Monday, December 18, 2006

Nadelberg's Names

[While I modestly but eagerly await the second installment of Eric's commentary, here's my take on Isa the Truck Named Isadore.]

Amanda Nadelberg’s Isa the Truck Named Isadore has received a number of notices since its publication earlier this year, most of them very positive. I think it’s one of the best first volumes of poetry to come along in quite some time: immensely readable, it yields a great many immediate pleasures. The poems are smart, generous, welcoming and often very funny, beautifully poised, nicely lineated, graciously timed. The book is wholly composed, that is to say, it is a "book" in Jack Spicer’s sense of the term (indeed, Nadelberg sometimes sounds like Spicer in his lighter moments), and the poems cleverly resonate against each other in all sorts of ways . There are sixty-three poems, each with a name as a title, in alphabetical order, from Adelaide to Zeb. Drawn from many languages (Welsh, Polish, Hebrew, French, Hungarian…), the names would suggest a multicultural agenda, but that turns out not to be case. Instead, all the poems are instances of current American speech, common vernacular, conversation oddly angled into art. Readers will think of Stein, Williams, O’Hara and other masters of demotic speech acts. Phrases teeter at the edge of cliché, back up into idiosyncrasy, and suddenly pitch themselves, tongue in cheek, into pop culture myth, morals and manners (“Tell her I want to apologize / like the talk show with the / four ladies said…”). The poems praise, complain, bless, narrate, explain, invite, argue, demur. They are in the voice of the named person, in the voice of an interlocutor, in the voice of the poet herself, in a voice from inside, from outside, all of the above, and none of the above.

All of this is reason enough for any poetry fan to be given this book as a Christmas or Hannukah present. Maybe especially a Hannukah present, because what most reviewers haven’t noticed, or have remarked only in passing, is that Isa the Truck Named Isadore is a wonderful addition to whatever it is we call Jewish American poetry. The Jewish fascination with the kabbalistic magic of naming is powerfully at work here. Invoking the name unlocks the mystery of the everyday, as we see in the often outrageous Jewish American scenarios. “Clelia,” for instance, tells of a wedding taking place in a bay on “floatable benches,” after the guests leave their shoes on the dock “Like that episode where Carrie loses her / 400-dollar Manolo Blahniks.” Here is the last part of the poem:

we were exchanging the niceties we
had written for the ceremony and one
of our friends, Marilyn, fell in. She
was sharing a bench with our friends
with larger asses. Marilyn is tiny she
was barely holding on. Marilyn’s
husband couldn’t swim so he didn’t
go in after her but the Rabbi did—he was
an excellent swimmer and a good Rabbi.
A slight delay in the service but
we were all just so happy
that Mar was okay. Her
husband was especially happy he
told the Rabbi if he ever needed
life insurance he should
call right up—he sold it and
could get him a good price.

I could go on about the line breaks and Nadelberg’s strategic lack of punctuation, but what really tickles me is “we were all just so happy / that Mar was okay.” But if this sounds too much like surreal Jewish standup, then try “Elijah,” which I quote in full:

When you open the door
he humps the banister. He drinks
so little from the cup so little so
everyone can’t be sure if
he’s really there or not but
it doesn’t really matter. You don’t
see him climb the chimney, slide
down the roof, it is slate, and into
the open window upstairs. He looks
so pretty in your dresses while
you help wash the dishes
downstairs. He waits for you to
come up, brush your teeth, climb
into bed and onto him. You
crush his arm and it doesn’t
matter either. Next year he will be
elsewhere but tonight this night
you’re the winner. It’s a big night
when you’re sleeping with Elijah.

Why is this night different from all other nights? Don’t ask! Making great claims or offering deep analysis of this poem may spoil the fun, though this is also a serious poem and a sinister one. It confirms my long-held suspicion that I was not the only kid at the seder who was terrified by opening the door for Elijah, and even though I never thought of the ritual in sexual terms (well, not consciously), I now understand the truly uncanny nature of the whole business. After reading this poem, I have learned something new about Passover, something that has been there all along.

One of the longer poems in the book is “Feivel,” which, as some readers may recall, is the name of the little Jewish immigrant mouse (last name Mousekewitz) in the animated movie An American Tail (1986), directed by Don Bluth, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer. The poem grows increasingly phantasmagoric as it proceeds, which is no mean feat given its resolutely conversational mode. Here is a sample from midway through:

If my mother’s best friend were a doll
with a string to pull for a repetition
she would say I hate Florida. Many
people in Florida have had face lifts and
breast augmentations. It is fantastically
scary. An American Tail is also scary
because this little mouse named Feivel
is separated from his family on their way
from Russia to America. They had to leave
because of anti-Semitism. Maus I and II
are also stories in which mice face
anti-Semitism. There are many
Jewish people in Florida. I am
Jewish but I haven’t had any breast
augmentation. If I haven’t had
any breast augmentation or a
face lift then I am not from Florida.

By the end of this poem, Jews and mice and breast augmentation and anti-Semitism are swirling about so that it too has becomes, as Nadelberg says, “fantastically / scary.” But don’t worry:

…In the end Feivel and his
family are reunited. I haven’t found
my family yet but Feivel has and he
taught us all never to stop looking
even if we aren’t looking for
mice. It works for everything.

Thank you, Amanda Nadelberg. This wandering Jew will keep that in mind.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy Hannukah! (A Commentary)

Like so much of Norman Finkelstein's poetry, like so much that is either Jewish or poetry, this selection from Track invites commentary.

"First night / first light," it begins: an easy, almost inevitable rhyme in English, although not (say) in Hebrew, and thus perhaps a mark of the poem's diasporic nature. A rhyme across opposition, as though night inevitably produces, leads to light: a hopeful implication, surely. An echo, on reflection, of Genesis: and there was evening, and there was morning: one [or, the first] day. I've never thought of this holiday having any particular echo of creation in it, but evidently it does, or does now.

"First night / first light / a gift": lovely how the silent "g" in the first two lines now steps into the consonantal spotlight. The pairing of night and light could be the gift, or the light as a riposte to the night. R. Cohen says: "there is a crack, a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in."

"First light / a gift / to the": to what? to whom? Grammatical suspense hints at a pun: "to the" as "to thee."

"A gift / to the / shammes": Finkelstein's freeze-frame lineation reminds us that there is a light before the first light of Hannukah, an ohr kadmon, if you will: the light that lights the shammes, which then lights everything else. A poem about inspiration, then? R. Stevens: "We say, 'God and the imagination are one.' / How high that highest candle lights the dark." Every previous line has had two syllables divided into two words; this, two in one, as though that equation, that illumination, had been achieved. "Shammes" is an awkward word, a break from the diction of the first three lines, an interpolation from the Yiddish, and the Hebrew before that: a beadle, a sexton, a servant. On this night, and indeed all through the holiday, the servant gets the first, unnoticed gift. (When they sing "Bo'i b'shalom,' the back-benchers stand in front.)

"Shammes": in it we see "shame" transfigured ("Lo tevoshi velo tikalemi..." / "V'lo nevosh, v'lo nikalem..."--is that right? quoted from memory), also "sham" ("if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise"). The poet here as servant alit, and able to pass on light.

More tomorrow, on stanza two. A present to you, Norman!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Happy Hannukah!

from Track:


First night
first light
a gift
to the

an o
pen gift
for you
to re

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Davidic Verse

Working up my talk on King David, I compiled a handful of poems that mention or deploy him. I'll post them over the next few days, just to keep things moving along here before the late-December break.

Here's one by Charles Reznikoff. I love how he embeds a line of iambic pentameter in the free verse of the poem as a whole, precisely at the moment when David (or his equivalent, in this case) declines the weapons of King Saul. What a fresh, surprising figure for the (Jewish) (American) modern poet's relationship to (British) (Christian) prosodic tradition!
from the sequence "Autobiography: New York"


I do not believe that David killed Goliath.
It must have been---
you will find the name in the list of David's captains.
But, whoever it was, he was no fool
when he took off the helmet
and put down the sword and the spear and the shield
and said, The weapons you have given me are good,
but they are not mine:
I will fight in my own way
with a couple of pebbles and a sling.

--Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down (1941)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

He's Back!

My good friend Anonymous is back, with a new love note:
By the way hymie kike I am a proud Sunni Muslim. You kaffirs are going to hell for not freeing Palestine. Inshallah.
Well, you know--somehow I knew you weren't a Sufi!

I still don't think this guy's entirely for real, but in any case, he's clearly been appointed my Patience Teacher for the next few weeks, and who am I to argue with such dedication to duty? I'll keep deleting his comments as soon as I spot them, and I'll stop boring you with my responses (probably), but let the record show that I appreciate his efforts. If I'm going to deal with anything Jewish, political or no, I'll have to deal with worse than this, so a little advance training will probably help.

Saith the Preacher (or in this case, the Poet):
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt
- I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
Salaam Namaste!

Ran Across This

Ran across this today, by Jerry Rothenberg: the sixth of his Altar Pieces, from Seedlings & Other Poems. I love the poem; anyone know the work in question?

This Mary Magdalene

has hebrew on
her bodice

& a naughty smile

Amsterdam 1993

Monday, December 04, 2006

King David Tomorrow!

I'll be speaking on King David and Jewish poetry tomorrow here in Chicago, at Congregation Rodfei Zedek on the South Side. I know an email announcing the talk just went out, with this blog address; for those of you just joining me, please excuse my testy post from yesterday. There's some history to it--not entirely happy, as you can imagine! I promise to be nice tomorrow night.

(Well, not too nice: we are talking about King David, my favorite bundle of contradictions. Whitman had nothing on David in the "containing multitudes" department.)

I have a fistful of relevant poems in hand, but if you read this and have suggestions--poems by Jewish poets that are either particularly Davidic, or that allude to David in some way--do send them along! I'm always looking for more.

Here's a favorite, rather wistful, by Yehuda Amichai:

Young David

After the first cheers
David returned to all the youths
and already the armored revelers
were so grown up.

With slaps on the shoulder, with a hoarse laugh.
And someone cursed and others
spit. But David was lonely
and felt for the first time there were no more Davids.

And suddenly he did not know where to put
Goliath's head that somehow he forgot
and still held by its locks.

Heavy and superfluous it now was
and the birds of blood that wandered far
again heard not, like him, the people shouting.

Or, in another translation (from here):

After the outburst of the first few hails
Young David went back to the waiting boys.
Already those who clattered their hard mails
Were so disarmingly mature and poised.

They formed the usual shoulder-slapping queue.
Some swore, some spat, laughed hoarsely, even cheered.
But David stood Alone. Henceforth he knew
There could not be another David here.

And suddenly he wondered where to put
Goliath`s head that his numb hands were yet,
Through sheer inertness, holding by the curls.

Now it was heavy and superfluous, Birds
Who flew into the bloodshot distance heard
No longer, as he did, the shouts and snarls.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Registration for Comments?

A reader writes:
Hey hymie kike remember to put in a registration feature so anonymous users can't post comments like mine go do that hymie kike

Hmmm...I invite someone named Norman Finkelstein to join the blog, and the next thing I know, I get my first piece of anti-semitic commentary. My guess is that Mr. A. U. Akbar here is actually a member of my local Jewish Federation, maybe one of the folks who wants me to block that other Norman Finkelstein (whom I've neither met nor read) from getting tenure. Or maybe one of that other Norman's enemies from Colombia--the University, not the country.

Still, just so he won't feel put out over having tracked his nemesis (or at least someone with the same name) over the waves of cyberspace, I'll take Reb Akbar's advice--unless you, cher Norman, object.

Until tomorrow, then:

Friday, December 01, 2006

Daniel Fuchs

As I said in my first post the other day, I plan to address Jewish literary and cultural matters beyond poetry per se, so I observe with great pleasure that David R. Godine, having recently brought Charles Reznikoff back into print, is also reprinting the work of Daniel Fuchs. Fuchs (1909-1993), although highly praised by the likes of Alfred Kazin and John Updike, remains of the one most underread of Jewish American writers. Godine has just brought out what was previously known as The Williamsburg Trilogy under the title The Brooklyn Novels, with a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem. The three novels which make up this trilogy, Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937), present a panorama of post-immigration life in Jewish New York which in every way rivals Henry Roth's more famous Call It Sleep (1934). Like Roth's novel, Fuch's work was influenced by Joyce, especially the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the first of the three books in particular follows the development of a young man, the child of immigrants, who aspires to be the chronicler of his Brooklyn neighborhood while simultaneously freeing himself from its poverty and provinciality. But Fuchs is a much funnier writer than Roth, and his vision of the life of the streets, though certainly quite dark, is less tragic and more absurd. Roth vanished into obscurity, only to emerge at the end of his life and publish his multi-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream. Fuchs, by contrast, broke up his next novel into short stories, sold them to popular magazines, and headed out to Hollywood where he became a successful screenwriter (he won an Oscar for the screenplay of "Love Me or Leave Me"). Godine published The Golden West: Hollywood Stories last year; it includes Fuchs' last novel, West of the Rockies (1971).

There is a passage in Summer in Williamsburg which has always served as a touchstone for me in regard to the ways in which Jewish-American writers have negotiated the problems of assimilation and the loss of religious traditions under the social and cultural conditions of modernity. Replete with mock Yiddish and Hebrew, it is a lengthy description and ironic homage to
...these mysterious men in their black, shiny caftans, in their skull caps, these old men who come together in the evenings to play tick-tack-toe with the great Talmud, itself brought down miraculously through the centuries. In our time we must admire and respect this fervor, this tradition. They are true heroes in a world of puppets and therefore we do not understand them. These old men who find synagogues in a tenement basement store with the terrible toilets facing the back yards. These old men nodding over the yellow, holy-odored volumes, arguing in a straight line of tradition that extends over the world in width, in depth to the earliest times, in length to God himself. What dimensions, what awful dimensions, what wonderful men as they spit generously on the dirty floor.
This passage deserves some Talmudic exegesis of its own. As Walter Benjamin might say, it is a perfect instance of cultural transmission as catastrophe. Fuch's comedy depends upon a disquieting blend of the familiar and the alien, of the heimish and the remote. Something Jewish is being passed from older to younger generation, and the means of transmission, as is traditional in Jewish culture, is the Book. But what is certainly not being passed on is Talmudic wisdom, but instead the bittersweet knowledge of its loss, as seen from the perspective of a young, Americanized generation, already a bit nostalgic for a way of life it knows very well yet cannot call its own. The text that is the vehicle of this experience is no longer the religious tome but the resolutely secular modern novel. The novel exposes the world of "synagogues in a tenement basement store with the terrible toilets facing the back yards." But in doing so, it reveals itself as one of the "puppets" of modernity, and if it is any way heroic, its heroism lies in its powers of self-deflation.

This is early Fuchs; later, that ironic power of self-deflation will become more completely Americanized. He migrates from Jewish college boys and old talmudists, to Jewish gangsters and pimps, to Jewish agents and producers. By the time he writes about the Hollywood studio system, he will move brilliantly between the registers of the cynic and the moralist, leaving the line of tradition he describes above almost completely behind. He never quite comes to see Hollywood in the apocalyptic terms one finds in West's The Day of the Locust. He was very much a part of the industry for a long time, but he could cast a cold eye upon it as a novelist, and, I think, as a secular Jew. Sometimes he seems to be dancing around the Golden Calf. But the next instant, he's smashing it to bits.

Greetings from Norman

Hello to all the readers of A Big Jewish Blog. I've been an avid reader of this blog since Eric started it, and as some of you may have noticed, I've put in my two cents from time to time. Now that I'm an official contributor (and hopefully others will join us soon), I'd like to thank Eric for starting the blog and running it faithfully. We've had some lively discussions in the past; let's keep the ball rolling!

Ideally, I would like to offer a relatively substantial post about twice a month, more often if things get lively. Like Eric, my sense of this blog is fairly broad. Our central interest is Jewish poetry, but I think we should also consider Jewish literature and culture in general, the relationship between poetry and Judaism, the relationship between poetry and "spirituality" (I distrust that term, but I've never found a good synonym), and the contemporary poetry scene. No doubt I'll have something to say about all these matters sooner or later. Stay tuned. My first real post will be arriving shortly.

Norman Finkelstein