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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Curled up, Sunday afternoon...


It’s easy for women
to identify with Korach.
Why should all the power
Reside in one set of hands?

Why shouldn’t we
be able to speak to God
on our time, lighting
our own smudge-sticks hearts?

Why should our bodies
need concealment, like
faces of the Holy Blessed One
hidden from creation?

Sometimes when we say this
the earth swallows us whole
like Persephone, eater
of pomegranate seeds.

Sometimes we emerge
Like spring itself,
Overflowing with the stories
We learned underground

And the plain walking-sticks
Of everyone around us
Burst into improbable bloom.

This afternoon I finished 70 Faces (Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing), the new book by the Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat.  I recommend it.  Unlike many contemporary books of poetry, it has a large subject.  As the poet says, “The tradition of responding to scripture with our own creativity—writing interpretive stories which explore questions, close loopholes, and ponder implications—dates at least as far as the third century…”

And these are some of the thoughts and questions I had along the way.
  • The whole idea of midrash as imagining what might go in the gaps is interesting—and, after all, gaps are where so many writings come from. I have a whole novel where I imagine what it would be like to be a Depression-era boy who runs away and rides the rails because I don’t know all that much about the times when my father did just that, and I’m curious. And yes, what happens in the Torah that isn’t explained or is off camera is enticing material for a poem. But what I am most curious about is the whole idea of midrash as a kind of alternative history (“Imagine a different story / Avraham and Sarah / setting forth together”): is that traditional or is that her own invention
  •       There’s a kind of stairs of challenge in these poems. Lower down are poems that coincide fairly closely with what we find in the text. Up higher are other kinds of poems:  poems that insist on contrasting relationships and social patterns of the past and present times, holding up a mirror, as when Isaac and Ishmael are “not yet the ancestors of enemies / Abraham’s dark eyes in every face; poems that take something dry as dust and often dull or hard to follow like the Levitical laws and bring them to musing life (as in “Gevurah,” where the concept splits the form of the poem in vertical halves); poems that rethink narrative from a new vantage point, often that of a woman like Asenath, barely mentioned in the story; poems that shift elements from the far past into a technological present (the census: / these print-outs piled on the kitchen island / like petals from some vast magnolia scented with toner);
  • ·         The poet likes to fool with cliché, leading to humor: “in case of jealousy eat my words”; “please let me live up / to whatever is coming”; “Being up there with God / at the mountain’s peak / was the best thing ever,” “chips off the God block,” etc.  This sort of humor depends on a penchant for simplicity of language and often for setting cliché next to something unexpected.
  • ·         Is it possible to look at difficult, grotesque events like the spear-killing of Cozbi and Zimri and bring them into 2011 commentary without shading a bit into the p. c. and multi-cultural? But then there’s the Egyptian Asenath (daughter of Potipherah, a priest of On) in “Instead of Sons,” the way her story darkens as she gives Joseph sons, not the home-loving daughter she longed for but boys who belonged to someone else’s story / which would unfold / without her memory, without her bones.”
  • ·         I am wishing that I could compare the form of these poems with those in Rachel Barenblat’s earlier chapbooks. They are, like a great deal of contemporary poetry, floating somewhere between formal and what is called “free,” although of course nothing is quite free They tend toward stanzas of a set length yet eschew metrics and set line length. I am fantasizing that she will make a statement about such things because I find issues of form interesting. (But it might be one of those subjects that only poets find so, and not even most poets.)
  • ·         What I like best about these poems reminds me of Joseph Epstein in his grand essay on I. B. Singer, “What Yiddish Says”: “What makes Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction so immensely alive is that its author understood that nothing has successfully replaced this drama, with its sense that one's actions matter, that they are being judged in the highest court of all, and that the stakes couldn't be greater. No contemporary human drama has been devised that can compare or compete with the drama of salvation, including the various acquisition dramas: those of acquiring pleasure, money, power, fame, knowledge, happiness on earth in any of its forms.”


  1. Marly,
    Interestingly, I bought this book a month or so ago and got it just before we moved. It is in a box somewhere. Who knows where? And after R finishes reorganizing books and bookshelves, who knows where it will end up?
    RE: midrash, the idea of alternative history is pretty much what one finds in Midrash. I have a dvar Torah I wrote on a particular portion and delivered in synagogue that emphasizes just that. I can send it to you.

  2. I haven't even read this book yet!

  3. Quick answer! Thanks, Robbi... and happy unpacking.

    Maybe you ought to send her a note after you read it and ask her about her chapbook experience, since she has quite a bit. She might have some ideas for your yoga series.

  4. Marly, clearly I absolutely have to read that essay on I.B. Singer! Thanks for your extremely thoughtful reading of Rachel's book.

  5. Yes, it is right down Elizabeth Adams Alley! You will find it very significant and touching, I feel certain.

  6. Thanks Marly. I look forward to reading the book. And I will write to her, as well as to Claire Dederer, who wrote that yoga memoir. But my cousin has to finish the damn drawings. I wrote to her this morning.

  7. How many are there now? I don't know that there has to be one to go with every poem... though it would be nice.

  8. Thank you for this gracious review, Marly!

    As others have noted in comments, alternative history does happen in classical midrash. Here's a link to a post I wrote a while back which contains links to, and quotations from, both classical and contemporary midrash on one particular chunk of Genesis:

    Again: thanks for this generous close reading; I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

  9. Hello, Rachel--

    I'm glad too! And thanks for the link. I will take a look. I knew about the midrash as filling the gap, and maybe filling the gap does involve "alternative history." But I am definitely wondering how far that goes--how much freedom one has before it's not midrash any more. Or maybe there is huge freedom. So I shall enjoy reading your post.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.