Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Philip Terman, This Crazy Devotion
Broadstone Books, 2020, $22.95

This Crazy Devotion, Philip Terman’s sixth collection of poetry, is aptly titled. Not that these poems are crazy—I find them quite sane and centered—unless, perhaps, we take crazy as a synonym for passionate. Terman is certainly an enthusiast; there is a passion for his subject in every poem he writes. As for the subjects to which he is so devoted, in his new book they are quite apparent, as they have been in his earlier work: his family, his home, his garden, the natural world of rural northwestern Pennsylvania, where he has lived for many years, Judaism and the Yiddishkeit of his early years growing up in Cleveland. His language is clear, straightforward, and personally expressive: think Philip Levine, James Wright, Larry Levis (one of the most moving poems in the volume is about reading Levis’s last work). In terms of a specifically Jewish-American poetry, Terman has written with great insight about the poetry of Chana Bloch, and like Bloch, he understands how an apparently transparent poem can cunningly pull us into the depths. In this respect, he writes, like Bloch or like Harvey Shapiro (though not in Shapiro’s urban context) a kind of modern Jewish wisdom literature.

This is not, however, a wisdom born of skepticism. If we were to position Terman in terms of traditional Jewish religious attitudes, his passion for God’s creation and his openness to worldly experience would place him closer to Hasidism than to its opponents, the rationalistic Mitnagdim. He is a populist rather than an elitist, and he identifies strongly with the quasi-mythical figures he calls in his opening poem, “Tormented Meshuggenehs,”

...the rabbis who wandered
all over and off this world,
measuring distance between our dreams and the stars,

the ones who wrote the testaments,
the commentaries on the commentaries,
the interpreters, the ones who exclaimed:

You haven’t seen nothing yet!
This world is but preparation!
(3)

I’m not sure which rabbis Terman has in mind, but I guess that’s not the point. Religious enthusiasm equates to poetic enthusiasm, and like many poets, Terman is inventing his spiritual forbears. While the poet and his family “eat of the soil— / basil into pesto, tomatoes into sauce,” he invokes these “so-called masters” to “disclose the secrets only you know.” Meanwhile, “We move from book to garden, from garden to book.” “Why look deeper than the garment of the moment?” he asks, and that seems to be one of these rabbinical meshuggenehs’ deepest secrets.

Every poetic style has its risks. Prophetic romanticism can go rhetorically overboard and fall into incoherence. The pedagogical intent behind the historicism of The Cantos or The Maximus Poems can turn the poetry into something resembling an encyclopedia article. The insouciance of the New York School occasionally borders on cuteness. The theory behind language writing is frequently more interesting than the poetry itself. In Terman’s case, the risk involved in his straightforward, expressive, first-person free verse is sentimentality. Terman understands this and takes up the challenge. “Of Longing and Chutzpah” (he often sprinkles his poems with Yiddish) is a sequence in memory of his mother. The Jewish mother! The Jazz Singer, Reznikoff’s Kaddish, Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Portnoy’s Complaint, and an uncounted number of Jewish jokes (“Help! Help! My son the doctor is drowning!”). Need I say more? Yet Terman successfully steers a course with remarkable aplomb, partly because, indeed, his mother was one chutzapadik lady, earthy, vital, and at times almost mythic, at least in the eyes of her son. In the first poem, she gives mouth to mouth resuscitation to a man rescued at the pool:

and like God breathing into Adam,
releases all of her breath into this stranger,

and I am full of anger and longing,
and he gasps and spits, his eyes opening,

and the crowd stepping back and gawking
at my mother, who is hovering, and he rises. (35)

A hovering spirit, a female emanation of divinity, a bringer of life—the Shekhinah. But then again, we learn in the next poem,

To save money, my mother leads me
to the bathroom, sits me down
on the toilet, flashes the rusty scissors
in the dim light, The Honeymooners
audible from the next room. She snips
until I protest, then snips some more,
sculpting me into the straight-A student,
the boy that helps around the house,
the boy she wants to be a mensch
and marry a Jewish woman but
doesn’t forget his mother, building
her a home for her declining years
and, when the time comes, lights
a candle and recites the kaddish
on her yahrzeit. Snip, snip, snip. (36)

The mother “sculpting” the son into a mensch—despite the scissors, this is not a caricature of the castrating mother (think about Portnoy’s mother standing over him with a knife to make him eat), and yet she is a figure to be respected. She embarrasses Terman at open mic night, reading a poem about his conception. She steals (or at least fails to return) shopping carts from the local grocery store, so that her son has to secretly return them. And when she dies on Simchat Torah, when in the synagogue Jews finish reading the Torah and begin it again, “at that precise moment, between the last words and the first,” it is because, as Terman tells her, “You know the whole story by heart” (47). In each of these poems, the language is sharp and precise, the lines carefully measured (even when they are quite long, they never sound prosy), and the dry wit supports the deeply felt affection.

Throughout This Crazy Devotion, Terman’s love of family, his strong sense of domesticity, and his willingness to risk sentimentality all serve to create a cyclical vision of time which is in turn connected to the hints of myth we find in his otherwise realistic portraiture. In a poem for his wife, “Sweet Fruit of Recurrence,” this notion is addressed directly, as the couple partake of blintzes frozen months before:

We smother them with sauce from strawberries
we picked and sliced and mashed with sugar and stored

last summer or was it the summer before last? I’m confused:
how time slips—sour cream sticks to the hairs of my beard.

Or is it my grandfather’s tongue that savors each crumb? (77)

To be sure, current history sometimes intervenes in what could otherwise be construed as completely idyllic poetry. The murders in the Pittsburgh synagogue of eleven congregants on October 27, 2018 are memorialized in “A Minyan Plus One,” an artful and restrained poem which draws on the Torah portion of that week, in which Abraham bargains with God over the destruction of Sodom. It is, in effect, an elegy as tribal act of mourning: “I didn’t know them, but I knew them / in the way we know those raised, // no matter where we originated, / in the same beliefs as our ancestors...” (29). However, the fact that we are facing alarmingly increased antisemitism in a period of what amounts to incipient fascism does not come into play. Likewise, in “Darwish and Amichai Share Poems in Heaven,” we find the souls of the two great poets, “indistinguishable in the light,” with “each listening hard / to each other’s language” (23)—to which I am tempted to reply, yes, only in heaven, but certainly not in “the same homeland” of Israel and Palestine back here on earth.

The last section of This Crazy Devotion is a long sequence called “Garden Chronicle,” a rich, deeply satisfying set of poems in which Terman stretches out formally and writes from the heart of his domestic world. The family labors over the raised bed of the garden, and Terman labors over his poems: “...rows of tomatoes, rows / like lines in stanzas, and so // the garden is a poem, its verse / a little formal, a little free...” (89). Biblical references abound; Whitman, Dickinson, and James Wright make appearances; the pastoral mode is renewed as Terman declares that “the more I sit among the flowers— / the roses and the irises and the peonies— / the more like a flower I become” (94). The poet leads an old friend, a Viet Nam vet who seems to have endured terrible suffering (“the divorce, the heroin, / the anger, the abandoned / son”) through the garden, and he is granted a respite: “All this growth! / Such abundance” (93). And in the true spirit of pastoral verse, death casts its shadow:

...Will we be together
in the emptiness? Will we spill

into each other’s ears the abundance
 of our affection? Wind uplifts grasses,
September’s sharp sun softening.
 We want to see the whole thing,

 the burning flames, the dispersed ashes.
We want to know where it all goes,
 the garden enacting its dying
in preparation for its next life. (96)

Terman is at his best here, a humane poet of abundance celebrating familial love as it is folded into the natural cycle, a singer of the senses and of recurrent ritual, which pull him toward metaphysical speculation. His crazy devotion is deeply consoling.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 9/12/2020 at 12:00 PM