The Poetry of a Jewish Humanist

Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015
by Chana Bloch
Autumn House Press, 2015

A child of immigrant parents who was raised in an observant Jewish household, poet Chana Bloch has absorbed the details of her ethnic and linguistic heritage; this includes what she has called “the habit of questioning,” which is “not only sanctioned by Jewish tradition, it’s an honored part of it.” As a poet, biblical scholar, and translator of ancient and modern Hebrew poetry, she has followed her teacher Robert Lowell’s advice to “learn to write from [her] own translations.”

Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems demonstrates that Bloch has converted that important lesson into a unique poetic voice that modulates from the homespun to the literary and shifts from wit and humor to a pull-no-punches toughness. Spare and musical, intimate while open to history, intelligent and emotionally rich in the details of divisions and connections, Bloch’s poetry negotiates the complexities of her identity as a first-generation Jew, a woman, a child, a parent, a wife, a lover, and a citizen.

The Weighing of the Heart in the Hall of Truth

Heaven’s not for bodies, at least not my perfect one,

and mirrors in heaven still lie as on earth, and still disgust.  

Heaven’s not for past or present or future. It’s not everything that should have happened but didn’t.  

Dead faces there don’t bristle with hope, there’s no whiskery

feeling of some pointful life to which you never got around.  

God’s so dark in heaven, like that car in the rear-view last night

with no headlights on.

Pastoral Prose Poetry

Urban Pastorals

Clive Wilmer
Worple Press, 2014

In this short, rich book of prose poems, Clive Wilmer renews the pastoral tradition by eschewing romantic idealizations and coming into contact with the living image of an Eden corrupted by natural processes. Those processes, which connect us to the mystery of life and spirit, include both the workings of memory and the mechanisms of civilization. Wilmer’s memories are of a midcentury South London childhood “injured by enemy bombs”; of wooded commons where trees were “the very image of freedom in community”; of discoveries of Shakespeare’s power and Louis Armstrong’s musical “good place, where the leopard lies down with the kid”; and of art as “the expression of man’s pleasure in labour.” These memories form a groundwork for his warmly drawn and enigmatic human portraits, which enliven a religious vision that is convincing for its glowing clarity and sense of scale. Also recommended: Wilmer’s New and Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012).  

To view Tikkun Recommends as a PDF, click here.

For Hazhir

Jon Swan’s poem about drones is a haunting vision. “The drone hovers under the iron-gray dome of heaven . . .”

Influenza Ode (From a Very Tall Building)

From here, the farthest highway
slammed with cars
arrives to the eye in segments
slicing through the baffling clouds,
shiny as the bite of a memory
of being yelled at, a call to the kitchen
for a late-night admonition,
while the dirty river to the harbor
dries like mustard upon the evening meat. The worser I feel, the childer I am. Beyond the window, I can see
how the moody wind manipulates,
the splat of the springtime
jumbled in some illegible smatter,
while the rooftops pretend to organize—
a scripture of rooftops,
dishes and antennae—and jumbled,
over-heated gardens snarl in disuse. From this far away the occasional bird
blackens in silhouette, little rabbi. From this far away a rabbinate of birds
swoops above the alleys below,
a gulp of swallows.

Poems for the High Holiday Season

The Days Between

Marcia Falk
Brandeis University Press, 2014

Marcia Falk’s collection of blessings, poems, and “directions of the heart” for the Jewish High Holiday season is another gem by this inspired poet, whose Book of Blessings was an inspiration to a generation of feminists and their allies. With matching pages of Hebrew and English, Falk has captured some of the rich wisdom of Jewish spirituality that permeates the High Holiday prayer book (machzor), translating it into a language accessible even to resolute atheists.

Demitasse

You evaded the fire-storm, reaching the shore / Of the New World long before, so nothing / To speak of has shaken you more than the rage / In my father’s voice or my brother’s infant fist / Shattering a pane of the china closet, leaving you / Unharmed (the shards swept away, the glass / Replaced in a day).

On Violence, Joy, and Justice: The Poetry of C.K. Williams

All at Once
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014
by C.K. Williams

Writers Writing Dying
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012
by C.K. Williams

On Whitman
Princeton University Press, 2010
by C.K. Williams

In his preface to On Whitman, C. K. Williams says only Shakespeare compares with Walt Whitman in providing him an “inexhaustible” source of inspiration. Yet “with both, but particularly with Whitman, I need a respite, surcease, so as not to be overwhelmed, obliterated. This is more raw than Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence,’ more primitive.”

On the dust jacket for the Whitman monograph, Michael Robertson calls Williams “one of our most Whitmanesque poets.” The idea of Williams as a Whitman for our time is not wrong, but it is incomplete and potentially misleading. Yes, Williams arrived in his third collection of poems at a long, sinuous free-verse line that reminds one, at first glance, of Whitman. Yes, one finds in Williams great sympathy for the suffering of others and a willingness to open poetry to a wide range of human experience, including parts of it many of us would rather not see.

Dream-Wizardry: A Collaboration Between Rodger Kamenetz and Michael Hafftka

Jacob and Joseph begat Freud who begat Jung, who begat the poet Rodger Kamenetz and the visual artist Michael Hafftka. Their collaborative wizardry, published in the book To Die Next To You, is stunning. The poems and drawings (always paired) create vivid, waking dreams on psychological and spiritual subjects—dreams that are as resistant and open to interpretation as Pharaoh’s.

The Sand Dancers

“In a faded photo, they dance on shore, / two kids we were, scuffing up bursts of sand; / hands rise and fall in a rapid step-slide-spin.” – a poem by Grace Schulman

Joe Louis’s Fist

“My father said when Louis won, the radio static was a wave / of sound that stayed all night like the riots blocks away in Harlem, / as the scent of lilac and gin wafted down Broadway to his window.” A poem by Peter Balakian.