The Arty Semite

The Consolations of Samuel Menashe

By Rodger Kamenetz

  • Print
  • Share Share

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Rodger Kamenetz introduces the poetry of Samuel Menashe. This piece originally appeared on December 5, 2003, as part of the Forward’s Psalm 151 series. It is being published here online for the first time.

LIBRADO ROMERO

Every death before mine
Absorbed, builds the bone
Of a skeleton, my own,
Flesh shall not confine
Long enough to suit me —
I wish I had the time
Of a redwood tree

— Samuel Menashe

Born in New York in 1925, Samuel Menashe enlisted in the Army in 1943 and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In 1950, he received a doctorat d’universite from the Sorbonne, though he has always lived as a poet — never as part of the academic-poet world. In a time of 24-hour news and trash celebrities, no living poet could be said to be famous, but within the literary world, Menashe is becoming famous for his obscurity. Every recent introduction to his work reflects on this painful fact, including a profile in The New York Times that appeared a few months ago.

Not that his spare, tightly composed works have gone unnoticed. He has won praise from such luminaries as Robert Graves and Stephen Spender, and his poems were featured in the esteemed Penguin Modern Poets Anthology (1996). His first book, “The Man Named Beloved,” was published in London in 1961; the National Poetry Foundation published a collected poems anthology in 1986 and, most recently, Talisman House published “The Niche Narrows: New and Selected Poems” (2000).

But Menashe’s poems have definitely run against the grain of modernism or postmodernism. Short, tightly compressed and rhymed, they recall the intensity of William Blake’s lyrics, and draw on a common source, the Bible. Some are midrashic, in the direct sense that they comment on biblical texts, including a recent verse published in The Hollins Critic that’s short enough to quote here:

In the Beginning

In the Beginning Before that blood
Became a sea
Earth does not stem
Why didn’t He
DisAbel Cain,
Separate them —
Whom does He Keep
And where and when,
Was He asleep

Menashe notes that the poem comments on Cain’s famous reply, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and God’s “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” It’s notable that Menashe’s Bible is the King James version, no doubt because of the power of its language, yet the work is also intensely Jewish, with its theme of answering back to God with hard questions.

In the untitled poem that begins “Every death before mine…” Menashe composes tight lines of five to seven syllables and two-three beats; that and the strong simple rhymes create a poem that asks to be memorized even before it’s understood. His short poems have been described as having depth rather than length. Here the depth has to do with forcing the reader in the first two lines to confront the paradox that our life feeds on death, that death is in our bones, and even builds them. At the same time, all this building is for little enough, certainly not long enough to suit most of us. Perhaps out of such a mood, this tightly built lyric constructs its own consolation.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Man Named Beloved, The Niche Narrows, William Blake, The Hollins Critic, Talisman House, Sorbonne, Stephen Spender, Samuel Menashe, Rodger Kamenetz, Poetry, Robert Graves, Penguin Modern Poets Anthology, National Poetry Foundation, Battle of the Bulge

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.