Again and again we’ve risen and run
Our rain wept lips against the same whisper,
Against another haggard weather in
The high hush of praise we’ve given over
And over and held out, our every hand
A still refrain, a hand woven in two;
And our windy hearts vaults broken into
Answers and hope beckoning to the land;
Again and again we’ve risen and run
Our rain wept lips against the same whisper.
For Shirley Kaufman
The Place de la République’s outdoor cafe, white wine
in a glass so thin it blurs realms with the greenery,
and with a statue patina-ed bronze, its plaque too far to read,
dull-lettered, pigeon-marked, possibly a thesis on history.
Yet the student lesson for today was the bomb at Boulevard
St. Michel, and the tourist’s heightened sense increased
in the evening’s Semtex blast near Le Drugstore at L’Étoile.
Luxe, voluptuousness, the children of freedom have returned.
Benjamin was here in the late 1930s, jackboots down the street,
wrote to Scholem of his “estrangement from everyone he knew.”
Old Paris, carnage and death, St. Denis grilled on the champs,
the slaughtered diners at Goldenbergs in the Marais. I have
eaten there too, and now the wine’s tincture puckers the lips,
and then the buds of flavor burst coming through, like a life
passed from one into another’s care, in the City of Light
where hope was stifled once between le mot juste and le mot juif.
From “Wordflow,” 1997
Patchouli oil and the scent of your travel hair,
our smaller days middle-aged and measured
by hotel soaps that come in gold foil
wrappers like they’re something special.
You say one European city is like another.
Scientists say somewhere in space
exist colors we’ve never seen.
When we make love in the hotel room
in Prague, I close my eyes
and try to think about you instead of
those colors and if we’ll see them
like some kind of reward when we die.
Yesterday we went to Kafka’s house.
He died of starvation in a hospital before
intravenous feeding was invented,
not in a concentration camp or ghetto
like his sisters Ottla, Elli, and Valli.
At the breakfast buffet today
I took extra bread and cheese
to make sandwiches for lunch.
I wasn’t hungry and slipping
them in a plastic bag felt like stealing.
I surprised myself with petty satisfaction.
I thought about Kafka and his sisters
as we ate the sandwiches sitting on the steps
of St. Giles Church. Inside, baroque gold angels
bored with God, cavort half-nude in gilded heavens
where they hoard their gold and ignore us.
when we are born
thirst makes us cry
thirst surges through our arteries
when the hormones hit
when we start to wither
our thirst actually increases
for the tongue of touch
the dictionary of rain
we remember we were once loved
it was love that kept us alive
Then every face
was like the face of God
each berry in the bucket
sweet to the taste
we were swifter than eagles
stronger than lions
when was this
it was in our dream
and when we wake
all gone but the thirst
if moments exist
when illusion dissipates like fog
do not say we are dreaming
we see past supermarket and traintracks
we dive off the high board
into the wind-whipped trenchcoat of a world
we eat flowers and mud
in mirth kissing our friends
then fog looms again
stinging and blinding our eyes
Since 2010, it has become the Forward’s tradition to highlight five memorable poetry releases of the year — but this year we have six. Among this year’s selections are “Breathturn Into Timestead,” a collection of five final volumes of poetry by Paul Celan, newly translated by Pierre Joris, and three vastly different retrospectives by David Antin, Chana Bloch and Dennis Silk, as well as a posthumously published collection of Harvey Shapiro’s work. Alexander Nemser’s release, however, is a debut — and a most memorable one, at that.
Please note that the works below are listed in alphabetical order — there’s no ranking here.
How Long is the Present
By David Antin
University of New Mexico Press, 408 pages, $39.95
The story goes that one day, invited to a give a poetry reading at a university, David Antin showed up without the usual paraphernalia — books, notebooks, or anything he could read from. Instead, he began to speak. The result — a sort of improvisational speech that weaves together philosophy, literary criticism, anecdotes, witticisms — became an invention known as a “talk poem.” Worlds away from anything one would expect to hear at a regular poetry reading, Antin’s work is fascinating, masterful, and possibly one of the most stimulating challenges to a reader of contemporary poetry.
Don’t yell at me,
whisper: try to stop
I let him drink from me
I let him speed us up to the end
to extremes I couldn’t imagine—
(these are words
that cannot be written)
At the 7th Avenue station
drained and soiled
what any child knows by heart
I couldn’t read the signs
it was late
Where do you live, lady?
from the subway tunnel
a deep voice spoke to me
through the bars
dark, in shadows,
it should have scared me
but only an angel could have known
I was lost
I needed a ticket
he needed some change
(or was he there for another reason)
he swiped his card
guided me through the turnstile
I thanked him,
almost forgot to pay him
turned and went in the wrong direction
Where do you live, lady?
he shook his head, pointed up the stairs, across
he watched as I walked away
waited till I was safe
on the other side
From “Return From Elsewhere” (Outriders Poetry Project, 2014)
Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back
1 Bound on Her Boulders
Bound on her boulders a burnt offering
in flames trampled by light of the daily sacrifice
this teeming city, longing
in its walls within walls
grey wind of the olives
torn among the hills yearned-for city of wings
from her red thicket eternity
in gates straying at day’s end
to open and open
She is marked by a branding-iron in the Angel’s black hand
2 Stones Want to Flow
Stones want to flow
The olive tree wants to be stone
Churches long to fly
A cloud sits on the Temple Mount
Suns wandered on her outskirts, became thorns
Wars passed through and became dreams
Shadows walk around with bright faces
Her silence is bells and bells
Her stones flow
The olive tree is stone
He who sleeps and his heart is awake knows how at night
this heavy city ascends to walk with the moon
3 Day Like Night Like
Day like night like
like voiceless cries this city where
we live in a dream like sown lights
freezing the stones eternal stones
like rock-eternity this city
caves or homes like
ruins like gravel like unending wind-thin dust
as though we were here
day or night
as though voiceless as in a dream we were really
here wandering through this city remnants
of muted cries like a dark entryway an alley
sunken in the alley wait
wait don’t vanish just one moment one more moment like
4 Quiet and Open Skies
Quiet and open skies
above a City God’s treasured possession
above a City that was God-possessed
above a City that was possessed
above a City that was
open and quiet skies
From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected poems of Tuvia Ruebner” (Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014)
It has to do with seeing. Light.
Or dark. It has to do with
knowing. Speak and prophesy,
darken and move:
But what I see is not what I know.
What I hear is not what I believe.
And now the first light is dark,
the morning has not yet lifted the night sky.
Chirping. At first many. Then few.
A call from a deeper-throated bird
till the others rest, and start again together.
Like a chorus with various parts assigned.
I never heard it this way before.
Rumble of planes.
Bees now. Little sounds.
And flaming purple spikes light the garden.
From Linda Zisquit’s recently published new collection “Return From Elsewhere.”
baby: in bassinet, breathing loud,
me: on the couch breasts filling up, heavy with milk
toddler’s sweater thrown over his chair,
on the floor: toys, a towel, a Ziploc bag
on the ottoman: blue-and-white polka-dotted boppy — a nursing pillow
on the sofa: baby-wearing wrap
outside: the rain, in the dining corner: shades are still drawn though it’s
nearly midday (but what is time
in the life of a new mother — second time around — ?)
a not-yet-ripe pineapple on the credenza, a bowl of fruit, a piggy bank and toddler’s
most recent paintings
strewn across the coffee table: envelopes and opened books,
(shrine for Amiri Baraka, just dead)
also: a blue suction bulb for baby’s nose,
white tissues in a pink box
baby blue breakfast bowl
my new breastfeeding friendly cocktail: diluted cherry juice concentrate
kids’ books, Marguerite Duras, poetry, a pen, The New Yorker
on the desk: a little American flag, Jake’s welcome gift from the U.S.A. and an unopened bottle of chardonnay
Jimmy Cliff vinyl spinning in silence
Jan 10th 2014
You are captives of illusion,
experts in eluding truth, you party, drink wine,
pick anemone in spring.
Occasionally you are reminded that life is transient as grass,
that death lies in ambush among green meadows.
Though the wrath of the suicide bomber is daily at your door,
your children bask in your warmth,
and this old earth, this biblical earth
blooming with camouflaged memories, quivers
with gratitude, that such people as you
Scrawny goats limp on heaps of rubble,
the sea — under weights of sorrow.
Nowhere to go, she says, escaping
the bombs with her wounded child.
And the child guarded
by ten silent angels who weep.
my son consigns me
to a knife-less table-setting
he explains: “mama doesn’t get a knife,
she sat in the backseat” — in the car —
it’s true: my husband at the wheel, his mother,
visiting from revolution-ravaged Ukraine at his side
I’m the only one small enough (even post-birth)
to fit between two carseats
surprisingly there’s ample leg room
and my hips aren’t too constricted —
only my arms poke out uncomfortably —
but I feel shut out
of a conversation happening between two adults
in the front seat
in a foreign tongue
He gathered his friend’s dead flesh,
walked back and sat in a field reciting a psalm.
Kneeling, he signaled the signs of courage
and defeat with his bloody fingers,
each sign for each heart beat before the great dying.
An instinctive act, he ruminates.
He sounds the psalm like a warning bell,
befuddled by what he had done, unexpectedly,
chasing death in an everlasting tunnel,
an unending struggle to choose between
life and death, the blessing and the curse,
bonded like separate and one twin mountains.
Writing of Kafka’s tales, Walter Benjamin pointed out that Kafka’s tangled meanings “do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of Halakah… they raise a mighty paw against it.” Benjamin, ultimately, juxtaposed the Jewish law (halachah) with mythic storytelling (aggadah), envisioning the rise of the latter from the downfall of the former. One can only imagine how pleased Benjamin would be reading Alexander Nemser’s poetry collection “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” released earlier this month from Bookieman.
It is hard to name a genre that would encompass Nemser’s work: these are prose poems with an aphoristic scent, reminiscent of Borges, Kafka, Calvino and Jabes, among others. Each prose poem imagines an aggadah-like talmudic conversation between rabbis, who are struggling to interpret the Akeida, that is, the story of the binding of Isaac. Though framed in traditional Jewish rhetoric, Nemser’s tales are surreal, disturbing, funny, smart and anything but pious. The prominence of the transgressive element of Nemser’s writing is in perfect accord with his spiritual vision and concern for Judaism’s formative and perhaps most inexplicable myth.
“The rabbis floated down the river in an ark containing two copies of each dream their masters had dreamt on the story of Abraham and Isaac,” opens one of the tales. Another starts with: “A group of rabbis gathered at the wedding feast as fiddles and trumpets played faster and faster, until they spiraled into delirium, and guests spilled dark wine across the lace tablecloths. The cantor began chanting the story of Abraham and Isaac.” Both openers set a stage for the speakers to create their interpretations in altered, visionary states, through dream and delirium.
You’re sitting in an armchair,
it’s your favorite, though
beat up from years of use,
and there is a tear in the fabric
covering the seat cushion, and
it’s after noon, and you’re taking
your nap, and you
wake up and ask your daughter
if anyone is there, you feel as if
someone has been pulling
at your arm, and she tells you
no one is there, to go back to sleep,
and you begin to wonder
if someone was there,
perhaps the Angel of Death who comes
to distract you for the slightest moment
so he can take you, and if you concentrate
on something, studying, praying, or
performing a commandment, the Angel must pass you by
but he is cunning, and will do everything
in his power to distract you, and you are
tired these days and are having
trouble concentrating and remembering things,
and you know the Angel will not stop trying, and
your daughter tells you, again, to go back
to sleep, but you can’t, you keep wondering
if this may be how it will happen.