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!

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