Yes, I am checking you out on Simchas Torah.
You are sweating, you are dancing, your breath stinks of vodka,
Your white shirt is plastered to your chest,
Its buttons are partly undone,
You look like an entrant in a Yeshivish wet t-shirt contest.
That's from one of my favorite poems in another word for sky, a collection of poems by Jay Michaelson (Lethe Press, November 2007.) The poem is wry and startling, deliciously grounded in physical detail, and very, very Jewish. (So's the collection.)
I can't help reading the poem through the lens of Hasidism and homoeroticism, an essay of Jay's that I read in Zeek back in 2004. But the poem goes places the essay doesn't, and there are all kinds of reverberations and refractions for me in the spaces between them. Same goes for another of my favorite poems in this collection, "Foreign Thoughts," which begins:
I don't feel ashamed
when I spy you at the mikva,
out of the corner of my eye --
a body is a body,
and wants what it wants.
I love that it's when the narrator catches a peek at the object of his desire davening, in intimate connection with God, that he is abashed. Seeing a beautiful body is one thing; visually eavesdropping on a conversation with the Infinite is another. The poem gives a whole new cast to questions of boundaries and transgression. It knocks me flat. I want more.
I'm picking and choosing, here, as every reviewer of poetry does. A different subset of poems would give you a different impression of the collection. New York poems. Seasonal poems. Poems with long lines. Linguistic playfulness. Maybe another year those will be the poems that grab me and won't let go. But this winter it's this particular intersection of Judaism and eros that excites me.
In "in praise of isaac, of whom it is said / he knew what it was to be a woman," Jay opens up the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. He makes Isaac's ultimate act of submission plain in a way it had never been for me before. The poem is disturbing and tender and erotic -- as is the original story, frankly, or at least it is for me now that I've read these lines. "isaac is the fulcrum who gives himself over," Jay writes. "isaac is the yielder and the receiver of love." Holy wow. Something tells me I'm never going to hear that passage again in quite the same way.
That's part of the genius of this collection, for me. That's Pound's eternal dictum, "make it new" -- practically the house motto at Bennington, at least during the years when I was there. These poems take words and concepts that are familiar to me, and show me something in them I hadn't seen before.
These poems don't shy away from difficult subjects. Here's another taste, from the poem "When I see the word 'Israel'" -- to which I've returned more than once already in the few weeks since I first sat down and read the collection:
When I see the word
wrestles with God
When I see the word
I do not see
the chosen few
I see those few who choose...
Those who say
I betroth myself to you
whether it feels like honey
or a thornbush
Jay knows, this poem knows, that over time relationship with God inevitably feels like both of those things. Every religious peak moment is matched with times when the One is so veiled there's only a palpable absence. And with times when relating to God, relating to tradition, is just plain painful. Being Israel is about the existential leap of choosing the relationship, even though -- even when -- it isn't easy.
Writing that out in prose feels preachy. The poem is better. Read the poem.
Alicia Ostriker is one of the poets whose words appear on the back cover of the collection, which makes perfect sense to me. Her work too delves into the rich mines of Torah and midrash, forging that ore into something startling and new. She does it with criticism, and she does it with poetry, and I've always had the sense that the two branches of her work feed each other. (That's kind of a theme for me at the moment, for what may be obvious reasons.) Same goes for Jay, and I suspect it's one reason why there's such a clear alignment between his work and hers.
To choose to be a Jewish poet, defined not by birth but by subject matter and personality, is necessarily to render one's experience in terms of symbol and myth. One becomes as if infected by Jewish language. This is a perilous undertaking, as a poet's task is necessarily to see things in a new way, while the Jewish words pull toward the old, as well toward the cliché[.]
So Jay writes (in People of the Chapbook, which touches on Ostriker's work and also on the new book of prose by Rodger Kamenetz who I'll be interviewing for Zeek later this spring.) Perilous it may be, but he pulls it off.
Best of all -- maybe the reason why this book rings so many bells for me -- is the way these poems celebrate not only our texts but our endlessly-changing relationship with them. As it is written, in "Juicy:"
When you are studying
you involuntarily open your mouth
just a half an inch
as if to drink up
the juices of the text.
This is one hell of a juicy collection. Go and read.