Thursday, May 26, 2005

Michael Heller

The mail this week brings me a lovely, welcome volume: Exigent Futures, a New and Selected Poems by Michael Heller, just out from Salt publishers in England. Salt has also published a new collection of Heller's essays, Uncertain Poetries; between these two, and Heller's memoir Living Root, we now have access to a full body of work by one of the most reflective and quietly compelling of Jewish American poets.

Heller's first book of prose, Conviction's Net of Branches, was the first, pioneering study of the 'Objectivist' poets: Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Niedecker. (Four of the five were Jews, although Jews of widely disparate backgrounds and Judaic knowledge.) "The Jewish Objectivists," Heller mused in the essay "Disaporic Poetics" (in my anthology, and now in Uncertain Poetries) "struck me as being married to their aloneness, as to a bride. Little noticed by the public or the academy, they wore the public neglect of their work as prideful badges. These were the poets whose books I carried on my own hegira, my wanderings, as I tried to find the forms my words and acts must take and be taken for." Later in the essay, he adds this tribute--and, in the process, a sketch of his own poetics:
What I felt from these poets who taught me so much was the power of perception, the happenstance of authorship, the impingement and penetration by the world into our would‑be discursiveness, our self‑involved chatter. The gloss of eyes across and over streets, as though the city were made of languages, inscribed in the ages and designs of buildings, in the oddities and samenesses of people one passed... A collection of languages, written and rewritten. From so much utilitarian secularity, one might derive a non‑theological theology of language, as if to say: thank Whomever (ironically of course) or whatever has designed this world. For I find new languages daily; I find that not all is written out, and that therefore I too am allowed to speak and write. Further, there are, in the life of the writer, those moments of being sickened with one's own work, one's very words. At such times, I have risen from my desk and hurled myself out into the city, evicted myself from the precincts of my own logorrhea, partly as break or diversion, but also to be in touch with the languages of others. Thus, to gloss, to go over, as an eye savoring the textures of the world is also to be compelled into utterance, and so to provide interlinears and commentaries.
My favorite Heller poem these days is the love poem "She," which comes late in Exigent Futures, but as a poem about going out into the city, hurling oneself into it, "as if to say: thank Whomever" and in order to be in touch with the languages of others, it's hard to beat this one, which was featured by Rodger Kamenetz in his "Psalm 151" column for the Forward on the first anniversary of 9/11:


The question is always nearness. Is it
in history or in the code of constellated night?

Is it to be approached by the soul's seven
invisible rungs that lead to the library, or do I go

by the route of the young bearded chasid who,
on the street, tears in his eyes, presses into my hand
a printed note: GET READY FOR MOSIACH.

His rabbi is dying on the 11th floor. Sun shining,
I squint as I look up. There's abundant light.
I'm getting there by looking at abundant light.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hugh Seidman

A great post this morning about Hugh Seidman over at Mark's Culture Industry blog. I don't know Seidman's work very well, but what I've read about it, notably in Norman's Not One of Them in Place, has put it on my shopping list. He has a new collection out, and from what Mark says about it--and quotes from it--I think I'd better bust out that Master Card.

Off to the dentist: oy, oy, oy.
More soon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

C. K. Williams

I never pay much attention to prizes, etc., in the poetry world or elsewhere, so I missed the news that C. K. Williams had won this year's $100,000 Ruth Lily poetry prize. My mother, reading this little piece in the Chicago Tribune, brought it to my attention yesterday.

Williams is a fine Jewish American poet, in the first-person free-verse mainstream division. He appears in my anthology of Jewish American poets, and also in my own essay, in that book, on "Shekhinah in America." Here's part of my discussion of Williams's poem "Wig," from that essay:

In his wonderful recent poem “Wig,” C. K. Williams shows what even an implicit identificaiton of America with the meeting place of nations, presided over by the Mother of Exiles, can do for one's poetry.

"Wig" is the fifth poem in a sequence called “Symbols,” and indeed, Williams begins by looking out at a dreary winter afternoon and attributing symbolic resonance, however playfully, to the figures he sees:

The bus that won’t arrive this freezing, bleak, pre‑Sabbath afternoon must be Messiah;
the bewigged woman, pacing the sidewalk, furious, seething, can be only the mystic Shekinah,
the presence of God torn from Godhead, chagrined, abandoned, longing to rejoin, reunite.

Although he draws on two Jewish myths of absence or loss—the long-awaited Messiah who keeps not coming and the exiled Shekhinah—Williams clearly takes pleasure in making these attributions, delighting in the sudden twist his poem takes from a bus to Messiah and from a fully human woman, “furious, seething” and “bewigged” (and thus quite observant, but it’s funny word) to the mystic pathos of the Shekhinah. (That he calls the Shekhinah “chagrinned” in the last line above gives Her a fully human attribute as well—and the “grinned” of “chagrinned” echoes the hard “g” and short “i” of “bewigged” to give it, too, a slightly comic touch.)

Now, since the (gramatically feminine) Shekhinah traditionally longs to reunite with the (masculine) Holy One Blessed be He, the logic of the myth suggests that this woman’s husband, if she has one, will be assigned the latter role. Instead, Williams shifts the focus of the poem from the fine romance Above to the more earthly cares of marriage Below—and, in the process, changes the myth itself:

The husband in his beard and black hat, pushing a stroller a step behind her as she stalks?
The human spirit, which must slog through such degrading tracts of slush and street‑filth,
bound forever to its other, no matter how incensed she may be, how obliviously self‑absorbed.

After the serenity, even (say it) the piety of other poets' versions of the Shekhinah, Williams’s “incensed” and “obliviously self-absorbed” figure is a delight. And however politically chancy it may be to figure “the human spirit” as male, Williams uses his heterosexual figures to reframe the relationships both between Shekhinah and the Godhead and between human beings and the divine in a fascinating way. Here the Shekhinah’s anger at and longing to be reunited with the Godhead takes her away from, well, us, the human spirits who long for some holy Presence to redeem our passage through “degrading tracts of slush and street-filth.”

Having given us a wife and husband who pushes a stroller, Williams ends the poem with their child—and with one more twist. “And the child,” he writes, “asleep, serene, uncaring in the crank and roar of traffic, his cheeks afire, / ladders of snowy light leaping and swirling about him….” Yes? Yes? For the first time we have to wait nearly two full lines for a symbolic attribution, as though the poet were so captivated by what he sees that he hasn’t decided yet. When it comes at last, the poem can close, for the child

…is what else but psyche, holy psyche,
always only now just born, always now just waking, to the ancient truths of knowledge, suffering, loss.

The tenderness of these lines, their ease with abstraction and benediction, is typical of Williams’s work. Their willingness to link “knowledge” to “suffering, loss” is characteristic as well—and it suggests that “Wig” lives up to Allen Grossman’s proviso that the Jewish poet who invokes the Shekhinah must construct a metaphorical “place” where “the intelligibility of experience” can be affirmed: a “place of holiness…where loss is given back as meaning.” To Grossman, the poet’s “place” must be a meeting place of the nations [the goyim] and that singular Nation, the Jews, a site where “the People and the peoples are equally at home" (166). And when Williams names the child in the poem "psyche, holy psyche," he allows for this, too.

Who, after all, is “psyche”? Etymologically, the word means “soul”—but in classical mythology, as you may recall, Psyche is also a god--or, rather, a goddess (this poem has changed his / her sex), and divine not by birth but by her much‑vexed marriage with Cupid, the son of Venus, a godling of Love. Forbidden by her mother-in-law from ever seeing her husband, Psyche, too, lives out a tale of loss. But although Psyche loses her beloved at first--spurred by the jealously of her sisters, she takes a lamp to see her husband as he sleeps, and he must flee--after many trials, she regains him, wins the approval of Venus, and eventually gives birth to a child.

Williams's poem doesn’t strut or fret about this slip from Jewish to classical mythology. Rather, it simply assumes that in the mind of its speaker, both resources are equally present, equally possible, ready and willing to meet. Williams’s poem turns out to be just the sort of “meeting place of the nations” that Rothenberg dreamed and despaired of in Poland / 1931, that the epigraphs to Eleanor Wilner’s Shekhinah embody, and that Robert Duncan (another poet of Cupid and Psyche) described as a “symposium of the whole” where “all things have come into their comparisons” (“Rites,” 327). Indeed, the mythological logic of “Wig” leads us to a rather surprising conclusion. The thoroughly Orthodox “presence of God torn from Godhead” turns out, in this poem, destined to be not only the mother‑in‑law of the Roman god of Love, but also the grandmother of a new character, a daughter named Pleasure.

As my own grandmother would say: "Only in America!"

Monday, May 23, 2005

Wounded Kinship's Last Resort

If you need something appropriate to listen to while reading Alcalay, may I recommend the oud mp3s recently posted here at the Mike's Ouds website? They're a little scratchy, but let you listen in to performances by Ibrahim Effendi el-Masri, "a Syrian Jew who performed for many years in Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul," according to Mike. (Sounds like an Alcalay character to me.) If you need something with better sound quality, I've also recently found this site, which seems well stocked with oud material.

As Nate Mackey says, in words that Alcalay quotes here and there, "Music is wounded kinship's last resort."

L'Affaire Alcalay

Back in March the conservative group Campus Watch published a pretty underwhelming attack, intellectually speaking, on Ammiel Alcalay, one of a number of poets who, said the article, "openly declare their allegiance with ‘Palestine,' and implicitly, with terror." Lumped in with Alcalay in this attack were Tom Paulin, Amiri Baraka, Marylin Hacker, and Alicia Ostriker, although they--unlike Alcalay--got slammed for things they had written in their poetry.

Now, I don't yet know Paulin's work, and I shun Baraka, whose post-9/11 pronouncements seem to me truly despicable, though in keeping with many of his earlier poems and works in prose. But I know and admire both Hacker and Ostriker, as both artists and women of conscience. They deserved better, even from the folks at Campus Watch. I've also been reading Alcalay's work, in both prose and poetry, for many years. He deserved better from us.

You see, although I'd hoped that this little fracas would actually stir up some interest in Alcalay as a poet, and not simply as a writer on politics, the response that Campus Watch received from poets on-line--their summary of which you can find here--didn't deal with his poetry at all. And let's be honest: if you get the poetry right, your politics can be pretty damned horrific (fascist, Stalinist, Maoist, even apologist-for-terror) and you can still get justifiably, even pleasurably read.

So: a challenge to you, whoever you are. Pick up a copy of Alcalay's mysterious the cairo notebooks, if you can find one used in your price range, or his more recent collage-poem about the Bosnian civil war, from the warring factions, see what you think, and report. (There's a useful interview in the back of the latter volume, to get you started.) If you want to read some of his prose, take a look at the essays in Memories of Our Future or the book that made him famous, briefly, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture--but I'd be more interested in hearing what you think of the poetry on its own terms, in its own right, first. If you know his work in prose, I'd love to hear what you think of the poetry, not simply as an extension of the other work, but as a counterpoint or complement to it.

As Leonard Cohen says, "There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's where the light gets in." How's about we use this Campus Watch piece, whatever its flaws, to shed a little light on Alcalay?

What to Read?

Hello, everyone! First off, I'd like to thank those of you who have gotten in touch with me by email, as well as those who have left comments. It seems this blog is meeting a need, for which I am very grateful. (Please don't bother leaving comments, by the way, that simply link to "my pictures." Ahem. It's a free country, the blogosphere, but I"m trying to keep this little piece of it somewhat focused!)

Since my own work focuses on Jewish American poetry, I know a few of the books, essays, and other resources that anyone working with that topic might find useful. One pair of texts that you should know in tandem are Harold Bloom's infamous essay "The Sorrows of American-Jewish Poetry," which came out in Commentary (Vol. 53, No. 3, March 1972) and was reprinted (I believe) in Figures of Capable Imagination shortly thereafter, and Jerome Rothenberg's less-known, but just as important riposte, "Harold Bloom: Or, the Critic as Exterminating Angel," which appeared in Sulfur in 1981 and is now available on-line at this Web del Sol address.

I think one way this blog could make itself useful is by posting some bilbliographic material like this--and by soliticing suggestions from all of you. I'm going to add the Rothenberg link in my links column, and spend some time in the next few days scouring the web (and my own files) for lists of poets, books, etc. If you have ideas, send them along!

More soon, then--

Friday, May 20, 2005

Arielle Greenberg (another poet to know)

OK, ok, I'm supposed to be cleaning. ("I belong / in the service of the Queen," he hums along, dusting.) But it occurs to me that my most recent post to Say Something Wonderful is certainly on point for this blog, too: an introduction to, and poem by, the wonderful Arielle Greenberg, whose upcoming book My Kafka Century I am itching, but itching, to read. Click over and check it out!

Next week, I promise, some notes on Rachel Zucker, the third poet (with Arielle and Jessica G.) I had the pleasure of introducing at a Nextbook event last year. I want to think a bit online about the poem she read that night, entitled (I kid you not) "Hey Allen Ginsberg, Where Have You Gone and What Would You Think of My Drugs?" Check it out at the Online Poetry Classroom from the Academy of American Poets. Until then--

Friday thoughts (in a quoting mood)

It's a stunning day here in Chicago: clear, bright, with the Cubs and White Sox due to play one another in an hour or two. If I'm only here briefly, then--down in the basement, amid the toys and detritus--you'll understand why.

I schlepped down to the university library this morning to pick up the Kugel that Maeera mentioned, along with some material on the psalms and T. Carmi's old Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, so I'll have more to say about matters of origin--the oldest strata of the JPC--in the days to come. In the mean time, it being Friday and all, I thought I'd post this lovely poem that Jessica Greenbaum sent me recently, which ends on an appropriate note.

Jessica Greenbaum is a younger poet--well, younger than I am!--living in Brooklyn, and very much a poet of the pleasures (sometimes quite bittersweet) of a comfortable city life. I've started to see one of her poems, a memorable pantoum called "The Yellow Star That Goes With Me," in syllabi and course-lists here and there; it's the first poem in her first collection, Inventing Difficulty, I believe. Here is a poem to send us off into Friday afternoon, "sweet though in sadness," as Shelley says:
Just Home from Those Streets

your feet also walked

where errands spring up
as women approach

reseeding themselves
once accomplished.

Towards home I cursed myself
for forgetting mayo, crackers

and . . . something else . . .
and searching the sky

above rank-and-file
brownstones, above their curbside

sycamores tilted before them
like muskets

looking skyward as we do
for vengeance, remorse

just plain feeling lost
that’s when your new

death passed over me
as a lacy cloud

that’s when I knew rain
announcing sidewalks

would always refresh
my grief.

We are simply
forgetful opportunists

jays pinching
foil and ribbons

for instance
beside your cloud

a newly-spied penthouse
garden amused me

and—as though eating
in front of the starving—

I considered the simultaneous
taste for home and streets

how the walker considers
the terrace’s fitted trees

while its hidden resident
takes comfort as sandals

tap concrete in the open
world below.

Forget forgetting. I reminded myself
not to regret loose ends

and thought of someone
absentmindedly touching the fringes

of a prayer shawl—we traffic
in loose ends—

so I walked on remembering
a stroll here with my waist-high

daughter—soft hand
dark eyes, light voice—

bent next to her
like the safe cracker

while buses huff
and seagulls spiral down

it seems, a squeaking wire
to Brooklyn lamp posts

(what could they need in
Park Slope yet of all our imports

they make us feel most worldly)
losing part of my daughter’s story

to the city, as you did yours
the neighborhood’s overture

the communal tracks
of our spoken details lifted

between mouth and ear
and still floating.

That dusk when I
spread the white tablecloth

(a motion I recognized
in the rippling of a sting

ray at the aquarium)
it settled like sky cover

so my heart broke to keep
our gestures, our imperial

our tables set and cleared.

I'd meant to write some commentary on this--but duty calls (a plumber, the day), and I want to muse on it a while. (Is it a 9-11 poem? It reads like one now, even if it wasn't when it was composed, I think: that look to the sky for "vengeance, remorse"; the death a "lacy cloud," although that cloud was hardly lacy....) Hmm... More in a day or two, then, when I've had the chance to mull it over. In the mean time, I'll go sweep a room as for His laws (as George Herbert says--I'm in a quoting mood). And, of course, I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Notes on Maeera; or, In the Beginning?

My hard drive crashed last night, so I find myself posting from the basement kids computer, sans a week of lost notes on more topics than I'd like to imagine. Serves me right for poking fun at the idea of "loss" as a sine-qua-non of Jewish poetics, eh?

So about this curriculum. Where should it begin? Not grade-wise--that's for another post--but in terms of the poets and poems to cover?

When I want to think about the origins of Jewish poetry, I always think first of the work of my friend Maeera Shreiber: specifically, about the essay "A Flair for Deviation: the Troublesome Potential of Jewish Poetics," which Maeera contributed to my collection Jewish American Poetry. That piece introduced me to a fistful of ideas I'm still wrestling with five years later, so I dug it up this morning to take another look.

"It is tellingly difficult," says Maeera right at the start, "to determine precisely when 'poetry' emerges as a genre in the history of Jewish discursive forms." Oops. This means, I take it, that what I always think of rather unreflectively as the "poetry" in the Tanakh--the praise-songs, name-songs, chronicles, boasts, and other breakings-into-song in the Torah; the accounts of prophetic visions in Nevi'im; the psalms, wisdom literature, and Song of Songs in K'tuvim--might not have been, in its own time, what we think of as "poetry" today. She cites James Kugel's book The Idea of Biblical Poetry here, "in which he protests the very idea of 'poetry' as a Biblical genre," and also Adele Berlin's Biblical Poetry Through Medieval Eyes, which "notes that in Hebrew literary theory there is a sharp distinction to be made between prophetic and poetic speech--two kinds of discourse that are often viewed as related in Western literature." Whatever the British and American Romantic poets might have testified, then, in this particular Jewish tradition "Prophecy was the word of God, while poetry belonged to the human. Simply put, according to Berlin, 'God does not compose poetry.'"

Hmmm! Any implications here for my JPC (Jewish Poetry Curriculum)? Two, I think:
  1. First, Kugel's argument that "poetry" in the Hebrew Bible isn't really a separate genre, but part of a stylistic continuum, in which speech gets "heightened" by various devices, actually could be very useful, very anxiety-reducing. You don't have to be a Poet to write a psalm or a bit of wisdom lit, let alone a boast or a name-game; you just have to learn some devices--parallelism, chiasmus, pun, etc.--and use them.
  2. Second, conversely, Berlin's argument suggests that IF we teach the prophets as poets, and their words as poetry, we need to own up to what a revolutionary move this is. It's Blake, after all, who says that the "Poet is Prophet,' and that "the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God," and if we teach the prophets as poets, which I don't mind doing at all, we ought perhaps to point out how much this way of reading them differs from how earlier strata of Jewish tradition saw them and their work.
Maeera's piece goes on to talk about later developments, but I think I'll hold with these and see what else I can find to say about Biblical poetry for the JPC--and what you all, dear Readers, think of all this.

(P.S. to Mark Scroggins, Mike Heller, et. al.: doesn't Kugel's argument remind you of Louis Zukofky's poetics as an integral function, as in calculus: "Upper limit music / lower limit speech"? Would the "music" end be song, though, which would still be Jewish, or actual music music, which seems to me more Greek, somehow?)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Notes Toward a Jewish Poetry Curriculum

A few months ago I started to draft a "Jewish Poetry Curriculum" for the Hebrew School at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. Maybe all of you out there--you are out there, aren't you, albeit silent as the strictest psychoanalyst--could give me some suggestions?

There seem to me three "Enduring Understandings," as they say in the Education Biz, that students ought to retain from such a curriculum, namely:

1) Jews around the world have written memorable poetry from Biblical times until the present day;

2) Reading (and writing) Jewish poetry is a form of Jewish practice; that is, a way to identify as a Jew and to participate in Jewish civilization; and

3) Poetry is an art--maybe THE art--where the dynamic tensions and benefits of living in two civilizations are most powerfully and productively dramatized, both in content and in form.

"Living in two civilizations" is, of course, a Reconstructionist catchphrase, but I'm sure you get the drift of it. "Dynamic tension" comes from the old Charles Atlas ads.

In future posts I'll consider each of these in turn. What do you think of them, or of the project as a whole?

Notes on Norman, 1

I'm reading Norman Finkelstein this morning: NOT Norman Finkestein the ardent anti-Zionist historian, who now teaches at my own school, DePaul, here in Chicago, but Norman the poet-critic, whom I've known and read for a decade or more. (I wonder, parenthetically, how many readers my Norman has lost over the years because of that confusion. Certainly the other one, the Un-Norman, is profoundly and routinely loathed in normative circles--not least, in my experience, by those who have never read him. It all sounds too much like a Philip Roth plot to be true, but there you have it.)

In any case, I'm reading over my notes from years past to Norman's first book on Jewish topics, The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature, along with more recent notes on his more recent work, all with an eye to reading, really READING, his poetry: reading it to write about it, which is a distinctly different experience than reading it simply for pleasure, as I've done so many times before. He's a poet worth knowing, and a critic worth reading--one of the two or three who have opened the field of Jewish American Poetry to serious academic inquiry, in this book and more recently in the essential Not One of Them in Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish Identity. I expect there will be a series of "Notes on Norman" posted here as the blog goes on.

I want to start, though, with this "money quote" (as Andrew Sullivan says) from the opening pages of The Ritual of New Creation, which sets the tone for much of that book and for a good deal of other writing about modern Jewish literature, in poetry and otherwise:

Regardless of what normative Judaism still has to offer, Walter Benjamin's commentary on Kafka remains paradigmatic for all Jewish intellectuals who cannot accept the old ways. "The gate to justice is learning. And yet Kafka does not dare attach to this learning the promises which tradition has attached to the study of Torah. His assistants are sextons who have lost their house of prayer, his students are pupils who have lost their Holy Writ. Now there is nothing to support them on their 'untrammelled, happy journey'" (Illuminations, 139).
Benjamin and Kafka are two of the four Guardian Angels of modern Jewish intellectual life, at least in much of Norman's early writing. (Scholem and Freud are the others.) I'm struck, though, by the contrast between these two Angels, at least in this brief passage. After all, Benjamin tells a tale of rupture, exclusively. Goodbye, House of Prayer! L'hitraot, O Holy Writ! How sad to find yourself with no support on a journey, even (or especially) on a journey to the gate of justice. The Kafka, though, suggests a slightly different story, at least if that's a quote from Kafka at the end of Benjamin's paragraph. He says the journey is "happy" and "untrammelled," which is is to say free, unfettered, unbound.

Now, I know that we could simply say that it's a bittersweet freedom, living this way. In fact, it's almost exactly the same bittersweetness that runs through Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning," a poem which arises from a corresponding Christian crisis of faith. But don't we run a stunting sort of risk if we dwell (as Benjamin does) more on the bitter than the sweet? How much loss do we really feel--especially given the proliferation, in 21st century America, of houses of worship and Holy Writs to choose from? Don't we really feel, honestly, more "untrammelled" than at a "loss"?

Hmm... Who's this "we," though? Time to look at some poems.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Welcome to A Big Jewish Blog

"A Big Jewish Blog": the title an homage to Jerome Rothenberg's capacious anthology A Big Jewish Book, which changed my life back in 1978 when it first appeared. (It's out of print, but a slimmer and still remarkable version is available under the less exuberant title of Exiled in the Word. More on exile, words, and Rothenberg anon.)

My other blog, Say Something Wonderful, dwells on the pleasures of poetry, and is designed to be Very Useful to teachers, at all levels. This one, by contrast, will dwell on topics of Jewish poetry and poetics--but it, too, I hope, will be of use to teachers, not least to those involved in Jewish education. Eventually, I hope to produce an off-the-shelf Jewish poetry curriculum for use in supplementary schools and (who knows?) even day schools. This blog will consist of my notes toward that goal, and will get some useful poems and ideas about Jewish poetry into circulation while I scrabble the curriculum together.

I can't do this, though, without your help. All comments and suggestions--about poets to read, or how to read them, or why--will be deeply appreciated.