Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Hoopoe's Crown

Happy New Year, everyone! What better way to start things off than with a post here, eh? New Year's resolutions & all that.

I'm on my second or third re-reading (depending on the poem) of Jackie Osherow's new collection, The Hoopoe's Crown. At first go I liked it somewhat less than Dead Men's Praise, her previous book and one of my favorites, but it's growing on me. (Growing in me, I almost typed, and maybe I was right that first time.) I don't have it in me this New Year's morning to write a full-scale review, but let me toss up a sample and a handful of thoughts to develop later.

First, the free sample: the opening poem:

My Version: Medieval Acrostic

Jealousy? Homage? Longing? Superstition?
All I know is, I want to join those guys
Calling God's name, writing their own
Quietly, in steady pieces, as if praise
Unmasks the giver as it goes along,
Existing and singing simultaneous.
Let me in, guys--even if I'm wrong;
I'm not fit for unremitting chaos.
Nudge me when another cornered word
Escapes as firmament the moment it's uttered.

As you'll see from this, Osherow likes to write formal verse--in this case, an acrostic in highly varied, off-rhyming pentameter--whose diction is extremely informal. I'm always a little skeptical about this style at first, and pick little fights as I read. (One "guys" is clever, and the line-end position calls attention to gender as well. Why the second, though?) After a few lines, though, my objections tend to fall away, as I get caught up not only in the tossed-off felicities, but in the casual confidence of the speaker, "Jacqueline," who is clearly Osherow's major creation. (She says that Dickinson is her favorite American poet, but I'm not sure that she's not more Whitmanian in this character-building.)

The poems that follow make some moves familiar from Osherow's previous books: turns to science, textually assured meditations on scripture (notably Nevi'im this time, as Psalms cropped up in the last book), and invocations of the Yiddish modern poets (notably Glatstein) she has written about in prose elsewhere. Other turns are new: to the landscape of Israel (physical more than political, for once!); to Jewish and Moorish and Garcia Lorca-ish Spain. This last poem, "Ri'e Yazmin," is in Osherow's beloved terza rima. Here's the start:

Madinat al-Zahra--wasn't that the name
of my jasmine ruin, my source of jasmine
when, trailing Lorca and the Sephardim,

I'd gone to feast my eyes on Southern Spain?
I was ogling Cordoba, lejana y sola:
its fleets of low white buildings shot with sun,

the mosque disfigured by a Christian cupola,
the synagogue intact, complete with psalms--
but there were rumors from Alf Layla Walaylah

of red-gold stags and falcons dripping gems,
floors, whose leaf motifs, coral and ivory,
embraced tenacious lapis pentagrams.

That tri-cultural tercet, where "Christian cupola" rhymes with Alf Layla Walaylah (the Arabic name for the 1001 Nights), with "psalms" poised between, seems to me just as perfect as James Merrill's rhyme of "T. S. Eliot" with "so what?" in his poem "The Thousand and Second Night." Bravo!

OK: must run. Before I go, though, a plug for the poem that's been "growing in me" since I read this book first a week or so ago, the title poem, "The Hoopoe's Crown." It starts out with typical razzle-dazzle terza rima, but oh, my--as it goes, the tones shift effortlessly, and it ends up as one of the saddest & loveliest pieces Osherow has ever written, worthy of its grace notes from Kohelet. I'll come back to this one. You go read it, first.

(So here's the question: is Osherow a "secular Jewish poet"? Is she part of "secular Jewish culture" when she writes about some topics, and part of "religious Jewish culture" when she writes about others? Stephen & Danny, if you read this, fire up a flare.)

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