Remembering Poet Ilyse Kusnetz

“Sometimes all we can do is bear witness.”  (Ilyse Kusnetz)

Remembering the passing of one of our special friends, poet Ilyse Kusnetz, wife of another one of our very special friends, poet Brian Turner – both part of The Betsy Writers Room community.  Ilyse was the opening reader in a celebration of her new book, Small Hours, in late 2014, as part of the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Conference at The Betsy-South Beach. She will be missed.  Her poetry and writing lives on. 

Ilyse Kusnetz: “Every day in my Facebook feed I see news items and petitions about gross injustices—today it just happened to be a story about animal torture that sparked my outrage, which so quickly spirals to reacting to other sound bytes of horror in my feed and in emails that are sent to me because of petitions I’ve signed—and I want to make a difference, but at the same time I feel helpless, even more so knowing that my struggle with cancer has been taking all my energy. I have to hope that others will take up the battles that need to be fought, but at the same time the search for meaning in my own life has become more urgent. Sometimes all we can do is bear witness.” (website)


Sad farewell to a beautiful soul and a wondrous voice—Ilyse Kusnetz


by Susan Lilley

The work of some poets is so intertwined with their authentic presence in the world that we can only marvel at the way their truth comes at us like a beam of light. Such a writer was Ilyse Kusnetz, who slipped the bonds of time on Tuesday after a three-year ordeal with cancer. Even in her time of illness, Ilyse was a conduit of love, hope, and above all, truth. Everyone who knew Ilyse can attest to her priceless qualities. But if I could create a personal Tarot card deck full of luminary people in my life, I would make Ilyse “The Encourager.”

The last time I saw Ilyse, she was well aware that she probably didn’t have much time left to walk the earth with the rest of us. She was busy thinking about “other things,” including making wonderful pendant necklaces, each with clusters of charms that might speak specifically to one special friend or another. I chose one with a steampunk vibe and the background of a London post mark. It represents, among other things, my vision of Ilyse as a wanderer, her extensive travels with her husband, Brian Turner, both beautiful writers with their eyes open to the world. As we talked through the afternoon that late summer Sunday, I wanted to concentrate on her, how she felt, her fears, her wellbeing. I wanted to be there for HER. She wanted to talk about art, love, beauty, what matters beyond this day or any day. She was transcendent, teaching me like she has taught so many others, more urgently now. And like she always has, she encouraged. Despite her precarious hold on life, she was concerned about my work, how and where it was going. The fact that she believed in me as a writer has meant more to me over the years than I ever got a chance to tell her.

Ilyse brought joy in so many ways—her gentle but on-target humor, her uncompromising appraisal of the world and its doings, her loyal caring as a friend, her sense of delight and youthful fun. In my phone is one of my favorites texts from her as we planned a week in Ireland a few summers ago: “Last one to the pub is a rotten egg!” Her eyes shone with brilliance, but also with love for her life and her husband; I am so grateful to have been witness to one of the great marriages of true minds.

If you have never met or heard of Ilyse Kusnetz, you are fortunate that she left a body of work that can be discovered, savored. Her book Small Hours (Winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize) will speak for her. Along with other unforgettable work you can find online. Join me in honoring her by giving her gorgeous work its due. You can start here.

One thought on “Remembering Poet Ilyse Kusnetz

  1. To Ilyse

    The ghost was writing
    on injustice, on the revealed
    histories we should not forget.
    And here you are, revealed
    in the shock of the news.

    What is the future? It is addition
    of years, minus a voice, the body
    I saw as I was turning away. Books sold
    to the lowest bidder. The cat, whose name
    I called to scandalise our neighbours.
    It tumbles out in no specific order.
    Playful but cautious of the sentimental.

    I would search between the lines, behind
    the skirting board, inside
    the mind with decades
    of writing paper in between. What
    is the word I am looking for?
    The same one you are now
    free of.

    I was writing as a ghost, and
    not able to deliver this secret
    message. Instead, you have left
    a lived stanza or two, there
    on my bookshelf.

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