The Arty Semite

Poetry in the Mikveh: Three Works by Aaron Roller

By Jake Marmer

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Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces three poems by Aaron Roller.

Notorious for having their heads in the clouds and their hearts set on unearthly matters, poets have, nevertheless, often designated physical spaces as makeshift shrines for their inspirations. Just think how much verse has sprung from the proverbial park bench, the grassy bank, or the window of a moving train. In his poem “Naked,” featured below, New York poet Aaron Roller picks the most auspicious location of all: the mikveh, or ritual bath.

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In a wild Whitman-esque frenzy, Roller summons the world to the mikveh with him, purifying us with his gritty, ecstatic, and at times endearingly dorky jokes. As it becomes clear from the second poem, “My Wife Has a Secret,” the mikveh is more than a random location on the map of Roller’s inspiration; rather, it is a recurring image, a pit stop where his muse does not fail to pause while racing through the lines. And indeed, if the third poem, “Write Like a Jew,” does not reference the ritual bath explicitly, it is clear that the wild hair of the rallying, ranting poet is still wet with precious drops of that holy water, enriched with the traces of the many greats who have bathed in it before.

Roller has been one of key editors and contributors to the Mima’amakim Journal of Jewish Art, and the first two poems made their initial appearances in the journal. The final poem was composed especially for Mima’amakim’s closing party earlier this month, and luckily, was captured on video. Located where spirituality meets holy awkwardness, romanticism holds hands with sarcasm, Orthodox Judaism jives with high-brow and low-brow grimaces of the Western cannon, Roller’s poetry continues to entertain, to explode, and, indeed, to purify.


Naked

Let’s all go downstairs
All together
To a hole
In the basement
And while we’re there
We’ll take our clothes off
Slip off our shoes
Let down our hair
Some folks unpeel
Just like an onion
And in some ways
They’re just as smelly
And some guys shed
The way a viper does its skin
And you know why?
Because they’ve been poisoned
And other fellows
Let it all drop
Like an oak tree
In the autumn
And they are just
As straight and grand
There go our neckties
Our silver watches
Our gold toe socks
Our high top Nikes
Off with those thick
And woolen tzitzes
The undershirts
The underwear
Let’s all get naked
This is my body
That I have had
My whole life long
Its got its scars
Discolorations
Some sagging parts
Unimpressive features
And that’s your body
It’s not so different
We both got legs
And hair and noses
It’s all just skin
And nails and flesh
That’s full of life
And hope and longing
So let’s get wet
Dive in the mikva!
Let’s all be clean
Let’s all be pure
Let’s all be righteous
Let’s all be holy
Let’s all show goodwill
To one another
And be adored
By God in heaven
And God on Earth
‘Cause he’s the same God
God of our bodies
And of his soul
And of her spirit
And of my testicles
So let’s be naked
Like little babies
Who have no words
Who don’t know labels
Who aren’t blinded
By ideologies
Or by hatred
Or propaganda
I want to be naked
In the mikva
With the Lubavitcher Rebbe
And Walt Whitman
The Rebbe’s doing back flips
He’s doing cannon balls
And both their beards
Are so impressive
The Rebbe says
“I’m not Maschiach”
And then Walt laughs
Says “Sure you are
Mashiach’s coming
Naked and happy
He’s just like us
We’re just like him
So you’re Mashiach
But so am I
And so is Aaron
And so is Jake
And so is Dena”
The rebbe nods
And blows some bubbles
And then he smiles
And then he laughs
He says “That’s what
I was trying to tell them
Maybe they’ll
Get it right this year”


My Wife Has a Secret

My wife has a secret.
This demure Jewish girl with a skirt that sweeps the ground she walks on,
who shleps orange Glatt Mart bags full of Empire chickens down Avenue M,
who kicks me out of our bed in the morning so I get to shul on time,
who majored in OT at Touro so she could make her own hours,
who litters our Toyota with Torah tapes featuring rabbis who are “world renowned
because they’ve taught in Monsey and Bayit Vegan,
who recites ten chapters of Tehillim every week for the matzav in Israel,
who reads to me aloud from the Jewish Press on Friday nights,
who claims to make a better chulent than my mother, but not her own,
who drops her change into the cups of the beggars on Coney Island Avenue even though
half aren’t really Jewish and the other half aren’t really poor,
who has wished both her Bubbes a Gut Shabbos every Friday afternoon since her year in
seminary,
This wife of mine comes home at night, pulls off her wig and reveals a head dyed with
bright pink Manic Panic-
And only me, her, the styrofoam head on our window seat, and I guess the mikvah lady,
know about it.


Write Like a Jew
L’shem Yichud Brich Hu

Write like a Jew
Write in the language of the Bible to say,
“We stand here tonight not for ourselves alone
But for our children and our childrens’ children
And for all generations”
Write like the Psalmist
Write a poem of ascents
Write a poem for the conductor
Write a poem for the children of Korach
Adopt the language of the prophets:
“Be strong and brave
Be strong and brave
Encircle your audience seven times
So the walls of their apathy
Will come tumbling down
And you words can enter the breach”
Write the most heretical poem imaginable
Invoke Baal and Asheira and Molech and Madonna
And all the other ancient idols
But write it like a Jew
Write a prayer
Write a love poem to G-d
Write the frummest poem imaginable
Compose a dirge, a lamentation
For every time you missed mincha minyan
Rabbi Yehuda says,
“Write in the language of the Mishna
Concise and cryptic
With the weight of judgment in every utterance”
But Rabbi Tarfon says,
“Write like the Talmud
Unspool verbose exegesis
Mash up the generations
Rarely draw conclusions”
Write like you endured non-Orthodox Jewish summer camps
Write like you endured very Orthodox Jewish high schools
Write to create an independent Jewish culture
Like your voice is in a death match to be heard over
Hollywood and 500 cable channels and the mainstream media
Because Hollywood and the mainstream media may be controlled by Jews
But they don’t write like a Jew
Write like a Jew
Write like independent Jewish culture is a total fallacy
As if a culture knows when to shut the ghetto door?
Like a culture keeps to itself?
Write like your poem is in a sweltering gym
in a non-Orthodox summer camp
Dancing to cheesy 80’s pop
Thumping nervously against every other poem every written
Write like Halevi in the dusty Granada dusk
Adapting the language of the Arabic poets
Write like Ansky,
A Socialist anthem in the frozen St. Petersburg night
Write like Ginsburg,
Like your nice Jewish poem
Was tempted by the beat of jazz
Write a hip-hop poem, like:
“Purim gettin’ closer/let’s get crazy
I’ll dress like Beyonce/you can be Jay-Z.
No, I’ll be Hova/you dress like B
Then we’ll tear it up/like Haman’s decree.”
Write a poem for every ghetto, every city and suburban place we been
Write a poem for your place in the new Jerusalem
Write about the beauty of that City
And it’s besieged, pressure cooker mentality
Write Jerusalem of Gold
Write The Sticker Song
Write like Gluckel of Hamelin
Write like Benjamin of Tudela
To let the later generations know
What it felt like to be a Jewish woman
To be a Jewish man
In this time and place
Write like a Hassidic rebbe
Whispering that everybody here right now
Is here for a reason
And everything here has a spark of G-dliness
Even on the New York City subway system
Even in the space between Jew and non-Jew
Even on the other side of the security barrier
Write like a Jew
So that every poem, every stanza
Every word
Is like a postcard from the world of this moment
To the World to Come
“Wish you were here
This place is really wild
And beautiful and sad and terrifying
Be home soon”
Write like a Jew

V’imru Amen


Watch Aaron Roller recite ‘Write Like a Jew’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Mima'amakim, Poetry, Mikveh, Aaron Roller, Jake Marmer

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