Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Norman's List

Although he notes that these are "not a top 10 list," here are some of Norman's suggestions for Jewish poems everyone should know:
  • Charles Reznikoff: Samuel, Kaddish, A Compassionate People
  • Mike Heller: Bialystock Stanzas, For Uncle Nat, The American Jewish Clock
  • Hugh Seidman: Icon
  • Harvey Shapiro: Exodus, Feast of the Ram's Horn, Riding Westward
  • Allen Grossman: The Sands of Paran, The Law, Poland of Death
  • Jerome Rothenberg: Cokboy
"And," he adds, "there are passages from Hollander's Spectral Emanations and Mandelbaum's Chelmaxioms that are also top notch."

Time for me to start posting some of these (the short ones, that is), and linking to more books! More updates soon, I promise.


Monday, July 18, 2005

New Poem by Norman Finkelstein

This week's Forward has, for its commentary on the weekly portion, a new midrashic poem by my old friend Norman Finkelstein. Check it out!

Hmmm... Maybe Josh Corey should drop them a line?

(Probably not. Might lead to mixed dancing.)


Nan's List (10 poems to know)

Nan writes (the comment from below now posted above):
I don't know a lot of these [Rachel's list, see below], but I look forward to reading them. I don't think Martín Espada is Jewish, but that beautiful and fierce poem (available on his own website) certainly carries images that have been part of Jewish experience and is very much about social justice.

A poem that I think might have a similar claim to a place on the list is Adrienne Rich's "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children." Though the speaker doesn't share her neighbor's "violent emotion" over the burning of a book, the poem engages with questions of what should draw our feeling, our commitment, our action. Other Rich poems as well.

-Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish"

-Jacqueline Osherow--can't pick without a book in front of me either, and they're in a box somewhere. Here's a recent poem on Slate, "God's Acrostic":

-Everyone ought to know Paul Celan's "Todesfugue"

-In Eavan Boland's translation of nine women poets writing in German, After Every War, there are poems we all ought to know--for example, Else Lasker-Schüler's "Mein blaues Klavier"/"My Blue Piano" and Elizabeth Langgässer's "Frühling 1946"/"Spring 1946."
Of Nan's list, I'll confess, I know only the Rich, the Ginsberg, the Celan, and a lot of Osherow. I'm missing a fair number of Rachel's picks, too. Hey--sounds like an anthology in the making, at least for me!

Quick Takes (and Corey's Credo)

Just found this over at Josh Corey's blog, "Cahiers de Corey": a familiar credo, but one he articulates quite nicely:
...faith is not enough: spiritual feeling depends on some kind of lived
experience of community. And my culture at large provides a (distorted) lived
experience based upon Christian narratives. Strangely enough, I've found a
community oriented toward faith in redeeming the present through knowledge and
imagination, not in shul, but in academia and in poetry. But that counterculture
is fragmented and fractious, never really rising to the level of the religious
as such—which is almost certainly a good thing.

I've sometimes thought that I would eventually seek out some kind of religious community, because I sense that as much as I get out of the community of intellectuals and poets it will never provide the solid foundation we all tend to yearn for (the most committed postmodernists have that in each other, and arguably in the state-sanctioned intellectual cultures of nations like France). Of course not believing in God or G-d is a bit of a stumbling block; and if I'm with a bunch of Unitarians or
Reform Jews who are taking pains to explain that it's all metaphors anyway, I
might as well stay with the poets, who have much better metaphors.
And these reflections, from a day or two ago:
Not sure what the role of the spiritual is in my own poetry; obviously I take a certain amount of language from the Bible, and I'm heavily influenced by the messianic strain in the great modernist Jewish writers: Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Jabes. (I have special affection for Benjamin for his this-worldliness, his uneasy affection for consumer culture.....)

I've never set out to write a "spiritual" poem, not one that was any good, anyway; yet my poems are riddled with metaphysical speculation, gestures toward the invisible, and the like. I'm often uncomfortable with how much Christianity has infiltrated my thinking: it's so much the water you swim in as a Westerner that it's nigh-unavoidable, especially in this country where the supposed secularism of our postmodern age is far less visible than the innumerable emblems of the "Buddy Christ." You can't be an assimilated Jew without, well, assimilating.

There are specifically Christian notions—that of being born again, for example—whose emotional power is difficult to deny, even though I'd rather affirm the sentiment on a bumper-sticker I've seen, "Born O.K. the first time." Stories of resurrection and redemption are endemic in our culture, and they reach you when you're young: the fantasy narratives that have meant the most to me are strongly, if latently, Christian (and I'm shivered with ambivalence over the new Narnia movie—it looks fantastic and the books meant a lot to me as a kid, but they're now being celebrated by the same people who made Passion of the Christ a hit). Whereas the ecstatic side of Judaism is only available to initiates and I don't speak a word of Hebrew. Yiddish has always held more appeal for me as the living language of my actual flesh and blood, and for its own remarkable, often deprectaory flavors: schmaltz, schmendrick, schmuck. I loved Leo Rosten's books when I was a kid, and I still remember most of the dumb jokes in The Joys of Yiddish. But see, I'm already straying back across the blurry line between Judaism and Jewishness, between religion and culture. Where I live, more or less, when I'm not just inhabiting the skin of another blundering American.
A lot to respond to in this, some of which I cotton to, some of which feels a little over-familiar, even frustratingly so, to me.

Notice how reading Jewish authors--especially philosophical, meditative ones, who take on "big issues"--becomes a surrogate for lived Jewish community: or not "surrogate," exactly, but a form of "virtual community," a mental minyan that takes the place of the literarily stumbling, all-too-credulous "Jewish community" of the synagogue.

Notice, too, how that virtual community can be mustered against, or at least can counterbalance, the seductions of Christian tropes, Christian fantasy fiction--but only to a point. When actual linguistic difference sets in--i.e., Hebrew, the "secret language of the Jews"--Corey quick-steps back to the heimish, Yinglish side of the line, and back from "Judaism" (foreign, insular, initiatic) into "Jewishness" (dumb jokes, deprecatory or off-color humor). You don't have to be Freud to spot the defensive reaction at work there, surely! It doesn't take all that long, Josh, to learn enough Hebrew to daven. I suspect it ain't the language that's in your way.

Shivkhi ka'mayim libeich, bro--which doesn't exactly translate as "28 days until the Gaza pullout," but it might, for some, eh?


Wednesday, July 13, 2005


On the radio, these last few days, recollections of the Srebrenica massacre--7000-8000 Bosnian Muslim civilians, depending on the source you check, handed over from UN protection to be slaughtered a decade ago.

The only American poem I know that grapples with this, or with the Bosnian war in general, is Ammiel Alcalay's from the warring factions.

That it should be a Jewish poet's work pleases me, probably more than it should. That it should be so difficult a work--so jarring a collage of prose and verse, narrative and meditation, language-scrap, and so on --frustrates me, again probably more than it should. What form would be appropriate? And yet, how hard it is to get this read, even for me.

In a better world, Alcalay's work--not just as a poet, but as a translator and essayist, too, or maybe primarily as those--would earn him an important spot in accounts of "secular Jewish culture." He's more secular than many of the thinkers who make it into that rubric, in every sense of the word. (Scholem, Kafka, Benjamin, anyone? That blessed trinity!) As an anti-Zionist, though, he is persona non grata in many Jewish contexts--and, as I say, it's his work as a whole, rather than in any one genre, which one needs to read, and that makes for difficulties, too.

In any case, here is the first page of from the warring factions, before the hard stuff begins. The first Miró is the painter. The second, with the accent on the "i," is Miro Purivatra, who in 1993 was the director of Bosnian TV (BiHTV); during the war, he was accused by various sides of both "Islamicizing" and "Catholicising" the station. In 2000 he ran the Sarajevo film festival, evidently.) That said, here's the teaser. Enjoy?

Miró is in The Museum of Modern Art.

Miro is in Sarajevo.

A famous playwright is on stage at Symphony Space and
over the air on NPR.

The announcer calls me twice during a break to find
out how to pronounce the name Izeta.

Izeta is Miro's wife.

They have a dog.

It is December 1st, 1993.

At which we turn the page, and the vexed assemblage begins.

10 to Know

So far, only Rachel has taken me up on my challenge to list 10 poems--did I say 10 Jewish poems? I meant 10 Jewish poems--you wish every American Jew would know. She posted her list as a comment, but I'm bringing it up here to give it more attention:

"Wow -- ten poems I wish every Jew in America would read, eh? Okay, I'll give that a shot, with the caveat that I'm away from my study and am doing this off the top of my head, and I might generate a different list tomorrow:

- Alicia Ostriker's "A Meditation in Seven Days"
- Irena Klepficz's "Der mames shabosim/My Mother’s Sabbath Days"
- Rodger Kamenetz's "History of the Invisible"
- Ira Sadoff's "Hasids on the Subway"
- Merle Feld's "We All Stood Together"
- Marge Piercy's "The Art of Blessing the Day"
- Lynn Gottlieb's "Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon Nissan"
- Martín Espada's "Imagine the Angels of Bread"

Well, there's eight. I feel certain there should be some John Hollander on the list, but can't pick one without having a book in front of me... :-)"
Of these, I only know three, so clearly I have my work cut out for me! (I also never knew Martin Espada was Jewish, so the project gets more and more rewarding.)

C'mon, folks--who else should we add, and why?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Jay Ladin, "Family Tree"

Most of the poems in Jay Ladin's Alternatives to History are too long to type up here, but here's a short and particularly haunting one--not entirely representative (it's much bleaker, more mordant, than most of the book), but haunting.
Family Tree

In the black heart
Of a black year
The food runs out
And the family stranded
On the small stone shelf

Begins to eat itself

The youngest flesh
Is tastiest
Then the family turns
To shrunken uncles
And dessicated aunts

The ledge is strewn
With bones and scraps
No one will clean
And no one will confess
To eating grandma's eyes

Just in time
Ancestors arrive
Gnawing its roots
The family survives
What exactly this is a parable of, I'm not sure-- But parable it surely is, and scarily so. Hmmm... Maybe next time I have to participate in a panel discussion on Jewish Continuity, I'll read it, just to see what happens.

Brrrr... Such a sweet, sweet man, Jay Ladin (I met him, once). I'll post more on the rest of this book, including about its suite of poems on "The Situation," written during his stay in Israel some years ago, soon.

Jewish Poetry, Jewish Education

Among the various hats I wear--kipot, I guess, in this context--I serve on the Education Committee at the Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston, IL, where lately we've been (once again) reviewing our curriculum. I am, therefore, in search of suggestions!

What are, in your view (O my readers!) the 100...OK, the 80...OK, the 50...OK, the 10 poems that every American Jew should know? Or, if you prefer, forget the "the." What are 10 poems you wish every Jew in America would read and / or study? And, if you don't mind my asking, why these?

Don't worry about whether they'd be appropriate for kids, teens, or alter rockers like me. This is a wish list. (Maybe a book? Who knows?)

Send me your suggestions, and I'll compile and post them here!

By way of inspiration, this: the first section of one of my favorite poems about Jewish education, but the always invigorating Albert Goldbarth:

“The Nile

Elijah this.
The Children of Israel that.
And Moses. Moses in the bulrushes, Moses
blahblahblah. The doors closed
and the dark, fake-woodgrain paneling casketed us
away from the world for an hour and 45 minutes every afternoon
in Rabbi Lehrfield’s neighborhood Hebrew School. Here, as one,
the pious and the derelict chafed equally. The vehicle
of Rabbi Lehrfield’s narrative drive was Obedience,
all the wonder in those stories was run down methodically
and left behind like so many roadkills. Methuselah
something. Somethingsomething Ezekiel. And Pharaoh
set the infant Moses in front of a crown and a plate of embers,
testing if this was the child it was prophesied
would steal his reign. And Moses
did reach for the crown. But the Lord set an angel to guard him,
who now did guide that hand to lift an ember, and so did Moses
thereby burn his tongue and lo would stammer all his life long.
Did I care? His speech limped, but he lived.
Did I listen? Every night I’d read another chapter
in those actionful schlock-epic books by Edgar Rice Burroughs,
the ones where Mars (Barsoom, the natives call it) is
adventured across by stalwart Terran John Carter, Jeddak
(Warrior-King) and husband of the gauzey-saronged and
dusk-eyed Dejah Thoris, Princess of all those red-duned climes.
It made more sense to me
than God is a great bush of fire. All the while
Moses stuttered in front of the Living Flame, I
silently practiced Martian. It was Rabbi Lehrfield’s
Martian School for me the whole lackluster time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Well, I'm Back (Ronny Someck, 2)

Hello, everyone! Sorry to be gone so long--my NEH Seminar on "Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry" got underway, and the next thing I knew, a week had passed! Hmmm... Maybe next time I should apply to teach something on Jewish Poetry? Jewish American Poetry? An institute, not a seminar--that way, I can invite everyone I want to hear teach. I'll keep you posted.

A lot of lovely things in my mailbox recently: an essay on Ruth from Alicia Ostriker, new poetry by various hands, and this, by Ronny Someck, from the June, 2004 issue of Moment, via my old friend Nan Cohen. Thanks, Nan!


Tayyib studies literature at Tel Aviv University.
He has a knapsack with a grammar book and a composition
about Mahmoud Darwish.
The knapsack is transparent because this summer
with any other bag
in the X-ray eyes of all policemen he is marked
as hiding a bomb.
"Even this," his father says, "Inshallah,
will soon come out in the wash," and hangs on
the timeline clothes from which a stain
of shame has been rinsed. But
life has to go to the market and he goes with it
to buy olives in vernacular Arabic and write
poems about them in literary Arabic.
Meanwhile, Tayyib is entirely visible. The taut skin
on his arms does not hide the knots of muscle,
the flexible cartilage in the space between
the bones and the blood vessels in which
the swimmer of despair can crawl drunken
to the shore where the lifeguards have hung
a black flag.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

And with that, as Sam says, "I'm back."