CHAPTER & VERSE: Poems of Jewish Identity edited by Sim Warkov, Rose Black, Margaret Kaufman, Melanie Maier & Susan Terris
(Conflux Press, Corte Madera, CA, 2011)
BLOOD HONEY by Chana Bloch
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2009)
I generally don't have particular poets or poems in mind to review. I just try to read poetry as widely as I can and what surfaces through this reading as something that compels me to write a review is what I review. CHAPTER & VERSE is a case in point -- I actually picked it up from the stacks and stacks of Galatea Resurrects' review copies to read it only because I was planning to send it out to another reviewer. But I decided to review it myself (and give that reviewer another book) because I decided I wanted to keep it in my own library--that's how enthralling I found it! This collection of poems on Jewish identity by ten Bay Area-based poets is the way "identity poems" (and poetics) should be delivered -- effectively because they raise reader empathy among even those who aren't Jewish, in turn heightening whatever content or messages the poems contain.
Featured are poems by Dan Bellm, Rose Black, Chana Bloch, Rafaella Del Bourgo, Margaret Kaufman, Jacqueline Kudler, Melanie Maier, Murray Silverstein, Susan Terris and Sim Warkov. The poems are educational, wise, compassionate, witty, moving, full of death and life and even living death. Many of the poems are most powerful for how they deftly lead to surprise (and then revelation). Here's a poignant (as in that moving "some other place / You haven't got?") example by Dan Bellm:
MILK AND HONEY
from "Book of Numbers: A War Diary (2003)"
O dear God: the land You have promised us
already has people living in it: and why
didn't we hear that part before the exodus?
So this is the choice, to love as slaves or die
as slaves to war .Now think: some other place
You haven't got? We sent out men to spy
for us, a sorry lot who claim a race
of giants lives up there, but what a lie--
ost likely long-lost relatives. Hebron's
a town as old as Esau, walled with stones
they'll gladly throw at us, blood brothers or not.
Couldn't we come in peace, share what we've got
including You, settle down and call
it off? But No, You answer. You must dispossess them all.
Here's a witty example by Susan Terris:
She wanted the children to know how it was to be
poor, to live where it wasn't safe to be a Jew.
She feels continents of ice below, huge tectonic
plates with stress lines radiating in all directions.
Each of the eight took an Idaho potato, gouged
nine holes to make a primitive menorah.
She is seeing dust and stars as galaxies collide,
the millions of years it takes for them to cross.
They rolled tiny candles of beeswax, gathered at
the low table and lit them together.
She is considering the possibility that laws of
nature might be shuffled or redefined.
Together, they said the blessing, but then heat
and candlelight dazzled them into silence.
She is trying to see a place where edges of matter
dissolve and all things, all people are commingled.
When the candles blinked out,the eight peeled
the potatoes. Their latkes were out of this world.
There are even moments of unexpected historical recovery (as identity poems "should" so present?), as in this excerpt from Sim Warkov's"THE GREEN FELT FIELDS"
My adversaries are keen to test their worth;
all of us, part-time pool-hall hangers-on
in hot pursuit of eight-ball --
especially Denny, who has read,
he says, all of Joyce's Ulysses
but not a word in Hebrew of the poet
Chaim Nachman Bialik.
My favorite poem arguably may be Margaret Kaufman's "LOT'S WIFE." While the poem easily can be relevant to Jewish history, it's also relevant to many other contexts and Kaufman writes it with a musical and adeptly-philosophical grace:
They had no time--the just man
hurried across the bridge,
followed God's magistrate
along the black ridge.
His grieving wife lagged behind
as if she had no will,
arms heavy with useless things,
heart heavier still.
She couldn't recall if she'd shut the door,
turned off the iron; worse guilt,
she'd left behind the baby pictures,
her mother's ring, her wedding quilt.
One arm raised as if to gather
her whole life in that embrace,
tears blurring the view,
without much thought she turned her face,
became what she had shed. Who grieves
for this nameless woman, Lot's reflective wife?
I know holding on can cost a life.
Indeed, the poems in CHAPTER & VERSE together elicit sufficient reader empathy to create a very inviting project, so that a reader can believe she is addressed in, say, Rose Black's poem "INVITATION" that offers
those who were not me that became me
tonight you are all invited
to gather around the fire
A major strength to this book is the presentation by the poets of statements on Jewish identity. As someone who's edited and read many identity-based anthologies, I actually wonder why this tool isn't used more, especially when there may be nothing overtly or fixedly ethnic or "identity" about certain included poems (since, yes, it is the 21st century and allowing a poet of color to write about universal elements is old story, yah?) For example, while Dan Bellm's sample poem above obviously references Israel's history, the form of his poem was further elucidated by his autobiographical statement that discusses "various spirits of inquiry, doubt ...":
I came to Judaism by choice in my late twenties; entered the milkveh as a convert a tthe age of thirty-size; and became a bar mitzvah in my jubilee (fiftieth) year. "The voice in the fire" was part of my bar mitzvah sermon on the Torah portion, Shemot. My shul is Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, a Reform synagogue founded over three decades ago by gay and lesbian Jews, and I am married to a rabbi. I have been writing poetry in the midrashic tradition for a long time now, in varying spirits of inquiry, doubt, devotion, anguish, bemused disbelief, outrage, love, and surrender, and I have taught writing and midrash to Jews and non-Jews from high school age to eighty.
CHAPTER & VERSE is so inspiring that it moved me to look at the list of Galatea Resurrects' review copies to see if any of its authors have a single-author collection. I chose (and now can review) BLOOD HONEY by Chana Bloch for two reasons: first, though I knew of her as one of Yehuda Amichai's translators, I wasn't familiar with her poems; second, her "POTATO EATERS" which appears in both CHAPTER & VERSE as well as BLOOD HONEY was another favorite from my read of the latter:
My grandmother never did learn to write.
"Making love" was not in her lexicon;
I wonder if she ever took off her clothes
when her husband performed his conjugal duties.
She said God was watching,
reciting Psalms was dependable medicine,
a woman in pants an abomination.
In their hut on the Dniester
six children scraped the daily potatoes from a single plate;
each one held a bare spoon.
Five years from the shtetl her daughters
in lisle stockings and flapper dresses.
The boys slick their hair with pomade.
What do they remember of Russia? "Mud."
That's grandma in the center. At ease in owl glasses.
"Don't run, you'll fall."
Mostly she keeps her mouth shut; the children
would rather not hear.
What does a full stomach know
of an empty stomach?
It's time you opened your mouth, bobbe;
I'm old enough now to ask you a thing or two
and you're too dead to be annoyed.
You'll know where to find me,
I'm the daughter of your second son.
I have the spoons.
As with the above poem, I found BLOOD HONEY marvelous for its deft turns and always the snapped-towel pop of a surprise in many of these poems -- such as the "THE MESSIAH OF HARVARD SQUARE" which also appears in CHAPTER & VERSE or this ending to "THE DAILY NEWS"
Wherever we land
there's sorrow and light, light and sorrow,
black and white Escher birds, beak-to-wing,
locked in flight.
or this excerpt from "THE DARK OF DAY"
My friend's father was killed
in a car crash. She hated him,
hadn't seen him in years.
When the police called, she drove to the ditch
where his wrecked Chevy waited for the tow-truck.
The body was gone. On the dashboard, broken glasses,
an open notebook splotched with his blood.
Then she was crying, not knowing why.
She tore out a stain on the mottled paper,
his ragged last breath,
and took it into her mouth.
or this hilarious but affectionate beginning of "AFTER SEX"
A man after sex
has that squishy thing in the nest of his lap.
A bashful appendage
like a Claes Oldenburg vinyl drainpipe,
a soft saxophone that won't toot a note.
The examples above show Bloch's piercing gaze and an eye for detail that elevates her poems. That is, when Bloch writes in "WILD HONEY"
A puddle of sun on the wooden floor.
The infant crawls to it, licks it,
dips a hand in and out,
letting the wild honey
trickle through his fingers.
Then that voice from on high--
Look at the pretty color!--
wipes up the glory with a rag of language.
language may be "rag" wiping up a "pretty color" but what she leaves us with is as satisfying as (from "LE SOIR QUI TOMBE") "a healing / to fit the wound." I pay Chana Bloch the highest compliment I can give a writer -- after this book, I am off in search of her other ones.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed or generated responses by Joey Madia in The New Mystics HERE; Allen Bramhall over HERE; by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; by Leny Strobel over HERE; and by Jean Vengua over HERE and HERE. Her THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I is reviewed by Edric Mesmer in Yellow Field and reprinted HERE. Her THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 is reviewed by Arpine Konyalian Grenier over HERE. Allen Bramhall also reviews the "Hay(na)ku for Haiti" series over HERE. If the latter two get you curious, please note that participating in this fundraiser for Haiti is supported by Marsh Hawk Press, publisher of THE THORN ROSARY: if you order at least $15 worth of booklets, you will receive a copy of THE THORN ROSARY which is priced retail at $19.95; this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.