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: http://www.jbooks.com/fiction/index/FI_Ostriker_Keller.htm
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 Glück’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.