Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Kenneth Koch, "To Jewishness"

I screwed up my courage yesterday and emailed Josh Corey about this blog--he knew of the other one--, not least because I want to spend some time here thinking about Secular Jewish Culture, which seems to be on his mind, somewhat more freshly, as well.

Josh not only wrote back; he wrote back, over on his blog--and included a link to this poem, by Kenneth Koch, which I'll post as a sort of holding pattern, while I nosh & gather my thoughts.
To Jewishness

As you were contained in
Or embodied by
Louise Schlossman
When she was a sophomore
At Walnut Hills
High School
In Cincinnati, Ohio,
I salute you
And thank you
For the fact
That she received
My kisses with tolerance
On New Year's Eve
And was not taken aback
As she well might have been
Had she not had you
And had I not, too.
Ah, you!
Dark, complicated you!
Jewishness, you are the tray
On it painted
Moses, David and the Ten
Commandments, the handwriting
On the Wall, Daniel
In the lions' den
On which my childhood
Was served
By a mother
And father
Who took you
To Michigan
Oh the soft smell
Of the pine
Trees of Michigan
And the gentle roar
Of the Lake! Michigan
Or sent you
To Wisconsin
I went to camp there
On vacation, with me
Every year!
My counselors had you
My fellow campers
Had you and "Doc
Ehrenreich" who
Ran the camp had you
We got up in the
Mornings you were there
You were in the canoes
And on the baseball
Diamond, everywhere around.
At home, growing
Taller, you
Thrived, too. Louise had you
And Charles had you
And Jean had you
And her sister Mary
Had you
We all had you
And your Bible
Full of stories
That didn't apply
Or didn't seem to apply
In the soft spring air
Or dancing, or sitting in the cars
To anything we did.
In "religious school"
At the Isaac M. Wise
Synagogue (called "temple")
We studied not you
But Judaism, the one who goes with you
And is your guide, supposedly,
Oddly separated
From you, though there
In the same building, you
In us children, and it
On the blackboards
And in the books Bibles
And books simplified
From the Bible. How
Like a Bible with shoulders
Rabbi Seligmann is!
You kept my parents and me
Out of hotels near Crystal Lake
In Michigan and you resulted, for me,
In insults,
At which I felt
Chagrined but
Was energized by you.
You went with me
Into the army, where
One night in a foxhole
On Leyte a fellow soldier
Said Where are the fuckin Jews?
Back in the PX. I d like to
See one of those bastards
Out here. I d kill him!
I decided to conceal
You, my you, anyway, for a while.
Forgive me for that.
At Harvard you
Landed me in a room
In Kirkland House
With two other students
Who had you. You
Kept me out of the Harvard Clubs
And by this time (I
Was twenty-one) I found
I preferred
Kissing girls who didn t
Have you. Blonde
Hair, blue eyes,
And Christianity (oddly enough) had an
Aphrodisiac effect on me.
And everything that opened
Up to me, of poetry, of painting, of music,
Of architecture in old cities
Didn t have you
I was
Distressed
Though I knew
Those who had you
Had hardly had the chance
To build cathedrals
Write secular epics
(Like Orlando Furioso)
Or paint Annunciations--"Well
I had David
in the wings." David
Was a Jew, even a Hebrew.
He wasn't Jewish.
You're quite
Something else. I had Mahler,
Einstein, and Freud. I didn't
Want those three (then). I wanted
Shelley, Byron, Keats, Shakespeare,
Mozart, Monet. I wanted
Botticelli and Fra Angelico.
"There you've
Chosen some hard ones
For me to connect to. But
Why not admit that I
Gave you the life
Of the mind as a thing
To aspire to? And
Where did you go
To find your 'freedom'? to
New York, which was
Full of me." I do know
Your good qualities, at least
Good things you did
For me--when I was ten
Years old, how you brought
Judaism in, to give ceremony
To everyday things, surprise and
Symbolism and things beyond
Understanding in the
Synagogue then I
Was excited by you, a rescuer
Of me from the flatness of my life.
But then the flatness got you
And I let it keep you
And, perhaps, of all things known,
That was most ignorant. "You
Sound like Yeats, but
You re not. Well, happy
Voyage home, Kenneth, to
The parking lot
Of understood experience. I'll be
Here if you need me and here
After you don t
Need anything else. HERE is a quality
I have, and have had
For you, and for a lot of others,
Just by being it, since you were born."
I've added a link to that poem, by the way, to the expanded list of links I'm working on, off-line. A fat update to the sidebar coming soon!

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