The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
So wrote poet and sage Samuel Menashe in one of his numerous works addressing death, Menashe’s first Muse and greatest obsession. As he often mentioned in conversation, he became a poet at the age of 19, having survived the notoriously dangerous World War II offensive, the Battle of the Bulge. Although his death on Monday, August 22, at the age of 85, is a loss for the poetry world, it is also a reason to celebrate his encounter with his second love, death’s other side: eternity.
The poem “Niche” is more than just self-reflection, and is almost a prophesy, albeit the kind laced with wit and sarcasm. Menashe himself has been a niche: a poet with the absolutely distinct style, defined by terse, perfectly honed lines. Often half-rhymed, they are reminiscent of folklore or ancient wisdom literature. Moreover, niche is exactly where the poet has resided almost through his whole poetic career. For, while he began writing as a young man and has seen a number of publications both in America and overseas, wider exposure and recognition eluded him until 2004, when, at the age of 78 he became the first recipient of the “Neglected Master’s Award,” given by the Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation. Since then, a few editions of his collected poems followed, as well as publications in many of the major literary journals, as well as in the New York Times, the Guardian and on NPR.
Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces four poems by Alicia Jo Rabins.
Songwriters who are also known as poets often only become so once they receive a degree of popular acclaim for their music. Cases in point include Bob Dylan and Ani Di Franco, David Byrne and Lou Reed. With the recent album, “Half You Half Me” by her Girls in Trouble project, violinist and indie singer-songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins has made a powerful pitch for inclusion in that elite realm. Each song on the album is a lyrical exploration about another female character in the Tanakh — the “girls” of the project’s name.
But her writing is not confined to her lyrics, and today on the Arty Semite we’re featuring four poems that were written as such, not for songs. The first three works are part of her “Ancient Studies” cycle, and walk the line between mythic and contemporary, culminating perhaps most intensely in the third piece where a customer service phone call turns into a deeply personal hallucination. The final work featured here returns the poetic context inherent to much kabbalistic thought back into poetry, lightly swinging images and abstractions into a meditation on things most timeless.
Philip Levine was named the Poet Laureate of the United States this week, a choice that has been widely lauded. I must admit that for some years I’ve questioned the esteemed poet’s status, or more pertinently, his authenticity. My doubts, however, were dispelled by one short but memorable encounter.
From his first book on, Levine made himself known as a “blue collar” poet. Reading some of his poems, you might think that he worked at a factory all of his life. In fact, not only did he attend college, but in his mid-20s began an M.A. program and shortly thereafter became a professor of creative writing — which is what he’s been doing since.
Motherhood and growing up in the Bronx are the two main threads running through Judith Baumel’s recent poetry collection “The Kangaroo Girl” (GenPop Books, 2011). Gaining force with each new poem, these themes grow into personal mythologies that lend themselves to mirth, nostalgia and philosophy.
The collection, of course, is not limited to these two subjects. In fact, the variety of ideas and forms filling the book makes it seem that Baumel is capable of doing anything, and of doing it with virtuosity and wit. The poem “Hem Stitch Hemi Stichs” uses a knitting pattern for its form (the title puns on the word “stich,” which is Greek for a verse or line of poetry), while “Winchester” consists of a sequence of “dialogs” with the medieval chronicler of King Richard I, who was known for his violence against the Jews, and whose words and actions serve as a basis for author’s exploration of her own identity.
The Israeli Moshav Mevo Modi’im, founded by Shlomo Carlebach in 1976, has a major artist population, including painters, writers and musicians. Among them, originally hailing from Claremont, Calif., lives poet Chaim Rosenblum with his wife and seven children. We’re featuring three of his works on The Arty Semite today.
The first piece is more than a mere father-and-son poem — it is propelled by the tense juxtaposition of the struggling, shaky voice of the father against the confident, methodical ways of the son. It almost seems that it is the father, not the son, who is inchoate in the world around him.
The second poem, “Monkey House,” refers unambiguously to the Jewish laws of niddah, or family purity, according to which a husband and wife are physically separated for a number of days each month. This ritual, taken for granted in some circles and reviled in others, has perhaps never been described with longing quite as intense as Rosenblum’s.
Last year, as the scorching summer set in, we offered our readers unexpected relief from the heat. Admittedly, it was more of an aesthetic, even darkly comic relief, rather than a physical one. It was Israeli poet Ronny Someck’s piece, “Sun Sonnet.”
This year we’re featuring another summer poem of Someck’s, “Rainmakers’ Vacation,” which, like “Sun Sonnet,” was translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden and first appeared in Haaretz.
Someck’s summer, as presented in this poem, is distinctly Mediterranean. Though surprise thunderstorms make appearances on our side of the ocean, they’re entirely out of the picture before the High Holy Days for Israelis, as they are for the poem’s young Italian woman sweating at a nameless café on a Trieste piazza. Yet, curiously, while the “Rainmaker” is on vacation, a dry spell does not truly reign, as images of moisture creep into the poem’s last few lines. The Italian girl’s lips are “wet,” and poem’s final word is “waves.” It is as if the Rainmaker is still there somehow, in the subconscious rather than out in the open. Here’s to sublimated rains and summer vacations!
Poetry is everywhere, especially in places you would least expect it to be. Even the most mundane texts — be it a news article or street advertising — have poetry within them. Such is the sentiment conveyed by writers involved with the “found poetry” genre, most famously explored by Williams Carlos Williams in his epic, “Paterson.”
Erica Baum’s recent collection “Dog Ear” introduces a new direction for the found poetry experiment. By photographing and magnifying dog-eared page corners, this poet-photographer comes up with a series of witty, complex poems, three of which are featured on The Arty Semite today.
Unlike more traditional sources for found poetry, which is usually discovered in public places, dog ears are extremely private — one reader’s experiences with a given edition of a given book. As Kenneth Goldsmith puts it in the introduction: “The dog ear is site-specific: like its namesake, it stays forever close and loyal to its master, embedded in a history of a specific volume.”
In a recent article in the Jewish Review of Books titled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” Michael Weingrad argued that dark, Gothic fantasy writing does not sit well with the Jewish weltanschauung, and that by and large, we simply do not have that kind of literature. This is because, as Weingrad compellingly puts it, “Judaism is much warier about the temptation of dualism than is Christianity, and undercuts the power and significance of any rivals to God, whether Leviathan, angel, or, especially… devil.”
Weingrad casually mentions folklorist Howard Schwartz, author of the “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (2004) as one of the recent authors to compile the lore of “repressed or marginalized Jewish mythic vitality.” To him, Schwartz’s work and related publications of a similar direction, are not a natural fit in the wider discourse of Jewish literature. Schwartz’s recently published book of poetry, “Breathing in the Dark,” however, not only seems a welcome addition to Jewish literature, but also offers it a whole new direction and wealth of resources rooted in the underside of Jewish folklore.
Courtesy of Daniel Kahn
We all know people who seem to have been born in the wrong decade — or even in the wrong century. Only very few of them, however, attempting to connect their society with that of another world, stretch across eras, and become giants — artists and thinkers like Sun Ra, Walter Benjamin and Henri Matisse. Whether Daniel Kahn is merely an eccentric born in the wrong century, or is indeed a growing giant, is the question I kept returning to while listening to “Lost Causes,” Kahn’s third album with his band, The Painted Bird.
Although the material on the album is diverse, its backbone is Yiddish protest songs. These are century (or more) old Yiddish poems by writers such as Mordechai Gebirtig, David Edelstadt, and Mark Warshavsky, to which Kahn adds verses of his own English translation. The common thread running through the poems is class struggle, workers’ rights and demands of equality. Unlike the sardonic title of the album, the words are earnest. And music is simply fantastic. Klezmer tunes turn in the blink of an eye turn into New Orleans style marches, or Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan-esque ballads. It’s folk — that is, people’s music — and it works so well in no small part thanks to the band, which stars such young klezmer greats as clarinetist Michael Winograd, trombonist Dan Blacksberg and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment.
This week we’re pleased to feature a poem by Susan Comninos, “Rome Visits When I’m in the Bath.” The poem is a bit of a maze. On the surface there’s the juxtaposition of Jewish and Christian identities, but then more layers begin to emerge. Do the two identities refer to different modes of inspiration, to routes through which the free-associative mind travels? Or is it about the unavoidable assimilation and intrusion that comes as “dull” banging? Then again, contemplating the two religions, the author finds herself in the bath — a long-standing symbol of Roman wealth and leisure. The poem’s language is twisted and elusive but that, perhaps, is the point: The poet’s meanings cannot be, as it were, nailed down.
Susan Comninos’s poetry has appeared in TriQuarterly Online, the Forward, Quarterly West, Lilith, Tikkun and “The Blueline Anthology” (Syracuse University Press, 2004), among other publications. Last year she won Tablet Magazine’s Yehuda Halevi Poetry Contest.
Marking the 33rd day since the beginning of Passover (this year on May 22), Lag B’Omer is a less of a holiday than a mystical occasion to party. In Meron, right outside of the northern Israeli city of Safed, an annual gigantic celebration called Hillula takes place. Safed is famous for the medieval kabbalists who settled there, as well as the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a first-century rabbi regarded as the originator of the mystical tradition in Judaism. People dance, blast music, and feast. Matthue Roth, whose performance poetry was recently featured on The Arty Semite, is here again with a poetic narration of the Hillula.
This poem first appeared in Mima’amakim as well as on My Jewish Learning, where Roth is an editor. In addition to being a prolific performance poet who has appeared on HBO Def Jam, MTV, and numerous other stages in the U.S. and abroad, Roth is also an author of four novels. Read the Forward’s interview with Roth, along six other poets, here.
To last week’s “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Holocaust” published here in the Forward, another significant contribution can be added: Jerome Rothenberg’s “Triptych,” which assembles three serial poems — “Poland/1931,” “Khurbn” and “The Burning Babe.”
Today on The Arty Semite, we’re featuring an excerpt from the middle section. As Rothenberg poignantly points out in the preface, the word “Holocaust” never quite captured the experience for him, being “too Christian & too beautiful, too much smacking of a ‘sacrifice,’” while Khurbn (Yiddish for “destruction”) projected the meaning more vividly. Indeed, a “sacrifice” is something torn from the self and forever given up on, while the ruins implied by the Yiddish term remain as a phantom limb, the ever-living other-worldly part that continues to exist and communicate.
We’re at the end of the National Poetry Month celebration at the Forward. Aside from the flurry of posts on The Arty Semite, we’ve also featured an interview with seven poets. One of the interviewees, Maya Pindyck, who has already made an appearance on the blog last year, is here again, with two poems,”Shabbat” and “This.”
“Shabbat” approaches talmudic rhetoric in a Kafkaesque manner — by playing with the language of laws so abstract and obscure that they may have lost their footing completely. Yet, they are still full of mythic and poetic potential. Behind its dark irony and quirky humor, the poem approaches rather serious notions about the nature of Jewish thought and the philosophy of what the poet calls “hanging by a thread from the mountain.”
The second piece, “This,” is an exploration of prayer, which, like “Shabbat,” loosens the seriousness of the discussion with an absurdly funny food-related image (“a palm-sized watermelon/ plops”), offering the sort of comic relief more reminiscent of comic books than of postmodern verse. Yet, precisely in the delightful surprise of it, is the point of the poem: to break away from the morose sort of prayer that’s bogged down in the “hammering of bricks/ patterned after man’s idea of death.” Here’s to palm-sized watermelons!
Poetry existed long before printing, literacy, or even the alphabet: Poet-bards went around reciting their material orally, memorizing lines and improvising on them. Their performances — from slight intonations to full-on theatrics — were inseparable from the messages themselves. Although today most writing resides on bound print pages, some poetry circles have pushed for an emphasis on the performed, rather than the merely written, word.
Matthue Roth, who we’re introducing today as part of our National Poetry Month celebration, finds inspiration in the rhythms and exuberant energy of slam poetry gatherings and hip-hop. Watching the video below, it seems impossible to opt for a mere printed version of it.
Aside from being a prolific performance poet, Roth is also an author of four novels and is staff writer for My Jewish Learning. He has appeared on HBO Def Jam, MTV, and numerous other stages in the U.S. and abroad. Read the Forward’s interview with Roth, along six other poets, here.
Stanley Moss’s much anticipated collection “God Breaketh Not All Men’s Hearts Alike: New and & Later Collected Poems” will be out in just a few months, and we’ll be sure to discuss its publication in the Forward. In the meantime, we’re bringing to you a time-appropriate sampling from the forthcoming collection. This poem exhibits Moss’s tendency to gravitate towards an expansive, cosmopolitan spirituality, which is not limited to the three religions mentioned in the poem. Rather, it can also be found in nature and in the whole pantheon of sensuous literary and historical free associations, which in this work, as in many others, Moss treats with a connoisseur’s palate and the fervor of a true initiate.
Read more about Moss’s views on writing in the special Poetry Month pre-Passover interview, along with those of six other poets, here.
Karen Alkalay-Gut began her illustrious poetry career here in the Forward at the age of 10. Recently we unearthed that first foray into poetry here on The Arty Semite, along with a few of her other poems. Celebrating National Poetry Month, we not only have the pleasure of featuring Karen’s interview (along with six others), but also another batch of her works.
In the first poem Alkalay-Gut posits herself as an “apicorous” (heretic), the fifth son, riffing on the classic Haggadic image. One would be hard pressed to agree with poet’s self-description as a heretic, however, based on the second poem, which interacts closely with Judaism’s essence — the multiplicity of meanings derived through interaction with tradition, a blessing that can sometimes turn into a curse.
Born in London, Karen Alkalay-Gut grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and in 1972 she moved to Israel, where she teaches at Tel Aviv University. Her sixth volume of poems in Hebrew translation will appear after Passover.
Like the Psalmist who demanded his listeners to “sing a new song,” American poet, writer and cultural activist Esther Cohen proposes two alternative ways of engaging with Haggadic texts this Passover. The first piece we’re featuring on The Arty Semite today is as “new” of a song as it gets; in the light of recent events, it makes us rethink the image of Egypt, as represented in Jewish mythic lore.
A regular contributor to Jewish Currents magazine (where these poems first appeared), Naamat Women, Alimentum Journal, and about a dozen other publications, Esther Cohen challenges the notion of canonized prayer and invents prayers of her own. The second poem we’re featuring today is such a prayer — a free-flowing inspired and magnanimous festive rant. Enjoy!
Charles Bernstein has effectively argued that National Poetry Month celebrations tend to focus on establishment-endorsed, “blockbuster poets,” and he has reminded us just how much great poetry exists outside of well-known publishing houses and literary journals.
Bernstein’s dictum came to mind when I came across Bracha Meschaninov’s poetry collection “Tender Skin,” published over a decade ago. The collection features gentle, pensive, wonderfully crafted works that appear to be written without much concern for contemporary trends. It is simply good, soulful work, the kind poets write “for themselves,” if for no other reason than to commit to paper the emotional world, spirit’s stirrings, and above all, a certain degree of pain that poetry can’t quite heal, but does illuminate and uplift.
Among the most original contemporary Israeli poets is Almog Behar, a Jerusalemite in his early 30s. His story “Ana Min Al-Yahoud” (“I am one of the Jews”), which won the Haaretz Short Story competition in 2005, in many ways defined his artistic and poetic practice: incorporating the Arabic heritage of his ancestors (who made their way to Israel from Iraq) into his Israeli, Hebrew-speaking purview. The musicality of his work grows not only from the tension in such a union, but also from cultural cross-pollination, and the possibilities this process has to offer.
And so, while the first poem featured today addresses the two languages and the two voices that are in conflict in the poet’s very throat, in the second piece, the undercurrent of Arabic heritage envelops a Jerusalem setting in an organic, wholesome and sweetly nostalgic manner. The third poem, despite its seemingly ominous title, is a more light-hearted, humorous diversion from heavy matters of identity conflict.
Poets eat defiance for breakfast — rule-breaking, language-bending, Houdini-like wriggling out of cliché’s confines comes with the territory. In the works of poet-performer-professor Adeena Karasick such poetic freedom-seeking is manifest by dancing between complex academic concepts, pop culture, and shtick. She oscillates from poetics to social commentary in a manner that is darkly funny, parodic, over the top, and wonderfully challenging. Just see her infamous “I got a Crush on Osama” YouTube video, and check out some of the audience comments that went along with it.