Another one from the archives: Kol Nidre poem
Three responses to this week's Torah portion

Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew

Lowercase-jew-webA book of poems nine years old still deserves to be written about and to be read. This is true as a general statement, I think, though I'm saying it now with a specific title in mind: Rodger Kamenetz's the lowercase jew.

Maybe you know Rodger Kamenetz's book The Jew in the Lotus, the true story of the group of rabbis who went to Dharamsala, India, to meet with the Dalai Lama and offer him wisdom about surviving as a people in Diaspora. (When I first read that book, some 20 years ago, I remember thinking: wow, they took a poet along to tell the tale! I want to grow up to get that job.)

Maybe you know his The History of Last Night's Dream. (I interviewed him after that came out -- Dreaming with Rodger Kamenetz, Zeek magazine, 2008.) Or his more recent Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Franz Kafka. But unless you're a lover of Jewish poetry -- which, given that you're reading this blog, you might be -- you may or may not know his poetry. And you should know it, because it's really good.

I read his The Missing Jew: New and Selected Poems years ago, I think shortly after getting out of college. (I thought I'd reviewed it somewhere, but can't seem to dig up a link; I guess I just wrote about it in my paper about what makes Jewish literature Jewish, back when I was getting my MFA at Bennington.) But somehow I failed to pick up a copy of the lowercase jew until this fall. Nu, the good news is, poetry ages well. So it came out in 2003 and now it's almost 2013 -- big deal. The psalms were written God-knows-how-long-ago, and we still read them, don't we?

This is a tight, rich, thought-provoking collection of poems. Sometimes it is funny. Sometimes it is dark. Often both at once. Here, take these lines, from the beginning of the title poem (which comes with the explanatory tagline T. S. Eliot stands before a heavenly court. A burlesque.):


T.S., I got to tell you the emes--
Bleistein here, pardon the cigar.
Remember me, palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese?

Like I'm some kind of ape?
You didn't like my baggy pants.
Now I'm here to take your measure.
To prosecute is dreck, but I got assigned.
You think God don't have a sense of humor?
It's punishment for you, but also me.
I have to read these farkakta lines
You wrote about the Jews.

Read them out loud. Read the whole poem out loud. (Of course, to do that, you'd have to buy the book. Hint.) As the poem continues, Kamenetz, in the persona of Bleistein, skillfully skewers Eliot's antisemitism. The dialogue between the prosecutor, Eliot himself, and the judge is sharp, unflinching, and -- this is clunky but I'm not sure how else to say it -- never abandons the purposes of poetry in order to make a point. This isn't an exegetical essay, it's poetry. But it manages to say what a good critical essay on the subject would say, while also being considerably more enjoyable.

Here's a taste of another poem in an entirely different vein. This comes from the poem titled "Genesis 1:1":

When Gods were beginning to make
the alphabet of heaven and earth,
the wind ruffled the black waters
and the earth had no name or form.

We make impossible requests
of fundamental texts
searching in a vowel
that dissolves as we penetrate...

If you know the opening lines of Torah in Hebrew, you'll see echoes of bereshit bara Elohim in the opening of this poem. And of ruach Elohim m'rachefet al pnei ha-mayyim, the breath of God(s) hovering over the face of the waters. But I love the idea that in the beginning -- or when God was beginning, as I prefer to translate, and apparently Rodger does too -- what was created was not form but text. And yes, as interpreters, as readers, we do make impossible requests of our fundamental text (don't you love the sound of those words? again, read them aloud, roll them around in your mouth.) Isn't that part of what makes us Jews?

The poem about reading Eicha (Lamentations) on Tisha b'Av in the Altneushul in Prague is one I have resolved to share with my community next Tisha b'Av. The comparison of the crabbed Hebrew text to wheels of tiny spikes or stings, the text's recitation to a spinning of prayer wheels -- and the poem's closing lines and their echo of the closing lines of that painful and powerful piece of sacred text!

One more tiny excerpt, because I can't resist. This is from the poem called, simply, "Rye":

Inside a caraway seed, half forgotten,
a hint of pepper and peppermint
locked in a small black boat.
Inside a framework of pores -- breaths
of yeast -- the boats slip in
to their holes...

A hint of pepper and peppermint / locked in a small black boat. I wish I had written those lines. What a perfect description of a caraway seed. And the sounds! The repeated plosives of pepper and peppermint, the rhyme of hint and mint framing that line like parentheses, the living sense of the breaths of yeast which permit the boats to find their docks. And I won't spoil the last line of the poem for you, except to say that it made me laugh out loud.

You'll find the Holocaust in this collection, with its very specific horrors. You'll find Torah (Noah, Jacob, the tablets of the covenant -- and the broken tablets of the covenant, which Talmud tells us were carried along with the whole ones, as we even now carry the shards of those who came before us.) Modern poetry, to be sure: this collection is in conversation with Pound and Eliot and Ginsburg. You'll find New Orleans turtle soup alongside the red-and-white swirl of borscht. (As a Jew from the south who grew up eating some pretty peculiar things -- yep, turtle soup in New Orleans was one of them -- I love those facing pages.) And the final poem is a rhapsody which manages to remind me both of Tanakh and of Whitman.

This is a beautiful volume of poems. Pick it up and see for yourself.