Friday, December 11, 2009

Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture & Oppen collection

The University of Alabama Press

Two new books in the Modern and Contemporary Poetry Series
40% Discount on Newest MCP Titles

Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture
edited by Daniel Morris and Stephen Paul Miller
retail price: $39.95 paper | discounted price:$23.97

Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen
edited and with an introduction by Steve Shoemaker
retail price: $34.95 paper | discounted price: $20.97

go to
for discount details, tables of content, covers, etc.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Review of Norman and Natalie Lyalin in Tablet

In Scribe, his seventh book of poetry, published this fall, Norman Finkelstein (the poet, not the Israel critic) works the contradictions of being a Jew. He is simultaneously secular and religious, stately and conversational, prophetic, and circumspect.

To begin with: Finkelstein is keenly aware of the theological implications of Judaism. In a article in the academic journal Shofar, the poet and critic Alicia Ostriker claims that contemporary American Jewish poets seek holiness “not in the disembodied God but in the physical world.” This might be true of many Jewish poets, but not of Finkelstein. The man invokes a very Jewish—because absolutely disembodied—God, as in the poem “Desert”:

Neither upon the sky nor upon the ground

Neither in the desert nor at the mountain

Neither in the heights nor in the depths

Neither present nor absent

Neither known nor unknown

Neither strange nor familiar

Neither whole nor in fragments

Neither revealed nor hidden

Neither sacred nor profane

Neither spoken nor silent.

While it might sound like mysticism, it is pure, rational Maimonides who tells us that every time we try to nail God down in our own, too human terms, we increase our distance from Him. Finkelstein keeps Him in the realm of the divine, represented as the space between contradictions.

When Finkelstein turns from the attributes of God to our own imperfections in the poem “Scribe,” he has no trouble enlisting the cadence of the prophets:

You have heeded the word of the outside god

and you have heeded the word of no god at all,

like a prophet turned archaeologist

a scribe turned into a scribe.

This is pretty harsh stuff. Finkelstein charges us with having foresworn the future by chasing false gods or—just as bad—chasing no god at all. We have turned prophecy into nostalgia and turned our holy scribes into scribblers, the guilty transcribers of a not quite forgotten past.

Finkelstein teeters on the edge of a thumping sanctimoniousness, but he is saved from the brink here by the fact that he is indicting himself as much as he is chastising the tribes of Jeshurun, perhaps even more so. He has no other choice. God is too far away and Finkelstein has appeared too late in history for faith. This hardly presents a vista for hope and certainly not one for redemption. But Finkelstein’s work has no trouble freely espousing both a secularized recuperation of religion as well a religious approach to the secular.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Scribe is a series of poems based on a seemingly unlikely muse: architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, a gently polemical attempt to realign architecture and city planning with a very generous notion of human need. But Alexander describes architecture in terms of poetry, seeing in them both opportunities for physical, linguistic, and emotional fulfillment. Finkelstein, whose poems often engage the space of the whole page, sees poetry in terms of architecture. More importantly, Alexander places great stock in the imagination. He claims that a home, like a city, needs its private spaces and its dreams. “Make a place in the house,” he writes, “which is locked and secret.” There, “the archives of the house, or more potent secrets, might be kept.”

Finkelstein’s secular midrash allows him to use a bedroom to reflect on his own psyche, his love and his poetry at the same time, as in “Children’s Realm”:

I want it so within myself

and within those I love—

a continuum of spaces

where the child at play

may pass by or enter

that place common to all

of my being

Nor can it be

too far from that grown-up world

also of bodies and minds

of storms and of the peace after storms

the child and adult facing each other

across a space that is all

terror and enchantment.

You can hear a kind of meditative stateliness (the archaism of that “so” ) which goes with the biblical repetitiveness (“storms and the peace after storms”). All this leads to that quiet little bang at the end, the magical face-off between generations.

There is a payoff to his use of Alexander’s book. “Sacred Sites/Holy Ground” stands at the imaginative center of Finkelstein’s topography of a radically transformed world. In it, he quotes Alexander’s call for “SACRED SITES.” Like Alexander, Finkelstein does not name these sites nor does he specify the exact nature of their sanctity, beyond the fact that laws should afford them permanent protection: “OUR ROOTS/IN THE VISIBLE SURROUNDINGS/CANNOT BE VIOLATED.” Our roots in a visible landscape—not in divine sanction; these are utopian, not overtly religious places.

The suggestive relation between Finkelstein’s vision of a fulfilled life and redemption is telling. Redemption remains a promise while utopia remains a hope. These days, they are both the stuff of chastened prophecy and skeptical exhortation. But according to Finkelstein, they both are necessary if our scribblers are to transform themselves into scribes.


It doesn’t seem quite fair to talk about Natalie Lyalin’s Pink & Hot Pink Habitat and dwell on the fact that she was born in Russia. But it is unavoidable. She herself says that “the immigration experience has been a great and interesting rift in my life. I think that kind of upheaval is great psychological material for writing poems.” That rift shows up in her poems in a number of ways.

Like much contemporary poetry her work is disjunctive. In “Jeffrey Bloodhound Sans” she writes:

Girl words. A tomato. A plum. An apricot.

Time is holding in a clear tube.

Time is lightning on a spare key.

Words that do not yet exist. Alibubo. Bubsigtree. Grivstalbikt.

But these disjunctions are not just examples of a period style. They express deep dislocations—linguistic, physical and psychological.

Language first: it’s hard not to view her flights of linguistic fancy as the result of having to live between languages. Memories of Russian come up when she imitates her father’s voice: “Feel this here pain” and “Whatever happened at prom?” Speakers of Slavic languages have a miserable time with definite articles as well as finding the right place for adjectives and adverbs.

When it comes to syntax, English is also remarkably simple compared to Russian, German, and a host of other languages. But English hammers non-native speakers with the number and complexity of its idioms. The freedom to get idioms wrong, to discover new connections, even to make up words that do not yet exist, is miserable for an immigrant, but a real gift for a poet.

Nevertheless, dislocation has its costs:

Your family is in flight. It seems that decades didn’t happen or happened all at once. The next few years are all weddings. On the end of holidays we wait for the next holiday. We remember bombed out resorts and the constant cigarettes.


Lyalin the poet cannot distance herself from the confusions of memory. She might begin as a “you” but ends up inevitably with a “we.”

Pink & Hot Pink Habitat is not a particularly grim book, although for all its surface play, it is a very serious one. Lyalin has probably earned the right to express real doubt: “They promise that G-d is not vengeful,/ but do they really know that.” But by the same token, doubt also lends weight to passages like this:

Humans are G-d’s secret architecture and your mother is the cupola of maple leaves. I have put myself here, in this orb of muscle and wonderment, grain, gold silk and the map of roads.

(“Dune and Swale”)

Muscle and wonderment. If nothing else, a good prescription for Jewish poems.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Opening Salvo at Tablet

Another bout of arrant self-promotion. I've now got a regular column on poetry at Tablet (the journal formerly known as Nextbook).  My first shot--on why poetry is less difficult and more fun than people might think--went up today at 

I am not responsible for the title  ("Easy Reading"), but I'm stuck with it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Enid Dame

Yes I know I wrote the piece but still you might be interested in this essay on Enid Dame, which is just now out from Rain Taxi:


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hank Lazer's Portions

Hank Lazer's Portions is a gem. Based on a gematria-like numerical formula combined with the notion of the parshah, the portion of Torah read weekly in the synagogue, these poems are elegant, profound and perfectly direct. With their short, telegraphic lines and Jewish sense of the inextricability of the immanent and the transcendent, they carry the tradition forward and make it new.
Check it out.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

New Issue of Shofar

The Jewish poetry issue of Shofar has just arrived, full of poems, essays and reviews by and about many of the writers who have either contributed to this blog or have been mentioned in its pages. This issue is not to be missed. Here is the Table of Contents:


Vol. 27, NO. 3


Partisan Experiments: Communism, Poetry, and the Liberal Imagination,


Ethan Goffman........................................................................................................ 4

"Time to Translate Modernism into a Contemporary Idiom": Pedagogy,

Poetics, and Bob Perelman's Pound

Alan Golding.......................................................................................................... 16

Tracking the Word: Judaism's Exile and the Writerly Poetics of George

Oppen, Armand Schwerner, Michael Heller, and Norman Finkelstein

Burt Kimmelman.................................................................................................. 30

Jewish Counterfactualism in Recent American Poetry

Joshua Schuster................................................................................................... 52

Is There a Distinctive Jewish Poetics? Several? Many? Is There Any


HankLazer............................................................................................................. 72

A Portfolio of Poems

poetry and translations by Charles Bernstein and Kevin M. F. Platt, David
Epstein, Thomas Fink, Norman Finkelstein, Benjamin Friedlander, Arielle
Greenberg, Jamey Hecht, Michael Heller, Alan Holder, Burt Kimmelman,
Joseph Lease, Deena Linett, Bonnie Lyons, Stephen Paul Miller, Daniel
Morris, Alicia Ostriker, Warren Rosenberg, Steven P. Schneider, Daniel R.
Schwarz, Nikki Stiller, William Wallis, and Henry Weinfield........................

Review Essays

American Jewish Poetry, Familiar and Strange Alicia Ostriker....148

Passing Through

Henry Weinfield.................................................................................................. 151

Book Reviews......................................................................... 156

Book Notes........................................................................... ...213

Monday, June 08, 2009

Wrap-Up & Teaser

Eric Selinger

It's Monday the 8th, and my quarter is over.

Not technically. Exams and final papers come in Friday, and I'll have to grade them. But the teaching and class prep are done, and the committee work as well.

What a year.

As you know, if you follow Say Something Wonderful and / or Teach Me Tonight, this has been a year of highs and lows for me.

The lows? Not getting my Promotion to Full Professor leads the pack--still a stinging, simmering disappointment--followed by assorted deaths of children's pets, angst over my son's Bar Mitzvah celebration, increasing ambivalence about all things Jewish, thanks in part to the Gaza war and in part (l'havdil) to mounting unhappiness with the religious school at my synagogue. In the end, we simply pulled our kids out--this after, what? Five or six years of work on various committees, trying to improve the curriculum. An utter failure, that, and I don't take failure well.

The highs? Well, let's see. Judaically speaking I'd list playing with the Alte Rockers right near the top, along with my son's Purim Bar Mitzvah, which defied any number of familial and communal expectations. Professionally, there were the conferences: first the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation in November, then, in the spring, in quick succession, the Popular Culture Association in New Orleans, then the big Princeton conference on Romance Fiction and American Culture, which got covered by the Huffington Post (among other media) and now the final push to prepare the international conference on Popular Romance Studies down in Brisbane, Australia.

And, most of all, there was the writing. Early in the year I ground out (slowly, painfully) a long essay on the poet Lawrence Joseph that will be coming out soon in the University of Cincinnatti Law Review. It's a good piece, and the foundation for future work on Joseph, whose work I highly recommend. From that I pivoted to write another essay, this one on three Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Taha Muhammad Ali, and Samih al-Qasim. It will be coming out in Parnassus at some point in the next few months, and I'm doubly proud of it--as an essay and as a second essay, as it's been ages since I wrote more than one published piece in a single school year.

While you wait for that one to come out, here's a teaser--the opening paragraphs:

“The house is dark in the February damp, but when she opens the door to let me in, Imm Nizar is laughing.”

Stop, just a moment, to appreciate that sentence from My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness. Start with the pacing: three poised clauses, sight and touch yielding to motion, then sound. Savor how it’s knit by sound, as “dark” sets up “damp,” then “door,” then “Nizar,” in” modulates to “Imm,” and “damp” transforms into “laughing.” Most of all, thank Adina Hoffman, its author, for the way it beckons you into the daunting subject announced by her subtitle: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. At the start of what she claims is the first biography of a Palestinian writer “in any language (including Arabic),” Hoffman calls up laughter, not anger, hospitality, not guilt, and a domestic scene instead of the public saga of displacement, frustration, and war.

The poet she focuses on is an unlikely subject: the gracious, self-deprecating husband of Imm Nizar, eighty-seven-year old Taha Muhammad Ali. Given the fame he has recently accrued, reading with his translator, Peter Cole, to hundreds, sometimes thousands of fans at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Muhammad Ali may be better known in English now than he is in Arabic. Born in 1931, he didn’t write a poem until the early 1970s, by which time Samih al-Qasim and Mahmoud Darwish, the two other poets I will discuss, were famous as rock stars. “How is it that we didn’t even know you existed?” the Iraqi author Buland al-Haydari demanded of Muhammad Ali a generation later. The explanation was simple enough: When they met at his first international reading, the poet had no political ties to make him famous, little distribution for his work, and, at fifty-seven years old, still only one slim volume to his name.

In centering her “group portrait” of Palestinian writers around a poet even she calls “marginal,” Hoffman borrows a strategy from the poet himself. “Taha has often likened his own poetic method to what he calls in English ‘bill-i-ar-des,’” she writes. “‘You aim over here—‘ a long, gnarled, yet delicately mottled farmer’s finger points to the right—‘to strike over there.’ The finger bends sharply to the left.” To use the technical term, both Muhammad Ali and Hoffman put considerable “English” on the course of Palestinian history since the 1930s, spinning it into useful, graceful, surprising trajectories. As a result, My Happiness Bears No Resemblance to Happiness offers the best introduction I know, not only to the poet at its heart, but also to the more famous authors who have crossed paths with him or spent years talking to him in the makeshift, under-the-radar salon of his souvenir shop in Nazareth. With it in hand, I have spent the past few months re-reading not only Muhammad Ali’s own work, but also Sadder Than Water, the recent Selected Poems from Samih al-Qasim (another Ibis Editions poet, in English) and, with blossoming admiration, the fine new crop of Darwish translations, which let American readers grapple, for the first time, with complete books by this expansive, reflective, mercurial, and self-revising poet. Not to slight the useful pair of monolingual Selecteds, The Adam of Two Edens (2000) and Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2003), translated by various hands, but for Darwish, as we shall see, the collection was as much the unit of composition as the individual poem. Only now, thanks to translators Jeffrey Sacks and Fady Joudah, can readers without Arabic, including me, begin to take his measure.

Keep an eye out for the piece, and for more posts here. I'm taking over my children's religious education this year--officially, I mean, as I've been in charge all along--and will be designing a curriculum for it here at BJB.

More soon,

Monday, June 01, 2009

Dahlia Ravikovitch

Eric Selinger

I learn from the Forward that a Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch has come out from Norton, with Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld the translators. A long, rich review of the book--with lots of information about the poet--came out in Ha'aretz as well. Not, it seems, a bilingual edition, it's worth noting. When I get my hands on a copy, I'll post more.

(I wonder what course I could teach that would let me talk about this. Or should I not, since I don't have the Hebrew? But if I don't, who will--at DePaul, I mean? Decisions, decisions...)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Odds & Sods

Back in December I decided to pick up this blog again for the new year. Then the war happened (Gaza), and by the time it ended, I had to get busy writing a big piece on Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, and Taha Muhammad Ali for Parnassus. Then my son's Bar Mitzvah hit, and the big Purim performance by our synagogue's house band, the Alte Rockers, for which I've become the rhythm guitarist and songwriter. Then the vote went against me for promotion to Full Professor--too few publications in peer-reviewed journals; too little committee work--and...well, let's just say it's been a long five months.

Here's a taste of the Alte Rockers in action, performing one of my own compositions: "You Shuckled (All Night Long)":

During this time, our own Jerome Rothenberg started a blog, Poems and Poetics, which I've added to the links list on the right. It's pretty amazing: like one of his anthologies evolving in real time. I've let it slide too long, but now have the pleasure of binging on it. You can, too!

Jerry also has a couple of new books out, both worth knowing. First, we have this: a third volume (although it's a sort of prequel) of the Poems for the Millennium anthology series, this one a book of "Romantic and Postromantic Poetry." You can read through the table of contents here, and as you'll see, it's a pretty wonderful gathering, the sort of book I won't just take on in the classroom (as I have the previous volumes), but will also read by myself, for pleasure, and as a reminder of what poetry promised me when we both (alas!) were young.

The second book from Jerry is Poetics and Polemics: 1980-2005, a collection of essays, commentaries, interviews, etc., which will be as rich a resource as anyone interested in Jewish poetry could ask.

Hmmm... No, that's too blurby, too abstract.

Let's be honest--I'm thinking about these books today because it was reading Jerry's Big Jewish Book back in '78 that showed me there was room for a scoffer, blasphemer, and heretic like me, not just at the margins, but at the heart of Jewish tradition. The uglier and more repressive the current Israeli government gets--Lenny Bruce! Thou shoulds't be living at this hour--, with the latest bill proposing to imprison those who provoke "scorn" for Israel as a Jewish-and-democratic-state (can someone give me the German for that compound? It feels needed), and the more disappointed I get in my children's former Hebrew school (I've pulled them both out for next year), the more I need another dose of that: something even stronger, more substantial, than the dose I can get from tugging on a "Jews for Asherah" trucker's cap. (Speaking of which, did anyone else read this piece in Zeek about Jews, Goddesses, and the Zohar? Not bad, but to me, old news--thanks to Jerry, first among many. Why does this stuff have to be re-discovered, decade after decade?)

Another new book came out, which I've yet to read: Yermiyahu Ahron Taub's What Stillness Illuminated / Vos Shtilkeyt hot Beloykhtn, a suite of five-line poems in English, Yiddish, & Hebrew "inspired by the poet's experience as an artist's model." You can find samples here, and they're not what you might expect from that description--looks like a mysterious, evocative book, and I look forward to getting my hands on it.

Months ago I read and enjoyed Things on Which I've Stumbled, by Peter Cole. Will get back to that and write about it; for now, a mention will suffice.

OK, petering out here, clearly. But it's nearly erev Shavuot, and I've wanted to get back on line here for a while. Let this post mark that return, even if it doesn't do any job particularly well.

More soon,

Friday, May 15, 2009

Anyone know...

...the source of this? I found it here, attributed to Amichai, but nothing about the book, the title, the translator, etc.
My father was a god and did not know it. He gave me
The Ten Commandments neither in thunder nor in furry; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”
And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat
In a single melody and he pleaded and
cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,
“Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain,
I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing.
“Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
On the earth.” And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Allen Grossman Wins Bollingen Prize

The Jewish poet (the Jew's great poet whom I wish speculatively to summon to mind) is called monologically by Presence itself. The correlative but severely contrastive figure in traditional Jewish narrative to the gentile muse (daughter of Memory) is the Shechinah, whose name means dwelling--the dwelling of the name in the world: the Jew's place to be.
Allen Grossman,
"Jewish Poetry Considered as a Theophoric Project"
Allen Grossman, one of the most important figures in the field of Jewish American poetry and poetics, has been awarded the Bollingen Prize. Here are the details. And here (scroll down) are three poems from Descartes' Loneliness. Congratulations, Allen, from the Big Jewish Blog.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk

The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk, by Henry Weinfield, has just been published by the University of Iowa Press. I can't really write a review here, since as Henry notes in his Introduction, Steve Fredman and I spent "considerable time and effort...reading and commenting on the manuscript of this book at every stage of the process." I can, however, give you my blurb: “Henry Weinfield’s The Music of Thought is a penetrating study of two of the most significant American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. The author implicitly demonstrates that modern poetry, which for some has been overshadowed by other literary genres and recent developments in the media, still speaks to the central concerns of our society. After reading this book, one can see that poetry still counts. This is an essential book for the study of modern poetry.” Better yet, here is a remarkably perceptive passage from Henry's discussion of Oppen's most famous poem, "Psalm":

Oppen's "Psalm" is a genuine poem of praise for our time, not merely a sentimental effusion, and in an Age of Irony, such as we continue to inhabit, to have written a poem of praise that does not offend the intellect is a considerable achievement. Oppen's God has the decency not to exist (or, like Spinoza's Deus sive Natura, to exist only as nature), and for this reason we cannot very well accuse him of being wicked or uncaring. Oppen is thus the antithesis of a gnostic, and in the light of the Shoah it is not so easy to evade gnosticism. The world of Oppen's poem is not a fallen or an intrinsically evil world; nor, in the context of the world, do we as human beings have to resort to the doctrine of original sin to get God off the hook...Oppen's "Psalm" reconciles us to realities and enables us to live in the world.

The centerpiece of this wonderful book consists of two lengthy readings, one of Oppen's long poem Of Being Numerous, and the other of all the major poems in Bronk's Life Supports. So pardon me if I repeat myself: an essential book.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Member's Greetings

Hi Everyone,

I'm just signing in, so to speak. I'm delighted to be a part of this group.

Best wishes,


Friday, January 16, 2009

Eschaton, by Michael Heller

Michael Heller’s last two books of poetry, Wordflow (1997)and Exigent Futures (2003), are both volumes of new and selected poems, with some degree of overlap between them. So it is particularly exciting to have this collection of all new work—and what a beautiful book it is! An austere black-and-white production from Talisman House, decorated with the abstract drawings of Heller’s friend, the late sculptor Bradford Graves, Eschaton (the word, according to the OED, refers to “the divinely ordained climax of history,” as in “eschatology”) is a further chapter in the quest for the “difficult freedom” (to borrow from LĂ©vinas) which for Heller constitutes poetic wisdom. This wisdom, half-Jewish, half-Buddhist, is found in spite of oneself, as in the opening couplet of the title poem: “I don’t know where spirit is, / outside or in, do I see it or not?” It is wisdom which comes to Heller through his dedication to cultural tradition, to everyday life, and to the careful turns of language that have always made his poetry such perfectly measured work.

At all points, it is a matter of responsibility. “One tries pulling syllables clean, like freeing / old nails from plaster” he notes in “The Chronicle Poet. And later in the same poem: “Useless, useless! Nothing / impedes thought’s passage more than an unuttered word, / one desperately cut short or untimely enough to have become stuck / where it makes only a shameful noise…” To avoid the stuck word, the unuttered word, Heller will take extraordinary risks. Often eschewing lyricism almost entirely (and here he remains true to his Objectivist heritage), he seeks instead “To find words as a kind of meeting place / even as they fly loose in unresisting air” (“From the Notes”). The poem, then, is an act of community, but still a gamble, a risk that may just as well come to naught. “How to put world there, at word-brink” he asks, “among so many lovely things that flow?” (“At Word-Brink”). It is there, in that flow, that the poet may find what he is looking for, but lose it as well.

One of Heller’s most important answers to this problem is found in the title of one of the last poems in the book: “Commentary Is the Concept of Order for the Spiritual World.” Here, as in a number of other important poems in the book, Heller reasserts the principle of commentary which, through many years of sustained practice, has made him one of the most important Jewish poets of our time. Commentary offers us “the salvaging uncertainties / in the world’s overriding syntax” (each line of this poem has a dramatic, signifying space, an emptiness in the center). Commentary both links us to tradition and sets us off on our own. This accounts, I think, for Heller’s extraordinary grace when it comes to reference, allusion and quotation in his work. He accepts that his poetry is a fold in a great conversation of commentary, that linguistic “meeting place” in which he posits his faith. And it is in this humble belief, inspiring his practice, that Heller’s poetry paradoxically achieves its magisterial power.