Monday, March 29, 2010

Jasmine Donahaye

Daisy Fried reviews a new collection by Jasmine Donahaye, Self-portrait as Ruth, over at the Poetry Foundation. I haven't read the book yet myself, but the review has a great lead:
How about a poem that connects anal sex and Jerusalem’s Western Wall? “Fetishes,” in Jasmine Donahaye’s second collection, will make readers run screaming (perhaps in outrage), or else fascinate them. This elegant little poem is in fact a complicated comment on gender, sexism, forbidden things, and access to and uses of sacred places, bodily and historical.
Evidently Donahaye "lives in Wales, is the daughter of a kibbutznik and grew up in England but has spent long periods in Israel and the US." Sounds like a fellow rootless cosmopolitan to me! Former student of Thom Gunn and Robert Hass; has a monograph coming out on "The Wales-Israel Tradition." Published by Salt, I notice, published in the UK; an earlier review from The Guardian is here.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010


from Shearsman Books:

Michael Heller: Beckmann Variations and other poems
Published 15 March 2010
Paperback, 80pp, 8.5x5.5ins, £8.95 / $15

ISBN 9781848610873

Ekphrasis, that ancient mode found in Homer's description of Achilles's shield or Keats' Grecian Urn, is here transformed in Michael Heller's meditations in poetry and prose on work by the painter Max Beckmann. Heller navigates, sometimes with Yeats as his Virgil, through a gallery of Beckmann's pictures, seeing them as uniquely bringing home contemporary civilization's catastrophic impulses ("as if days were not for sanity"), impulses at once horrific and unsettling yet strangely beautiful and restorative.

Comments on Michael Heller’s recent work:

“At once grave and uplifting, Heller’s poems are serene meditations on time, decay, and loss that recover from the ruin a repletion that is also a recognition of our necessary incompleteness before the world and language.”—Patrick Pritchett in Jacket Magazine

“In a poetic generation that has frequently settled for small answers, his work insists upon the largest questions.”—Robert Zaller in Rain Taxi

“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 belief, inspiring his practice, that Heller’s poetry paradoxically achieves its magisterial power.”—Norman Finkelstein on A Big Jewish Blog

Michael Heller is a poet, essayist and critic. His most recent books are Eschaton, a collection of poems (Talisman, 2009), Speaking The Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen (Salt 2009), and Two Novellas: Marble Snows & The Study (ahadadabooks, 2009). He is the recipient of many honors and grants including the DiCastagnola Prize of the Poetry Society of America, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Fund for Poetry.

To order:

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review of Eschaton

Here is a review by Jason Rotstein of Michael Heller's Eschaton, which originally appeared in the Jewish Quarterly 214 (Winter 2009)


Michael Heller

Talisman House, 2009

Jason Rotstein

The appropriateness of Messianic hopes in an era pronounced as violent and bleak can seen to touch the nadir of madness or near the course to insanity. Nevertheless, it is precisely at these times that the appeal to the Messianic seems more intense, real and credible.

Michael Heller in his new collection of poetry, Eschaton, writes: ‘Impossible for me to write of other topics, mathematics and language or / mathematics and Zion’ (Letter and Dream of Walter Benjamin). He takes heart in a new hope of ‘after-selves’ or the co-ordinate—‘reliev[ing,] the self-awareness of non-self’—which he alludes to in A Terror of Tonality.

Throughout a collection which immerses itself in the devastation of September 11th and in the ruined landscapes of Sarajevo and Somalia—to name just a few of the massacre sites included—the word that occasions mentions most frequently is ‘surcease’, a word that suggests overarching disaster but that also foreshadows some relief.

The Age of the Poet considers both the decline of the poet but also of the age in which he breeds. There sounds one possible note of relief: ‘but for surcease, for stillness / for not thinking.’ ‘Not thinking,’ can mean two things in Heller’s symbology: the relief from ‘garrulousness’ (Finding the Mode), and the reliable possibility of metaphysical end-points—‘Wasn’t this how looking out was to become looking in, one’s ghosts no / longer blocking reflection?’ (In the Studio).

What bespeaks the heartfelt nature of this collection is only apparent in its deliberate organisation. By placing the most epiphanic material in the first two sections of the book, the effect is one of high to low tension rather than ascending arc. The descent into the nether-reaches of the sepulchral thanatos and eschaton are tinged still in this framework with embraces and remembrances of those ‘small ceremonies of life,’ left behind; ultimately I think affirming life and the will to live, while facing harbingers of death. In the midst of devastation, Heller exhorts an unorthodox vision; of life the way it would be after the facts of history, of a rejoining spirit of play after death and catastrophes:

Often, I am swamped with incredible pleasure

by the wild connection a thing makes between

my thumb and finger, as though desperately alive

in some galvanic dance. (A Dialogue of Some Importance)

The image has the function of ‘primitive’ importance, of man grasping at the very marrow of life in the wild leap that the creation of tools or craft specialisation meant in the history of humankind. It is this kind of hope and faith in a better future in life or in death that Heller leaves us with. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, human progress is still alive.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ostriker: Announcement and reviews

My announcement is that I have been awarded the 2009 Jewish Book Award in Poetry, for my collection The Book of Seventy. The ceremony is in NYC tonight.


I hope I am not violating any copyright by posting this, but in truth, I think it's important for readers to know about these books. So:

My review of Poets on the Edge is here:

My comment on With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry is on the Amazon site

My review of Maeera Shreiber's Singing in a Strange Land was published in Shofar spring 2009:

Maeera Y. Shreiber, Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish-American Poetics. Stanford

University Press, 2007. 287pp.

Those of us who write as Jewish poets commonly have reason to notice that critics and teachers of “Jewish Literature” typically neglect Jewish poetry. What, we often think, are we chopped liver? For Maeera Shreiber, this marginalization is no accident. As she sees it, the elided status of Jewish poetry (as against narrative) parallels that of the Jew-in-exile, women within Judaism, and the sacred in a secular world, and for a parallel reason: poetry is disruptive, subversive, troubled and troublesome. Where fiction gives us the tale of the tribe, poetry is (she quotes the poet-critic Charles Bernstein) “an agent of turbulent thought.” (2) In this long-awaited, powerful and layered study, she is herself such an agent.

Shreiber is both an acute close reader of poems and a theorist fascinated by questions of tradition and modernity, of individual versus collective identity, and of the place of poetry in history. She is also a feminist. Structuring her work less on individual poets than on interlocking issues of genre (psalm, lyric, lamentation, elegy, prayer, as they play out in contemporary esthetics) and gender (looking at ancient and modern configurations of masculinity and femininity), Shreiber makes an amazing and persuasive case not only for seeing “exile and alienation” as crucial marks of the Jewish poem, hence the book’s title taken from the 137th psalm, but for connecting this motif with “the emergence of the Shekhinah as a shaping esthetic force” speaking to and for “a culture in flux.” (25)

Among the early delights of this book is an account of rabbinic disapproval of poetry in the late ancient and medieval world. Arabic-inflected meters? Not kosher! But this is not simply an ancient problem, for debates over Jewish purity versus contamination (aka “assimilation”) and religion versus culture, ethnicity and secularism continue to rock the Jewish world, and continue to be reflected in its poetry. And the poetry continues to engage in shaping the culture.

Demonstrating the complexities, ambiguities, and discontinuities of American Jewish poetry is a major aspect of Shreiber’s work. Thus she pairs the very different poets Emma Lazarus, author of the socially-conscious poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Jacqueline Osherow, author of the witty theological-midrashic poem “Moses in Paradise.” Both poems negotiate ethnic borders; Lazarus’ “Mother of Exiles” is an avatar of the Shekhinah while Osherow boldly posits a feminized Moses and an embodied God replacing the “disembodied voice” (32) of Scripture and rabbinic dogma. Another pairing is that of Charles Reznikoff and Allen Ginsberg, as poets of the maternal Muse. Following a superb examination of the various versions of the maternal in Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, the film The Jazz Singer, and Cynthia Ozick’s story “Virility,” Shreiber demonstrates how the figure of the Mother in Reznikoff and Ginsberg, in “a world of boundless violence” (73), is simultaneously foundational and demonic, rejected and inspirational, personal and collective, sacrificial victim and cultural critic—and how both these poets in the shadow of the Mother overturn traditional liturgy in their treatment of the Kaddish prayer.

Other pairings follow, each thematically/generically bound. How to re-imagine history is the issue when Shreiber looks at Louis Zukowski and George Oppen as they challenge modernist fetishizing of the (classical, Christian)past—Zukowski turning to the maternal story and the possibility of a future, Oppen’s “counternarrative” (127) negotiating “the relation of the individual to the collective,” (132) which for a Jew involves the tension between choosing and being chosen. Lamentation, with its biblical models in the 137th psalm and the Book of Lamentations, undergirds Shreiber’s discussion of two firmly secular poets, Adrienne Rich and Irena Klepfisz. Here again gender becomes central, as Shreiber reminds us that the sacked city of Jerusalem in Lamentations speaks in the voice of a violated woman, and that images of helpless and even cannibalistic mothers proliferate in the poem. Instead of the anonymous male poet of Lamentations, however, we have Rich’s circumstantially personal voice and personal agon in “Atlas of a Difficult World,” where “a patriot,” Rich writes, “is one who wrestles for the/soul of her country/ as she wrestles for her own being.”(154). But Shreiber finds Rich lacking, except in the poem “Tattered Kaddish,” a counter-vision of healing. Klepfisz, on the other hand, writing as a working-class, lesbian Holocaust survivor and Yiddishist, is praised by Shreiber as creating, in her bilingual poetry, “not the lament of perpetual exile but an active claim for a ‘diasporic’ version of home and of identity.” (161) Instead of either an abject feminized exile or a masculine Zionism, Klepfisz asserts a secular communalism centered on issues of social justice using mame-loshn, Yiddish, the mother tongue.

Shreiber’s final two chapters deal with the vexed relationship of poetry to prayer. New prayer-books and additions to prayer-books abound in these days of Jewish liturgical experiment, but most of them, as Catherine Madsen has argued in her essay “Kitsch and Liturgy” and her 2005 book the Bones Reassemble, are flat-footed. Shreiber critiques Marcia Falk’s popular Book of Blessings as excessively spare, emotionally flat and lacking a sense of divine Presence, and praises Oppen’s nature-poem “Psalm” as a legitimately liturgical utterance. Louise Gl├╝ck’s book-length sequence The Wild Iris, with its repeated painful addresses to an “Unreachable Father,” Shreiber shrewdly sees not as pastoral liturgy but as a modern Book of Job, with the flowers playing the part of Job’s status-quo-accepting friends.

“Jewish poetry is still at its troublesome best when it takes on theology, the study of God,” Shreiber writes. (208) Her final chapter deals with Allen Grossman, concentrating on the title poem of How to Do Things With Tears and on his Holocaust sonnet sequence, “Flora’s ABC” with its admonitory “do not be content with an imaginary God.”(224). Grossman’s “theophoric project” (229) requires clearly dividing the material human world from the divine which is immaterial; but at the same time, Shreiber asserts, the murdered butcher’s daughter becomes yet another “incarnation of the Shekhinah.” (229) If this is a contradiction, and I think it is, it highlights the increasingly strong insistence among Jewish poets in America that holiness is to be sought and found not in transcendence but in imminence, not in the disembodied God but in the physical world.

Shreiber situates all her poets in a dense thicket of intertextuality. Her prose, equally dense, is slow going and could have used more careful editing, to avoid repetitions. Readers will surely quarrel with some of her positions; for example, the linking of Rich’s many-voiced “Atlas of a Difficult World” with the Book of Lamentations seems forced to me, as if the author needed a biblical antecedent. If “Atlas” has a formal and moral antecedent it is surely Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead; Shreiber mentions Rich’s quotation of Rukeyser, but doesn’t follow up on this insight. As with any such book, one regrets the poets and topics omitted. I would have liked to see Eleanor Wilner paired with Enid Dame as revisionist midrashists, and perhaps C.K. Williams and Gerald Stern as latter-day versions of Ecclesiastes. I wish, too, that Shreiber had more to say about Grossman’s mother, Beatrice, who plays such a major role in his poetics. But quarreling is part of the game of being a Jew. Shreiber’s nuanced knowledge of religious Judaism and its exegetical traditions, of modernist literature and its complications, of the polyphonies of American poetry, and of the eruptions and disruptions of Jewish poetry, make Signing in a Strange Land revelatory in numerous ways.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Man Ray & Second Wave Jewish Modernism

Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention
closes March 14, 2010
The Jewish Museum, NY

I posted this on my site just now ... I'd only add that the frame of Man Ray as a "second wave" Jewish-American modernist is worth keeping mind.

This show is especially notable for the collection of work Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky, 1890-1976) did while living in the New York area (and especially Ridgefield, NJ) before emigrating to Paris in 1921, when he was just past 30. This include early magazine covers and design as well as documenting his engagement with Ferrer's Modern School.

"Tapestry" (1911, from the Pompidou) is made up of fabric swaths from his father's tailor shop:

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Review of Singing in a Strange Land

I have a modest review of Maeera Shreiber's Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics in the latest issue of American Literature--82.1 (March 2010): 220-22. AmLit's 500-words-per-book limit doesn't allow for the complexity of response that the work warrants, but I guess that's in the nature of reviewing, at least in many academic outlets.