To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, April 17, 2010

From “The House of Jews: Experimental Modernism & Traditional Jewish Practice”

To celebrate the publication of Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris in the University of Alabama Press’s Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series, the following was the opening section of my own contribution:

Every time I appear in a Jewish anthology – except those of my own devising – something goes wrong. Lines are omitted or placed out of sequence, prose is set as verse or verse as prose, and footnotes are used that represent an editor’s imagining of what a word might mean or a place-name represent. I believe that the God of the Jews has something to do with this – a punishment for my deliberate withdrawal from Him or Her or It. Or else, to be more Jewish about it in the manner of a writer whom I admire and have even drawn from, it is as if one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s imps or demons had been there to gum up my works – not when I’m being a Jew on my own terms but when I give in to temptation and let myself be part of somebody else’s order or communion.[1]
[1] Made-up but inaccurate footnotes in Norton Anthology of Jewish-American Literature; prose changed to verse in Princeton University Library Chronicle (Jewish-American issue, gathered by C.K. Williams); poem truncated & missing part added to another poem, in Steven J. Rubin, Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry.
I will speak, then, on my own terms [my own grounds], though with continuing doubts as to whether there is any particular “radical poetic practice” that can be viewed as distinctively Jewish. That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Jews (however defined) who have been active in avant-garde [or twenteth- and twenty-first-century] poetics, still less to deny that many [perhaps too many] Jewish poets have actively engaged in a Jewish version of identity writing, though I don’t think that that’s what “radical practice” is intended to mean in the present context. I would also say, in my own case at least, that I would be willing to construct a connection between aspects of traditional Jewish linguistic practice (much of it religious or mystical rather than secular) and current [modernist] forms of poetic [i.e. language] experimentation. I have in fact done this at some length, along with a proposition that Jewish history has been marked as well by an ongoing and more obvious resistance, by the Great Refusal, as I once put it, to the lie of church and state. [Include here synagogue as well – at least for some of us.] That resistance may not have been secular in the first instance, but it carried the mark of outsider or outrider traditions (to use Anne Waldman’s word); or that was how it felt to me when I first turned to it.

It was in the sense of such an outsiderness – and placing it clearly in “this most Christian of worlds” – that Marina Tsvetayeva spoke of all poets as Jews [much like Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” of the 1950s]. That was in her poem “Poem of the End,” later quoted by Paul Celan in the cyrillic epigraph to his own poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa” and by me in A Big Jewish Book, where it became a central proposition of the stand I was then taking. My argument here wasn’t for some kind of Jewish exclusiveness but toward a recognition that such resistances existed both there and elsewhere and that my address, in Tsvetayeva’s sense, was to “all poets” or to all poets who share the outrider stance or to all, poets and others, who resist the rule of totalizing states and constrictive religions. I saw myself – then as now – not writing in a specifically Jewish context for a Jewish audience as such, but opening the Jewish mysteries to all who wanted them. And I dramatized some of that in the dream that opens A Big Jewish Book:

There was a dream that came before the book, & I might as well tell it. I was in a house identified by someone as THE HOUSE 0F JEWS, where there were many friends gathered, maybe everyone I knew. Whether they were Jews or not was unimportant: I was & because I was I had to lead them through it. But we were halted at the entrance to a room, not a room really, more like a great black hole in space. I was frightened & exhilarated, both at once, but like the others I held back before that darkness. The question came to be the room's name, as if to give the room a name would open it. I knew that, & I strained my eyes & body to get near the room, where I could feel, as though a voice was whispering to me, creation going on inside it. And I said that it was called CREATION.

I now recognize that dream as central to my life, an event & mystery that has dogged me from the start. I know that there are other mysteries – for others, or for myself at other times, more central – & that they may or may not be the same. But CREATION – poesis writ large – appeared to me first in that house, for I was aware then, & even more so now, that there are Jewish mysteries that one confronts in a place no less dangerous or real than that abyss of the Aztecs

. . . a difficult, a dangerous place, a deathly place: it is dark, it is light. . .

& with a sense too that this space must be bridged, this door opened as well – the door made just for you, says the guardian in Kafka's story. Yet Kafka, like so many of us, poses the other question also: “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself …”

That last, of course, is an extraordinarily Jewish statement.

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