bike to a stop, almost tumble
over old books stacked in the wire basket:
Greatheart, Under Two Flags, Lady Chatterly's
and Nana. I bought The Way of an Eagle
because it was inscribed: To Doris from Harry,
I love you more each day, Merry Christmas
sweetheart, 1919. A tiny black Toto runs
around him, nips his ankle. He stands firm
against singing corn.
and red sun—falling fast.

     In The Moonstone,
the Indians came to England
for their killer jewel, crossed
their arms and blocked
the center of the road:
a shadow-wall of the East.
His seamed palm too
holds back the traffic
of curious eyes, the curse
of the yellow stone. I ride, no hands,
through a typhoon
of immense proportions.

     Leaves arch,
white butterfly (another strange friend)
rings my little finger, birds scissor the air,
quicksilver glance my handlebars,
and laugh away. At night I'll read
by flashlight, squander my sight.
Wind blows my bike over desert and sea.
Blue motes of dust sneeze
from broken pages, crack bindings:
red heels tapped together. Gold letters halo me
like fireflies, crown me Queen
of the Indian Gentlemen
and White Butterflies.
I squint in the moonstone glare:
his fez whirls before me,
streams leaves that glow
like yellow tears.

Girl, Prince, Tower

     She eats words
as if they were untamed stars:
eats words as if they were you,
you a word, the word,
first word, bending to hold
you in her palm:
grain of sand.

imagine this.
City street, rain glint.
She runs, but you follow,
touch her yellow slicker.
Her face luminous.
Oh Holly, you cry,
enfold the cat
and her in your arms.

the blue woods—
she knew nothing, remembered less.
Hid behind a fir and listened to you:
strong-worded, fierce syllables rushing,
a waterfall. She wanted to drown
in you—who taught her language.

watch her braid dreams,
fling them out the tower
as if they were hair. Sing notes
that form a staircase. But hurry!
The dwarfs pound through the woods,

the witch poisons raspberries.

     Time's running out.
You slice through hedges,
bite off coils and webs
until you come to the tower:
her song, the dwarfs' whistle,
witch's cackle—
you stare at the split ends,
left to dangle in the mud:
wish they were roads.

there, where you stood:
a tower of words.
A squirrel, rat-eared,
gnaws at the base.
Pages, moth-eaten, drift
over mice, already burrowing.
The screech is unbearable,
the sound of her pen—


Night in Jaffa

I can't sleep here: cats wail in Hebrew,
harsh as seabirds. A horse-drawn carriage
races past, the driver stands—fierce,
exultant—shakes his fist at the moon.
I leave my room, my past, my life,
and descend to the street
I can map in my dreams.

Jaffa crumbles before my eyes.
My Israel is not yours: don't be afraid.
I know where the stone steps die,
labyrinth opens, pink flower blooms.
Bell tower just ahead. Aboulafia's pita: burning
and soft as the air. Toes cling to cobbles,
understand how stone turns to flesh.
Don't press your ear against the wall:
voices scream through fissures,
carve into your ear.

A Russian whore sizzles tomatoes in garlic,
her pimp grins goldtoothed
on a cane chair outside the hotel.
Past the blue bookstore,
and iron railings, a woman beats secrets
as if they were carpets. Pyramids of oranges
and eggplants tumble, two boys ride a single bike,
both pedaling and shouting,
while the blackhaired woman—
armless, legless—on her skateboard,
sings with red mouth. Salt souls,
rice-paper frail:
a country without grandparents.

Do you smell the sea I smell?
See the white cat melt?
Hear the beast howling at the town wall?
Tracking you, threaded to you.
Pink flower dangles through the gate,
its raw petal brushes lips. Poison, they warned,
but I don't believe it, no,
not you, dizzying pink.
I spread your petals across my palm,
bite into your heart: bitter, bloodsweet.
My flower, my love, tell me the story
I've never heard
but have always known.
The night is long,
and I am still hungry.

Following Charlie

     Beyond him, across the street, the sky is not shattered.
He fills my eyes, my ears, tolling
his head back and forth, he howls like a trapped cat,
eyes and mouth gaping, he sees me and screams,
points at me and screams.

     The Salvation Army lady rings her bell, harder,
my chest tightens.
He brings a paper bag to his mouth,
throws back his head, drinks. Years pass.
He lowers the bag, blinks, moving his head
to the bell, tongue like a clapper,
forming words that aren't words, sounds of terror.
In front of McCrory's 5 & 10, even my dreams
leave me locked behind the gate.

     I was fourteen, I knew nothing.
Dolls danced in department store windows,
twirled in circles over and over, while a monkey
banged his drums and a lion played a piano.

     Those nights Charlie and I soared through Congo
and Amazon, we helped the poor, cured the sick.
I was Cigarette, dancing barefoot on sand
for the Foreign Legion.
Charlie watched me like Aznavour,
troubadour from Armenia, while I sang
La Boheme to his record,
stop and scratch and start again.

     I sing it by heart, in French, and the world
is a door, the key between my teeth,
held like a rose, walls fallen, shiver
of waterfalls, birds clinging to my hair.
This is the key Charlie dropped, yesterday,
in front of Hickert's house. I fished it
from the crack in the sidewalk when he left.
Long brass, glittering against my palm.

     It opens his heart, I know this.
I know he is not what he seems.
Eyes and hair colorless.
Short and frail, face so pale.
The paper bag he carries under his arm.
He is not what he seems.
I have proof.
The scrap of paper he dropped: Susan
434-3221. A man answered.
He is a spy, I shout, my breath
forming snowflakes that rust as they fall.

The Orange Came First

The orange came first—
was there ever a doubt?
Not to us, who worked
the pardess. 4 a.m., riding
to the grove on the tender
open-backed, tented car,
huddled as we watched
the kibbutz stream past,
a river of bodies emerging
from houses.

In our hooded raincoats,
armed with clippers,
we advanced: dusky army.
Oranges gleamed in the black trees.
I reached and plucked, one after another,
filling my canvas bag, hearing the rain
but lost in the light: fire glinting
through leaves. A stubborn one.
I tore the white-fleshed branch, tendrils
of skin, until she dropped into my palm:

diamond-wet nubs rolling
across my heartline.
I carved her open with my clippers,
broke her skin into four.
Someone yelled, The sun is rising!
Hooded shadows moved to the clearing.
I stood there, wreathed
by orange blossoms,
juice licking down chin and throat,
arms, belly, thighs,


"A Magical Interview with Ruth Knafo Setton"
"Living Between Question Marks"
"Return to Fez"


The Dark Girl