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.


E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks for this, Norman! I'd never heard of Nadelberg or her book; you've done her (and us) a kindness.

More on Track soon, I promise!


Katie Schwartz said...

I like this blog! I am adding it to my blog.