Old pictures of us
on white staircase walls,
lined diagonally upward
in little wood frames,
lecture us on choices
we have made since
they were taken —
we cannot never argue
with former selves
who weigh less,
have more hair,
and the gift of youth’s
optimism. We can
only cover them,
as one does mirrors
in houses of mourning,
hoping the best of
our spirits are not
stuck there, too,
in the past behind
It was the slain generation of warrior-poets who, more than any others, captured the brutality and inhumanity of the First World War and cemented in the English imagination a perception of that conflict as pointless and futile.
As wave after wave of men were sent to their deaths at the Somme and comrades drowned in the mud at Passchendaele, English poetry from the front abandoned themes of patriotism, glory and valour for the pain and misery of trench warfare. Verse became soaked in blood as nearly 900,000 British troops fell in the fields of France and Belgium. “But the old man who not so, but slew his own,” Wilfred Owen wrote in his twisted retelling of the binding of Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
The Great War’s centennial has brought about a re-examination not only of the war itself but how it is remembered, what is emphasised and what is forgotten. In that spirit, the Jewish East End Celebration Society — whose aim is to raise awareness of the history and culture of London’s Jewish East End — is fundraising to erect a statue of the war poet Isaac Rosenberg at Torrington Square in Bloomsbury. To be unveiled on April 1, 2018 – the hundredth anniversary of his passing – it would make Rosenberg the only Jewish literary figure other than Benjamin Disraeli to be afforded a monument.
In the fitting room at Macy’s
Eve shimmies into a pair of leopard-print leggings
then mocks a dance pose.
“OMG! You’re hotter than a habanero in those pants,”
gasps Lilith. She slides her finger
down Eve’s shapely hip
as though striking a match
then blows out her finger.
Eve can’t believe how good that feels
through the cotton-polyester-spandex blend.
Lilith always went for men in a big way
but maybe the oversexed act
was overcompensation, a put-on.
Maybe Lilith is gay.
Maybe I’m gay, thinks Eve
wishing her friend would touch her again.
In the Macy’s fitting room
with the triple-paneled mirror
the women’s figures mingle and multiply.
Looking at one of her selves
Eve moves her right arm
but in the mirror it looks like her left arm.
She can’t be sure which image
reflects the real Eve.
In the champagne of the moment
she turns to Lilith, the real one, the warm one
intending to bestow upon her
an air kiss of gratitude
at most a smooch on the cheek,
but Lilith catches Eve’s mouth,
draws her to her other self.
Eve can’t remember
when she’s ever had a kiss like that.
Maybe she never has, never will again
so what is the point in stopping?
The women linger in each other’s arms
as the hidden security camera
looks on with its mysterious eye.
And the women are okay with that.
They know that eye sees all things.
Sees all. Says nothing.
From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)
my grandmother did not change
my grandfather’s greeting,
so his voice ripened my sadness
before the tone.
I considered how he might find
contentment knowing we were
checking on the short woman
he had left to the heavy warmth
of lower Florida,
how for the children of Israel,
it is customary to leave
over tombs of the righteous,
how a measure of the soul
might remain in the sound
of a voice uncontained
by the body,
completing the circuit
between the dead and
Eve and Lilith peered through
the padlocked gates of the garden,
now a restricted community.
Eve glared at Lilith,
“You told me it was easier to beg
forgiveness than ask permission. Now look.”
“That’s what I always do,” Lilith replied,
aware that under the circumstances
she sounded pretty lame.
“Plus,” said Eve, “I think I’m pregnant.”
“I told you to use protection,” said Lilith.
“But Adam promised…” Lilith rolled her eyes.
“Him and his teaspoon of joy,” said Eve.
A fault line threatened her brow.
“Girlfriend,” counseled Lilith,
“either change your life or accept your life
but don’t go around mad.
Let that anger go,” said Lilith. “Just let it go.”
Eve hated it when her friend got preachy.
Anyhow when it came to holding onto anger
Eve was an Olympian, a gold medalist.
She clung to a grudge
like a shipwrecked sailor to a scrap of wood.
It had something to do
with her excellent memory.
As Eve sucked on the red lollipop of her hurt
the two women trudged back to Nod.
All of a sudden something dark
waved in the grass.
“Eek!” shrieked Lilith. “A snake!”
She high-stepped in panic.
Oh, woman-up, thought Eve
as she grabbed a Y-shaped stick,
immobilized the critter’s head,
stared straight into its eyes.
The snake looked back at her with a who me? look.
“This one’s harmless.
It’s only a dumb animal,” said Eve.
“Kill it! Kill it!” pleaded Lilith.
“Sorry,” said her friend. “No can do.”
Eve let the snake go.
She just let it go.
From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)
This is our second feature of poetry written at KlezKanada Poetry Retreat. See the original feature here.
Ezra Pound once stated that poets are the antennas of the race. At this year’s KlezKanada Poetry Retreat, which I was privileged to co-coordinate with Jake Marmer, poets composed alongside the timbres and textures of Yiddish music. Traveling through the weightiness of language and history, the conflagration of sonoric ecstasies and shadows of meaning, they engaged in playful language experiments, defamiliarizing and connecting with the environment, ritual and radicalism, tradition and translation, all dialectically electric and resonant with the rush of klezmer in the mountains of language.
Here are some of the sparked shards and fragments of light, glinting memories morphed through language and sound created that week. KlezKanada Poetry Retreat 2014 will be held August 18-24. We are accepting applications for next summer now!
It has become the Forward’s tradition to highlight five memorable poetry releases of the year (see the 2010, 2011 and 2012 selections). And while some names may look familiar to our readers, others are appearing here for the first time. Please consider this list a conversation starter, and let us know who you would like to see added to the mix.
Also, please note that the works below are listed in alphabetical order — there’s no ranking here.
By Charles Bernstein
University of Chicago Press, 208 pages, $25.00
For the past few decades, Charles Bernstein has been a seminal figure in the world of avant-garde poetry; in the past decade, his engagement with Jewish poetics has come to define, for many fellow artists, a new, profound, and immediately relevant way of engaging with one’s Jewishness. “I am a Jewish man trapped / in the body of a Jewish man,” writes the poet, and it is up to the reader to enjoy all of this “entrapment’s” trappings, trimmings and bells. The first collection of Bernstein’s new work in eight years, “Recalculating” spans numerous registers of experimentation. See full review of “Recalculating” here.
If poetry requires disclosure, I’ll start with one: I am a friend of Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s, and a fellow Yiddish poet. He sent me his book with a kind dedication, and an additional inscription in his neat hand: bet-samekh-daled. That is, the author of this book entitled “Prayers of a Heretic” noted that his signature to me was written “besiyata-dishmaya,” with the aid of Heaven.
Such a juxtaposition is an illuminating introduction to the contradictions in Taub’s work. He left the ultra-Orthodox community, but that is not the subject of his poems any more than sex is the topic of Yona Wallach’s — that departure makes the poems possible, but the volume is not merely a translation of his personal story into poetic biography. Rather, this transformation gave him a set of tools. To become someone else is a lasting condition of every living person; Taub’s particular experience of that change makes him able to perceive it in others.
Taub’s poems are like short stories, or cleverly caught snapshots. His depiction of diverse personalities is sympathetic, sometimes even tender in its broadmindedness, and nearly unerring. Characters in a city crowded with people, abandoned and alone in their apartment, “snot pooling on [their] floorboards” (this from “The Woman Who Did Not Turn Her Sorrow Into Art” — itself a thought-provoking title); couples gay and straight, old and young, having sex in a real bed or in their imagination; cigarette smokers thrown into the world (“Temporary Outcasts”).
There are the eccentric denizens of the libraries which are their only refuge, and the quasi prophets caught in a dystopia they are powerless to prevent (these are some of Taub’s most strident, least nuanced, and thus least successful poems). Of course, as well, we meet those who have left the ultra-Orthodoxy of Taub’s youth.
If, as Shelley had it, poets are the legislators of the world, then at this past year’s KlezKanada Poetry Retreat their law was music. Hosted at the large, week-long klezmer festival, the poetry was surrounded by accordionists, tsimbelists, people tapping out rhythms or tuning their violins. I was privileged to be co-teaching the retreat along with poet, scholar, and performer Adeena Karasick. It is a further privilege to introduce some of the poems, written at the retreat, to Forward readers. This kind of Jewish poetry, as it became clear throughout our sessions, doesn’t merely escape definitions. It drops words like notes into a stewing, communal, dialogical collective, quite like the one that unfolded amongst us.
How much of our yearning for transcendence is actually a yearning for love?
The sublimation of desire takes many forms. Mystics longing for the divine, clearly, but more subtly, even those religious who aver no such emotional fire, but who nonetheless gain senses of connection from the observance of rituals. And it appears in poetry, in art, and in human relationships of many configurations.
“Kill Your Darlings,” the new film about a lesser-known episode in the life of poet Allen Ginsberg, is as painful an evocation of this confusion of desires, particularly when they are unconsummated. The film tells the story of Ginsberg’s first transformations from awkward, suburban Jewish teenager into the history-making Beat poet he would later become (a period also captured in Ginsberg’s journals, published as “The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice,” which I reviewed for this publication a few years ago).
There are only glimmers of Ginsberg’s poetic genius here, however. What’s foremost in him, as portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, is longing. He yearns to break free, to challenge convention, to make a mark on history.
Or does he? “Kill Your Darlings” nails the ambiguity of Ginsberg’s longings, which may be more for the rebellious, beautiful Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) than for lofty goals of poetry and revolution. Carr is everything Ginsberg is not: rebellious, fearless, hip, and sexually vibrant. And gorgeous: DeHaan looks like Leonardo DiCaprio’s sexier little brother, and his waifish Carr is irresistible. (He also looks a lot like Ginsberg’s eventual lover, Peter Orlovsky.)
Carr is used to being the object of male affection, and much of the film revolves around his codependent relationship with David Kammerer, an older man who writes Carr’s college papers for him in exchange for sex. As the film reveals in the opening reel, Carr eventually kills Kammerer, under circumstances which are only gradually revealed. But Carr here is the villain; he exploits the affection of Kammerer and Ginsberg alike, and revels in rebelliousness while insulated from the consequences by his family’s wealth.
Former United States poet laureate Philip Levine has been awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement. The award, which comes with a $100,000 prize, is given annually for “outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry.”
Levine was 83 when he was named poet laureate in 2011. Although he now lives in Fresno California and lived for some time in New York, he is most closely associated with the working class experience of his native Detroit. Levine began writing poetry during breaks between shifts as an autoworker, and his first collection, “On The Edge,” was published in 1963. “From the beginning of his career he has considered the assumptions of the American ruling class — especially those they have successfully transmitted to the rest of the country — with a degree of skepticism,” wrote Dan Friedman about him in the Forward.
Levine is known for his poetry collections, including, “What Work Is,” which won the 1991 National Book Award and “The Simple Truth,” which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. His “News of the World” was published in 2009.
“I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own,” Levine wrote about his motivation for becoming a poet. “I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.”
Poet, publisher and bookstore maven Lawrence Ferlinghetti is, at 94, arguably the most popular living versifier, or at least author of the single most popular book of poetry — the million-selling “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1957). It’s a distinction he carries lightly in Christopher Felver’s new documentary “Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.” The poet is rebelliously cheerful (in historic footage) while Allen Ginsberg is dour, accepting awards with surprise rather than vanity, buoyantly living his rebel life to the end.
Blame it on San Francisco, which properly occupies an oversize role in this charming film. Born in Yonkers as the son of an Italian father and a Sephardic mother, Ferlinghetti made it all the way to genteel Westchester the hard way.
When his father died six months after he was born and his mother was confined to an asylum, the boy was taken to France to live for his first years, until his aunt got a job in Bronxville and brought him there to grow up and go to school. Then came the University of North Carolina, where he began writing regularly (covering sports events for the school paper), then the Navy and back to France. And then, most decisively, to San Francisco. The bohemian city was waiting for him as he was for the city.
In the annual Forward Fives selection we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in music, performance, exhibitions, books and film. Here we present five of our favorite works of poetry of 2012. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
This year, among the Forward’s five notable poetry books, there are two memorable retrospective collections by Alicia Ostriker and Michael Heller, as well as three books of brand new poetry from Adeena Karasick, Hank Lazer and Rachel Tzvia Back.
It is particularly curious to juxtapose Lazer’s “N18” and Karasick’s “This Poem,” as both books engage with the timely question of the poetic medium: What does poetry look like, and how might it be read in a time when the very process of reading — and the existence of a book — is a blinking question mark. Lazer’s hand-written “shape poems” move against the current of the reflowable text trend, hearkening to poetry’s hand-written past, and also pointing to what might become a hallmark of poetry’s future — multiple points of entry into the non-linear ocean of text. Karasick’s book, however, speeds right along with the media overload, incorporating its methods and lingo, laughing with and at it, both critiquing and poeticizing. Please note that the books are arranged in alphabetic order, based on authors’ last names.
When we think of great New York poets — Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Laurie Anderson, among others — what they’ve immortalized and exalted have been the streets and energies of Manhattan or, on rare and less transcendent occasions, Brooklyn. The Bronx, when it did appear, has always been something of the old country — where immigrant parents and grandparents lived, a remote, provincial satellite. And certainly Riverdale, Bronx’s sleepy neighborhood with a large Jewish population, would appear to have nothing to offer to poetic imagination. Judith Baumel, featured on The Arty Semite last year, seem to have been the only exception.
And yet, Sarah Stern’s recent collection of poems, “Another Word for Love,” is profoundly grounded in Riverdale — in its subway stations and parks, buildings and streets. The first of the two poems featured today, “Morning Prayer,” takes place on the streets of the neighborhood, and features a curious juxtaposition of spiritual experiences, genders and visions. The second piece, “Reentry,” is an homage to exceptional character, evoked so vividly that he practically walks (or rather, waddles) off the lines of the poem.
An anthology, “Isaac Rosenberg: 21st-Century Oxford Authors,” reminds readers of a major modern writer who died in the trenches during World War I. Born in Bristol to Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian Jewish emigrants, Rosenberg (1890-1918) moved with his family to London’s East End, where he continued to face economic hardship.
Gifted at both literature and painting, Rosenberg could afford to study these subjects only when he found a – sometimes captious – patron. Despite being barely five feet tall, he joined the British army after the war broke out to ensure that his mother would receive some income. From this abbreviated life emerged poetry and prose radiant with Yiddishkeit. Edited by Vivien Noakes, “Isaac Rosenberg: 21st-Century Oxford Authors” includes the poet’s reviews of art exhibits. One such from 1912 discusses a London show of Pre-Raphaelite painters; of the works on display, Rosenberg prefers the Jewish artist Simeon Solomon’s: “So spiritual in feeling, so perfect in design, the gracious reticence of its colour.” The same year, ever-conscious of his identity, Rosenberg marvels about an exhibit of artworks by John Henry Amschewitz (1882-1942) and Henry Ospovat (1877–1909), although observing: “One would not suspect for a moment the Jewish parentage of this remarkable progeny.” In a wartime letter to his friend, the author and translator Sydney Schiff, Rosenberg notes anti-Semitism in one troop: “My being a Jew makes it bad amongst these wretches.”
After a transfer in 1916, Rosenberg reports better treatment “as our second in command is a Jewish officer who knows of me from his people.” Writing the poem, “The Jew,” about the enduring moral influence of Moses, Rosenberg also drafted a verse play in which the youthful Moses suffocates an offending Egyptian. Planning another “Jewish play” on Judas Maccabeus (“I can put a lot in I’ve learned out here,” he writes a patron), Rosenberg confides to Schiff that one of his leading poetic inspirations is Heinrich Heine (“I admire [Heine] more for always being a Jew at heart than anything else.”) By contrast, he rejects an essay by G. K. Chesterton on Israel Zangwill because Chesterton “seems sly and certainly anti-Jewish.” When a patron sends him Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s 1917 “Book of Jewish Thoughts for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers,” Rosenberg is underwhelmed. A gimlet-eyed poetic soul, Rosenberg’s death in 1918, when he was hoping to transfer to what became known as the “Judean Regiment” in then-Mesopotamia, was an incalculable loss to modern literature.
Listen to a choral setting of Rosenberg’s poem “August 1914” by composer Joel Boyd performed by the Milwaukee Choral Artists here.
Listen to a reading of Rosenberg’s poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” by Jonathan Jones here.
The tracks on Max Layton’s new album, “2 The Max,” are more stories than songs. Influenced by two of Canada’s greatest poets, his father Irving Layton and his close family friend Leonard Cohen, as well as his own interesting 66 years of existence, the singer-songwriter shares some hard-earned lessons on life and love set to a musical backdrop.
In this year, the centennial of his father’s birth, the Ontario-based Layton looks to the past and the future as he celebrates restored eyesight. It was a sudden onset of legal blindness a few years ago that prompted Layton to retreat into a private darkness to write his first album, “Heartbeat of Time.” His new album is a response to the restoration of his sight, thanks to “the miracles of modern medicine” as he writes in the CD’s liner notes.
Layton was taught as a young child to play guitar by Cohen, and has been playing and singing his whole life.
“My one constant was the guitar. I learned new songs wherever I went and played in coffee houses and on street corners whenever I got the chance,” he writes on his website.