Thursday, March 15, 2007

Praise and Lamentation

The following poem, by my old friend (and first creative writing teacher) Henry Weinfield, originally appeared in his chapbook The Tears of the Muses (Dos Madres Press, 2005). It will be included in his forthcoming volume of new and selected poems, which Dos Madres will be publishing, probably later this year. Last night Henry read the poem at Xavier, along with selections from his new Hesiod translation and a beautiful retelling in verse of the stories about the prophet Elijah, from the Book of Kings. Weinfield is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the greatest poets writing in English today. The fact that he writes entirely in rhyme and meter, using utterly pellucid diction and straightforward grammatical structures, makes him, to say the least, a nonesuch, and one whose work may be unacceptable to readers (mostly academics) given over to what might be called the ideology of the avant-garde. In any case, he is a poet willing to take extraordinary risks, which almost always pay off. "Praise and Lamentation" strikes me as one of the most important Jewish poems--and one of the most insightful political poems--to come along in many years. It is, needless to say, a provocative work on every level. Henry has consented to have the poem reprinted here. We invite your comments.


I praise an Israeli soldier named Nisan:
“They think that I’m a monster with a gun,
Who prays each day, eats kosher, yes, and kills
Arabs,” he says. Sardonically, he smiles:
“I never pray; I don’t believe in it”
(There’s something oddly comforting in that);
“I drink milk and eat cheese even with meat.”
He lives in a village bordering Lebanon,
Which Hezbollah is always firing on;
He’s nineteen and he hasn’t slept for days.
Another reason to accord him praise
Is that he hasn’t any politics
To speak of: all he wants is to go home!
His people really are in quite a fix,
So he’s stuck standing guard in Bethlehem!
These are my people, and I’m proud of them.

These are my people and I’m proud of them,
But now we too must learn to bear the shame
That other peoples, nations (goyim) do,
For we are now among the nations too,
And have ourselves begun to victimize
Others (it’s one of history’s sadder ironies).
Oh, it was easier in our own eyes,
When violence was visited on us,
To be a victim and be virtuous,
But now it seems to end in violence;
And though we say that it’s in self-defense
We know that it’s a half-truth – hence a lie.
We, who once preached against idolatry
And put an end to human sacrifice,
We, through whose books the world learned to be wise,
We too have now resorted to the slick
Impostures of religious rhetoric.
Religion in its Latin derivation
Refers to that which binds us to a nation,
And in the end, when all is said and done,
It binds us to the past – to what is gone,
And binding us together, binds us down,
Making us monads of the nation-state,
Anachronism’s slaves – such is our fate.

We who wrote Jonah and the Book of Ruth
Had pity once on strangers, for in truth
We had been strangers in an alien land.
We who wrote Job, Ecclesiastes, and
The Book of Samuel once understood
That since we’re really only flesh and blood,
Apotheosis isn’t in our line:
We’re human, all too human, not divine.
Ruth was from Moab, southern Palestine,
And Job was probably an Edomite;
Yet evidently they both got it right,
While Jonah had to be rebuked for pride
(He wanted God to practice genocide!)
And even David, the anointed one,
Was made to grieve through Absalom, his son,
Because he took a lamb that wasn’t his.
If one is chosen, this is what it is
To choose to be among the chosen ones –
Knowing that nothing that one has or owns
Or is a part of has priority.
This is a great responsibility
And most of us find it far too arduous:
It seems to be much easier for us
To think we have a special destiny
And have been chosen by the fates on high.
The Chosen People are the ones who knew
That no one’s ever chosen; this being so,
They learned to live within a paradox
Inscribed in secret in their sacred books,
Books that the centuries bequeathed to us.
That’s why their writings are anonymous,
And why as wanderers without a home
They learned to wait for what would never come.

Easy to valorize, from where I stand,
The People of the Book and not the Land,
Here in the comfort of America,
Not the worst corner of Diaspora,
A promised land flowing with milk and honey –
At least for those who have been blessed with money.
Easy to fail to recognize that these
Fanatic settlers are refugees
From Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, and the dark
Precincts of Williamsburg or Borough Park
(At any rate, from somewhere in New York),
Shaped, like the rest of us, by circumstance,
Contingency, exigency, or chance,
And, like the rest of us, committed to
A way of life, things that they think are so.
Their history is not your history;
And why should you imagine you are free
Of prejudice, much less that you were sent
To be a spokesman for enlightenment?
No one is chosen, as I said before
(It’s very hard to hear this); what is more,
Nobody really chooses on his own.
To be, essentially, is to be thrown
Into a world of possibilities
Impossible to grasp, do what you please:
A partial world in which we play a part,
Not one that we have made as one makes art –
And we are part and partial, never whole.
That’s why we seek for power and control
As partisans – as Arab or as Jew,
Believing that our own beliefs are true
And ready to engage in violence –
As if there weren’t any common sense
Or age-old wisdom one could bring to bear –
Like little children, never taught to share.

So here we are, and likely to remain,
In the proverbial condition humaine,
Arab and Jew, you, me, and everyone,
A nineteen-year old soldier named Nisan,
Stuck in the past, in bondage, partisan.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Glatshteyn's "Mozart"

Listening to Merle Bachman on Yiddish poetry last week at the Jewish modernism panel in Louisville put me in mind of one my favorite poems by Yankev Glatshteyn. I have only the smallest smattering of Yiddish, and I’ve written about Glatshteyn and his fellow Inzikhists only once, in Not One of the Them In Place, when I compared their work to that of Zukofsky and the Objectivists. Merle’s talk, drawn from her forthcoming book on the Yiddish American poets, was solid literary history, reminding her audience (or informing them for the first time) of the tremendous vitality and diversity of styles to be found among the Yiddish poets of the cafes and tenements below Fourteenth Street during the first half of the twentieth century. Glatshteyn (1896-1971), perhaps the greatest of these poets, emigrated from Poland in 1914. He published his first collection, simply and defiantly titled Yankev Glatshteyn in 1921, and in 1922, with N. B. Minkov and Arn Glantz-Leyeles, produced the astonishing Inzikhist manifesto, which can be found, along with other important documents of the movement, in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s great anthology, American Yiddish Poetry.

All this by way of introduction to Glatshteyn’s “Mozart,” from his 1946 collection Radiant Jews:

I dreamt that the goyim
had crucified Mozart
and buried him
in Potter’s Field.
Only the Jews
revered him as holy
and blessed his memory.

And I have roamed the world
as his apostle
haranguing every man
I chanced to meet.
Whenever I caught a Christian
I converted him
to a Mozartian.

How marvelous this godly man’s
musical testament;
how radiant with song
his nail-pierced hands.
lit the fingers
of the crucified singer.
In deepest despair,
in sadness most bitter,
he loved more than himself
the ear of his neighbor.

How meager a thing, how scant,
compared with Mozart’s testament,
is the Sermon on the Mount.[i]

One hears a good deal of talk these days about transgression in literature, and a lot of it is overinflated or silly. But this is one of the most genuinely transgressive—indeed, profoundly offensive—poems I know. In this poem, Glatshteyn, writing while the Shoah is taking place, literally goes on the offensive in the cultural struggle for Jewish life. As Western (i.e. goyish) civilization descends into barbarism, Glatshteyn claims a pinnacle of that civilization for the Jews, some of whom were being herded to their death while hearing the very music that the poet deifies. Part of the poem’s manifold irony and transgressive force lies in its gentle sadness, especially in the third stanza. The figure of Mozart as Christ attains an uncanny sort of comic pathos rarely found in lyric poetry. It is a pathos and divine beauty that the poet claims is recognized only by the Jews. Just as the Christians claimed that Jesus was killed by his own people, so too Glatshteyn, turning the tables, claims that the Christians have denied and murdered their own godlike son. Thus the notion of Christians being “converted” to Mozartians—and by a Yiddish-speaking Jew!—is truly outrageous.

Of course, the poem is also disturbing for Jewish readers, given that an appreciation for German kultur, including the music of Mozart (along with that of Beethoven—and Wagner!) was regarded by assimilated European Jews as de rigeur for full acceptance into mainstream bourgeois society. The fact that this acceptance never came to pass, the fact that many of these people ended up as “Cloud-Jews” (to borrow the title of another Glatshteyn poem) along with the more devout members of their “race,” is undoubtedly a fact of which Glatshteyn was equally aware. In the end, assimilated European Jewry’s worship of Mozart, however much that faith needed to be spread among good Christians, helped them not at all. And these were the same Jews who tended to turn up their noses at Yiddish and its literature, who regarded the language as mere zhargon.

The remarkable complexity of Glatshteyn’s ironic vision marks him as one of the most important modernist poets. Both American and international in his vision, he remains undervalued and underread. As far as I know, he is included in none of the prominent anthologies of modern American poetry. He and his colleagues remain ghettoized, a predicament about which they were already complaining in the nineteen-twenties, when they were immersed in and responding to modernist literature in a number of different languages. But then, the author of a poem like “Mozart” would fully understand this historical irony too.

[i] from Selected Poems of Yankev Glatshteyn, trans. Richard J. Fein (Jewish Publication Society, 1987). This one of a number of poems in the volume which Fein translated with the help of Henry Weinfield.