Friday, January 19, 2007

Some Local Literary History

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to Rockdale Temple, “the oldest congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains” and the fourth oldest congregation in the United States. Rockdale, a venerable Reform congregation now located in suburban Cincinnati, has been going through some changes in the last few years. Its membership has gone down, and it is currently in the midst of a major restructuring and renovation, having sold its buildings and property to Cincinnati’s Jewish Foundation. The Temple will become part of a campus that will also include the new Cincinnati Jewish Community Center, all slated for completion later this year.

At Rockdale, I met with Rabbi Sigma Faye Coran to discuss what I’ll be doing as the Temple’s latest scholar-in-residence. This will entail three talks over the last weekend of April: one on Jewish American fiction, one on poetry and midrash, and one on the relationship of the sacred to the secular in the Jewish literary imagination. (No doubt I’ll have more to say about these as the date gets closer and I begin to panic.) As we were winding down our discussion and I was looking at the Rabbi’s bookshelves, I noticed a volume called (I think) The Poet and the Rabbi, which turned out to be a book about Rockdale’s Rabbi Victor E. Reichert (1897-1990), who had a long friendship with Robert Frost. Reichert had a summer home in Vermont near Frost’s place, and the Rabbi, as it turns out, was something of a poet himself. Reichert, who served as Rockdale’s rabbi from 1938 to 1962, published his poems in a volume called Tower of David in 1946, presenting copies to the entire congregation. An expanded edition was published in 1964 and again presented to the Temple’s membership. Reichert was also an active scholar: he wrote a commentary to the Soncino Press edition of the Book of Job, and translated classical Hebrew texts.

Learning about Reichert’s interest in poetry, I couldn’t help but be curious about the work. Rabbi Coran delicately indicated that I shouldn’t get my hopes up; she was more enthusiastic when telling me about Reichert’s widow, Louise, who is a hundred years old and still lives in North Avondale, which for much of the last century was one of Cincinnati’s big Jewish neighborhoods (and still one of the city’s more successfully integrated ones). Nevertheless, I borrowed the two editions of Tower of David and started browsing. Rabbi Coran proved to be an astute reader.

I knew I was in for trouble when I noted a quote from a review of the first edition, reproduced on the cover of the second: “It’s a joy to turn from the obscurantism which dominates contemporary poetry and delve into this.” Oh, that contemporary obscurantism! And as Rabbi Coran told me, Reichert may have been friends with Frost, but he really didn’t get what Frost was up to either. The poetry had none of the freshness of Frost’s imagery, none of his sly voicings, and certainly none of his dark and for me, truly frightening scepticism. (I just finished teaching him in Modern American Poetry, and once again was led to appreciate poems like “Design” and “Desert Places.”) But what is interesting to me about Reichert’s verse is not merely its utter conventionality, its sentimentality and total lack of risk, but the way in which it proceeds as if modernism never happened. The poems are pure American Fireside. Even the poems on Jewish subjects sound like “The Jewish Cemetary at Newport,” only not as deeply engaged with history, and without, of course, Longfellow’s belief that “the dead nations never rise again.” I couldn’t help but think as I leafed through the books that many of Reichert’s themes were similar to those of Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976), who was Reichert’s almost exact contemporary. Both, for instance, were fascinated with King David. This is Reichert’s “David’s Harp”:

Above the couch of Israel’s poet King
There hung a harp unfingered through the day
And silent in the first watch of the night.
But with the midnight hour, our sages say,
Soft through the open door of David’s tent
A northern wind would blow, waking the strings
To such celestial song no ear had ever heard
Before or since. Then would the poet King
Arise, and while the music lingered on,
Weave wondrous words to song whose majesty
Has voiced the faith, the longing of mankind.
Thus David labored with the Psalms. But when
The eastern sky flamed with the pillar of the dawn
The breeze was gone. The harp was mute again.

And here is Reznikoff giving voice to David in his “King David”:

The Lord tookk me from following the sheep
to be ruler of Israel,
and now He ha given me rest from all my enemies.
Who am I, my God, and what is my house
that You have brought me so far?
I was surrounded
by the sorrows of death,
and the flood of ungodly me
frightened me;
I cried to my God!
He shot out His lightnings;
He took me
and drew me out of the deep waters.
By Him
I have run through a troop,
and jumped over a wall;
He teaches my hands war,
to bend the bow
He has given me my enemies:
I made them as dust before the wind;
I threw them away as dirt in the street.

The currents of literary history move in odd directions, and the engagement of poets with their cultural heritage likewise produces some ironic twists and turns. I could do a close comparative reading of these passages, but most readers can probably guess what I’d have to say. Besides, it would be unfair: Reichert was, apparently, a beloved religious leader; no one made great claims for him as a poet. For me, as a reader of Jewish American poetry, what we have here is less a matter of sentimental imagery or completely conventional form, and more a matter of piety, which, I think, has no place in poetry, even poetry that sincerely seeks to express religious devotion. It leads me back not only to Reznikoff, but to many of the other Jewish American poets I admire. They treat their Jewish source material with respect, but what counts for them (ah, modernism) is their devotion not only to culture, not only to the Text, but to language.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Art Based on Celan

The Poetry Foundation has posted an on-line exhibit of art by Anselm Keifer, based on poems by Paul Celan. There doesn't seem to be a separate page for it; just go here and look for the all-too-chatty headline "Take That, Adorno."

More on this, and other things, anon!

Friday, January 12, 2007

More on Michael Heller

Norman's post (below) reminds me that last month I finally finished a review of Michael Heller's most recent collection of essays, Uncertain Poetries, for Shofar, the well-known journal of Jewish Studies. I have no idea when the piece will run, and it was so overdue that I'm in no position to pester them for news (not that they return my emails, sniff!), but you all might take an interest.

Here are a couple of paragraphs to hold you, then:
When poet and critic Michael Heller wrote his first book of prose, Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (Southern Illinois UP, 1985), the Objectivists were the neglected stepchildren of American modernism, overshadowed by the far more famous poets who influenced them (Pound, Williams) and by the bravura public careers of the poets that followed (Robert Lowell, W. H. Auden, and the New American Poets of the 1950s and 60s). Twenty years later, the core group of Objectivists are routinely anthologized, with Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Lorine Neidecker—all but the last of them Jewish—seen as major figures in their own right and in the history of American verse. Heller, too, has finally begun to receive the attention he deserves, not least as the lead-off figure in the “Objectivist Continuities” chapter of Norman Finkelstein’s Not One of Them in Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity. Uncertain Poetries, a selection of Heller’s essays, talks, and reviews from the past twenty years, shows how far the range of this poet’s interests have carried him beyond the Objectivist tradition—and how thinking deeply within this tradition, as well as outside it, has carried him into a distinctive, appealing account of the relationship between poetry and “tradition” more generally.

Heller strikes a keynote for the collection in the opening sentence of “The Uncertainty of the Poet,” a meditation on the painting of that name by the Italian modernist Georgio de Chirico. “I am here,” he declares, “investigating the floating filigree of doubt and fear, that feeling of being on the edge, which often accompanies poetic composition” (p. 3). With phenomenological precision, Heller’s essays pursue the “edgy” encounters incumbent upon writing poetry: encounters with oneself, one’s culture, one’s imagined future readers, and most profoundly with what Gershom Scholem described, in a passage Heller cites, as “the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born” (230). This sounds daunting, even angst-ridden, in the abstract. But as Heller brings the process to life in meditations on paintings and on modern poets (Federico Garcia Lorca, Wallace Stevens, and Stephane Mallarme, among others) and postmodern figures (among them William Bronk and Armand Schwerner), poesis looks less fraught, and more inviting. Indeed, to borrow a metaphor from “The True Epithalamium,” his essay on the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Robert Duncan, poetry begins to resemble a marriage between the “interrogative cliché-destroying precision” of well-crafted verse and the “lightening up about our purported certainties,” which leads, after doubt and darkness, to the birth of a daughter named Pleasure (231).

The rest should appear in Shofar--speedily, in our day!


Thursday, January 11, 2007

A New Book from Michael Heller

Michael Heller, whose work is familiar to many readers of this blog, has just published Earth and Cave, a memoir which includes both prose and poetry, drawn from the writing Heller did while sojourning in Nerja, a little town on the southern coast of Spain, in 1965. Heller was 28 years old; he had left New York City and much of his old life behind, determined to transform himself into a poet. His encounters with the peasant culture of the town, his visits to the pre-historic caves in the region, and his growing awareness of his Jewish heritage in a country that both fostered and sought to extirpate Jewish life, makes this required reading for anyone who has followed Heller's work in poetry and criticism over his long career.

Earth and Cave is 45 pages perfect bound, and represents a big step forward for Dos Madres Press, which has previously published fifteen small, beautiful poetry chapbooks. Edited by Robert Murphy and designed by his wife Elizabeth, this is one of liveliest and most eclectic chapbook series going. So check out Earth and Cave and Dos Madres.

Joseph Donahue's Terra Lucida and "Jewish" Poetry

At the risk of this blog becoming a mutual admiration society, I’d like to recall a passage in Eric’s essay “Shekhinah In American,” which he and Jonathan Barron include in their Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections. At an important point in the essay, Eric discusses Allen Grossman’s call for Jewish American poets to engage in deeper study of traditional texts (back to the sources!), including kabbalah, in order to escape the parochialism of ethnicity. For Grossman, “Judaism is an ahistorical religion” (a truly contrarian notion), and the return to the texts he calls for will, as Eric puts it, “make every Jewish age simultaneous.” What would this retooled Jewish American poem sound like? “Might such a poem sound something like this?” Eric asks—and then, in a brilliant move, quotes “What Do I Know of the Old Lore?,” the opening poem in Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches!

I often think of this moment when I reflect (as I have interminably for many years now) upon what makes a poem “Jewish.” Eric’s point is well taken: the Jewish knowledge (more—the Jewish wisdom) of Robert Duncan—gentile, theosophist, syncretist, gnostic—makes “What Do I Know of the Old Lore,” among a number of Duncan’s works, into an uncannily “Jewish” poem. So if you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye (oh, the subway ads of my lost youth!), maybe you don’t have to be Jewish to write a Jewish poem.

This is a matter which deserves much further consideration in itself, but I raise the issue here as an opening into Joseph Donahue’s serial poem Terra Lucida, which he has been publishing in magazines and chapbooks for over ten years. I’ve always been an admirer of Joe’s work, which tends toward a post-New York School apocalyptic fluidity (see, most recently, Incidental Eclipse), creating in turn a fractured, comic, even crazed sensibility (not “voice”) which, to use the title of another of his serial poems, is that of “A Servant of God Without a Head.” But Terra Lucida is composed in a different register. Written exclusively in terse but flexible couplets, its engagement with the sacred, and with theological discourse, is more direct. Donahue draws from a number of religious traditions, and part of the poetry’s strength lies in the intertwining, sometimes conflicted patterns of allusion, a kind of overdetermined revelation that is actually hidden by an overabundance of truths.

In In This Paradise: Terra Lucida XXI-XL, this sense often arrives with a particularly Jewish inflection. Here are two passages from XXII (in this paradise):

The souls left in the Garden
roam at every full moon.

They bow before the towers of
Jerusalem, bathe in that radiance.

They return to the Garden, and go out.
They fly at night, and wail before

the gates of the fallen cities.
They see the bodies of those

suffering in punishment.
They push on, remembering

The agony of all they see.
They fly back to Eden.

They tell the Holy One, who
grieves there, in the Hall of Illness:

The world is a hollow,
a ghost of water in a ditch...


Orders, Songs, Laws,
have been hidden away.

We must try to find them.
We must, we say, go find them.

But we hide, even more deeply,
clinging to an unreal glitter,

as these perfections
struggle to reach us...

Perhaps someone more deeply read in kabbalah than I am can identify the imagery in the first passage, though my guess is that, as in the case of Duncan, Donahue has assimilated and transformed kabbalistic discourse, creating a vision of loss and exile that is perfectly in keeping with Jewish mysticism’s—and Donahue’s own—gnostic impulses. I am moved by the pathos of the Holy One grieving in the “Hall of Illness”; the idea of the Almighty’s helplessness in the face of human wretchedness and cosmic disaster is expressed with wonderful tact and restraint. The second passage, with its vision of ambivalent students of the Law, reminds me of the great debate between Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem over the status of tradition and transmissibility in Kafka. Benjamin asserted that Kafka’s “students are pupils who have lost the Holy Writ,” while Scholem countered that these students “are not so much those who have lost the Scripture…but rather those students who cannot decipher it.” And then there is Kafka himself, who, in “An Imperial Message,” imagined the dying Emperor sending a messager to “his pathetic subject” through the incalculable distances of the Imperial Court. “But you sit at your window,” the parable ends, “and dream of that message when evening comes.”

The suggestiveness of Donahue’s work, its invitation to metaphysical speculation and religious hermeneutic, is in productive tension with its sheer audacity. Terra Lucida XXIX (The Adoration of the Sign) conflates Jewish and Christian apocalypticism to give us a vision in which “God has leased the world to Satan / …A world dark as anthracite / & lit by flames of an invisible war. XXXIX (secret Jews), appropriately enough, draws on the unsettling historical phenomenon of the crypto-Jews of New Mexico, with their hidden Jewish practices and their ritual of washing away the Catholic baptism when a child turns twelve. XXVI is a probing midrash on Cain and Abel, in which the dead brother speaks “deep within the sleep of Cain.” And XL ironically celebrates Esau, “Denier of Denial / Patriarch of Craving.”

Donahue is obviously interested in the frightening underside of religious experience—heresy, nihilism, mystical infatuation. Yet there is also great charm in Terra Lucida. Again, from XXII:

In the shade of a tree children
string nouns to verbs.

The earth's all burs, flowers, and hills.
The children go wild with words.

Sky and earth are about to be
bound, are bound already,

in the shade of a tree,
bound in a sentence where

children will read about the letters
that spell the world: fire & water, earth & air

will dream a book with a picture
of the field where they are.

Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge; Book of the World, World of the Book. Donahue puts yet another spin on Tsvetayeva’s “all poets are Jews.”

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Happy Hannukah, a Commentary (part 2)

Here again is the passage from Track that Norman posted for Hannukah:
First night
first light
a gift
to the

an o
pen gift
for you
to re
As we reach the second stanza, the two-syllable prosody of the passage grows more visible; after all, for the first time, words begin to break across the line. Break? Division begins creation here, as each line invites its own reflections:

an o: An "Oh," of wonder or delight, as the light is lit; an "o," or circle, as the year swings round to this holiday once more (hence the pun on "ano"); the "o" is without beginning, without end, a figure, if we linger on it long enough, for the prolific, fertile void itself, perhaps.

pen gift: a delightful twist! The "o" of delight turns out to be the pleasure of opening a gift--in this context a Hannukah gift, I suppose, although the light itself has been the first gift, according to that first stanza. That the gift should be a pen seems multiply appropriate: a pen to write with, naturally; the pen as straight line (penis, natch, Dr. Freud) answering the circle (ahem!) of the o. "Pen gift" might also be an imperative, as though calling for something--this poem, perhaps--to be "penned" as a "gift" in response to the "gift / to the / shammes" in the first stanza.

for you: the "you" who receives the poem now (the reader); the "you" within the fiction of the poem, whoever that might be; the self of the poet, addressed here as in the imperative reading of the previous line.

to re: the second broken word in the poem, or a "torn" one (given how "to re" suggests "tore"), again in the second stanza. The poem starts with unities in pairs, we note, and then multiplies by division--and has now multiplied to produce a near match for "toyre," or "torah." Or, at least, a visual match; to the ear it remains "too ree." More could be done with this division between the aural and the visual, but time is short!

member: The division between "re" and "member" calls our attention to the true etymology of the word, and the folk etymology that accompanies it. In truth, the word derives from re + memor, to be mindful of something. By sight, in English, it would derive from re + member, thus "to supply with a new member." The phallic pun is both obvious and subtle. Obvious, in that the gift of a pen is a phallic one, suggesting new male agency--creative in whatever sense--on the part of the shammes, and linking him to Yesod, or Foundation, the Kabbalistic sephira associated with the phallus, among other things. (For a quick sketch of this sephira, check here, although I cannot vouch for the scholarship behind the site. It's suggestive, in any case, of where a deeper reading might head.)

The subtler phallic pun emerges when we think of the task of "re-membering," of putting severed body parts together, faced by Isis as she gathered the limbs of Osiris. ("I Gather the Limbs of Osiris" is, of course, a famous essay on poetics by Ezra Pound.) Is the shammes, the Jewish poet, lit by a gift and task that echoes hers? Is he--and it seems a "he" in this context--now blessed with the one piece of Osiris that Isis could not find, but had to fashion herself from clay? (Oh dreydl, dreydl, indeed!) The syncretism seems particularly delicious in a Hannukah poem, and will certainly infiltrate my celebration next year.

Thanks for this opportunity, cher Norman! Let's do it again some time.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Bernstein Review at the Forward

Does anyone out there know David Kaufmann of George Mason University? He's living one of my alternate lives, reviewing Jewish poets in the Forward. A nice little piece on Charles Bernstein's Girly Man to be found here; money quote:

By his own account, Bernstein grew up watching television in the late 1950s and early ’60s — that is, at the moment when a certain unabashed Jewish sensibility went mainstream. And Bernstein learned his lessons well. His choppy, chopped rhythms are both nervously, if not nervily, Jewish. He is, as everyone who has ever written about him has noted, a funny guy. But poetry is not supposed to be funny — it is about serious things, after all — and so it is tempting to dismiss Bernstein as something of a merry prankster, a man who is daring his audience to accept jokes and aleatory noise as real poetry.

Not so fast there, buddy. The genius of Jewish comedy — hell, the genius of Yiddish, if we follow Michael Wex — is that it puts linguistic invention at the service of a militant deflationary zeal. The wiseass Jewish waiter whom Bernstein sometimes resembles devotes his deadpan wit to exploding pretense and false comfort. When that waiter reads the papers, this demolition work can take on a markedly political edge.

Bernstein most definitely reads the papers. If “Girly Man” is both focused and approachable, it is, in large part, because it is sustained by the poet’s horrified reaction to the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. Here are some lines from “War Stories”:

War is never having to say you’re sorry.
War is the logical outcome of moral certainty.
War is conflict resolution for the aesthetically challenged.

Bernstein does not usually engage this directly, and in a section called “Some of These Daze,” Bernstein takes an uncustomary turn. In a short series of blogs and letters written on and after 9/11 (here Bernstein is obviously thinking of the diary entries that Whitman published as “Specimen Days”), he confronts the event more or less head-on:

Tuesday morning I rouse my friend Stu from a profound slumber to tell him what has happened to the twin towers. — “They’re ugly,” he says, after a pause, “but they’re not that ugly.”