Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Jerome Rothenberg, The President of Desolation & Other Poems
Black Widow Press, 2019, $19.95

Ariel Resnikoff, Unnatural Bird Migrator
The Operating System, 2020, $18.00

In 1974, Jerome Rothenberg published Poland/1931, which remains one of the most important, groundbreaking books in the history of Jewish-American poetry. Determined to create a “supreme yiddish surrealist vaudeville,” a poetry in touch with a suppressed ancestral “world of Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen” (these are quotes from the Pre-Face of his equally important anthology, A Big Jewish Book), Rothenberg, one of the founders of ethnopoetics, performed an unprecedented act of Jewish magic. Theurgic, shamanistic, and utterly transgressive, the poems of Poland/1931—spells, chants, amulets, “word events,” prophetic visions, and verbal collages—looked and sounded like nothing else that any Jewish poet in America (even Allen Ginsberg in Kaddish) had ever written. Even now, returning to the book years after first reading it and writing about it, I still find it a mind-blowing experience.

One of the most enduring innovations of Poland/1931 is Rothenberg’s use of Yiddish. Like a number of Jewish poets of his or the previous generation raised in Yiddish-speaking families (Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Harvey Shapiro, Chana Bloch), Rothenberg’s relationship to Yiddish is that of the vernacular. This does not entirely equate with the Yiddish notion of mameloshen (mother-tongue), but it comes close, for it conveys a sense of the common, the everyday, the homey (or heymish). Yet there is also something strange or uncanny (unheimlich) about Yiddish in Jewish-American poetry, as I explain in the “Ghosts of Yiddish” chapter of my book Like a Dark Rabbi. In Rothenberg’s case, the writing of Poland/1931 involved “a running translation into Yiddish—not a real translation but a pretended voicing in which I dreamed of myself as ‘the last Yiddish poet.’” This dream reaches a phantasmagoric endpoint in “Cokboy,” the notorious concluding poem in Poland/1931, written in an exaggerated stage-Yiddish accent. It then becomes real (although still haunted) in Khurbn (1989), in which Rothenberg channels the Yiddish of his uncle, who joined the Polish partisans but committed suicide when he learned that his wife and children had been killed in Treblinka.

Ariel Resnikoff is an heir to Rothenberg’s innovations, and Yiddish comes back to life again in his first book, Unnatural Bird Migrator. Resnikoff has been on the scene for quite a few years, and unlike most first books, his comes with blurbs from an impressive array of older poets, including Charles Bernstein, Will Alexander, Tyrone Williams, and Adeena Karasick. It also has a preface by Pierre Joris, explanatory statements following every section of the book, and a concluding interview with the poet. Resnikoff is clearly a poet who is willing to enter into discussion of his work, and given his bold multi-lingual experiments, this is all to the good. Resnikoff is fluent in Yiddish and Hebrew, and translation is at the heart of his poetics. (Among his translation projects is a bilingual edition of Processions, a long poem by the Yiddish modernist Mikhl Likht.) Given his experimental bent, his understanding translation is disruptive, and he is suspicious of what he calls “the violence that fluency inflicts on my everyday language practice.” As he explains, “every poem begins for me as an act of translation from an/other—call it ghost—language, & every act of translation is therefore ultimately infused with a translingual poetics.” Here we are very close to the way in which Yiddish haunts Rothenberg’s poetry, and indeed, the two poets have collaborated on work that moves between English and Yiddish. (A chapbook of this translingual collaboration will be published under The Swan imprint at the Kelly Writers House Common Press.) And like Rothenberg, Resnikoff celebrates, and to some extent, models his poetics, on traditional Jewish textuality, though in a decidedly unorthodox fashion.

Resnikoff’s translingual poetics are fully on display in his long opening sequence, Yinglossia. Even given the extraordinary range of contemporary poetic practices, these are very strange poems. Resnikoff conceives of them as possessed, as if the “dybbuk” of Yiddish, along with those of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Akkadian, has entered the body of the English language, and more specifically, his “own ‘odd’ practices, which so mark me as poet, translator, and jew” (49). Hence “Yinglossia”: a radically deformed Yiddish/English glossary—or glossolalia. The result is a peculiar discourse that zigzags between vernacular rant and academic lexicography. The poems seem to be translations from Yiddish, including alternate meanings of certain words or phrases, not all of them accurate or precise. These are inserted in brackets in a mock-scholarly fashion. Many of the poems also perform themselves, self-consciously addressing themselves as speech-acts. Here is an example, from “Lizards Laugh”:

talk & talk & talk yr tongue off! it is said that a jew who works
on the sabbath [lit. an invalid] is not fit to suck a ham. the long
meaningless rigamarole [slang lit. scroll of esther] implanted in
my speech—

Let me note just a few things about this passage. In most of Unnatural Bird Migrator, poems on the verso pages are aligned in a conventional fashion and read from left to right. But poems on the recto pages, including the passage above, are aligned from right to left, even though they are in English and therefore read from left to right. Yiddish and Hebrew, of course, are aligned at the right-hand margin and read right to left. It is almost as if these “translations” are caught between the inscribed forms of both languages. I’m not sure if the Yiddish for “a jew who works on the sabbath” is idiomatically an “invalid,” but such a Jew may as well “suck a ham,” for what he is doing is as forbidden as eating unkosher food. However, I do know that the scroll of Esther is the Megillah, and that word is also used to refer to a long-winded, detailed speech, as in “my lawyer went over the whole megillah with me.” Whether the English “rigmarole” is an accurate synonym is debatable, but one thing is certain: the speaker here, as in so many of these poems, is aware that he is talking endlessly, transgressively, and that a megillah is “implanted in / my speech.” The poet is transformed, as in the sequence “Lick & Spit: Transincantations, into a “false master of sounds,” a demonic verbal force which seeks to make its presence known while at the same time exorcising itself.

Yet Resnikoff also gives us moments of tender irony. One of the most moving poems in Unnatural Bird Migrator is “The Spy”:

At the grocery store in Outremont
I listen to the men ahead of me in line
argue over a posek:
the laws of purification
for a woman.

It is summer;
the sabbath won’t be in
until later,
but the grocery closes
the same time, every week.

“It has been this way for generations,”
reads the sign on the sliding door.
& the pale child pulling at his father’s fringes,
tati, vus tut der goy in undzer grocery store?

Again, the poem needs some unpacking. Outremont is a neighborhood in Montreal with a large Hasidic community. A posek is a scholar who makes decisions based on Talmudic law; in this case, he has made a debatable decision regarding niddah, the laws governing women’s ritual purity. Both tradition and halakhic law rule in this community: legally, the store could stay open later because it not yet the sabbath, but traditionally, it always closes at the same time, whether it is actually the sabbath or not. The child pulls on the tzitzits, the fringes of his father’s tallis katan, his ritual undergarment, a typical childish gesture, as he asks, “Father, what is the goy doing in our grocery store?” But the “goy,” ironically, is no goy at all—he is the poet, dressed, presumably, in secular garb, but secretly fluent in Yiddish, the language being spoken all around him. In short, he is a spy, dressed differently and seemingly ignorant of the ways of the community, even to the extent that it is assumed he is not a Jew. And yet he is indeed a Jew, another sort of Jew, almost unimaginable in this Orthodox setting.

Indeed, one of the best things about Unnatural Bird Migrator is the way in which it plays with the notion of Jews as other—other, of course, to the larger non-Jewish world, but also other to different groups of Jews, and most importantly, other to themselves. In the title poem, which is based on a silkscreen and acrylic work by the artist Michael Sgan-Cohen, a work that is itself based on the famous 14th-centry Birds’ Head Haggadah, where people are depicted with bird heads, Resnikoff writes of the “thin borders / btwn “i” & my / nest” (143). Linguistically and culturally, this is the preeminent Jewish experience.

*         *         *

If Rothenberg’s influence is palpable in as recent a book as Resnikoff’s, what, we may ask, is Rothenberg himself up to at present? This year Rothenberg will turn ninety. His bibliography of poetry, translations, and anthologies is enormous; he is an international literary presence, with readers and admirers in every corner of the globe. My engagement with his work has been focused on his roots in Jewish literature and culture, but the range of his poetics is breathtaking, and he is himself the truest exemplar of the phrase with which he has become associated: the symposium of the whole. As a current instance of his restless literary intelligence, The President of Desolation & Other Poems is vintage Rothenberg, a poetic synthesis of recent events and cultural history, written in the midst of the horrific Trump regime and expanding outward to embrace the works of writers and artists who have likewise borne witness to the political disasters of their times. “Enclosed by matter / all my thoughts / scream for prophecy” (11): under such dire circumstances, the poet is given no choice but to assume the prophetic mantle and give testimony to the disasters of his time.

The title sequence is as powerful a poetic condemnation of Trump as I have seen (and at this point we’ve all seen a great many), playing repeatedly on Marx’s famous line from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Rothenberg treats Trump’s pomposity and raging narcissism with angry hyperbole and scatological imagery (Rothenberg has always been a great poet of bodily excess), but the poems are also terribly poignant, as the poet sadly admits that “this is the price of / growing old / the progress truly / of a state // of mind / America / the center / both // of mind / the gap / & mindless space” (116). The tragedy of having to face the nation’s moral failure in one’s old age is felt in every line, not only in this sequence but also in the more existentially and spiritually oriented “A Round of Solipsisms for my 86th birthday,” in which Rothenberg declares that “wisdom is a lie / only the dead / can see through / & reject” (130). Nevertheless, from these feelings of tragic loss, a dark gnostic truth emerges: “no one can know / or wrest from me / something I carry / until the fire starts // its hidden name / apocalypse / intended for me / alone” (131).

What makes Rothenberg’s vision so compelling in this book, however, is that he is not content to speak to and of present-day events and personal feelings. A powerful ekphrastic sequence, “The Disasters of War: after Goya,” responding to the set of prints that Goya produced between 1810 and 1820 (the images are reproduced with the poems), is indeed “a new page / from the book of witness / dropping from the sky” (83). Rothenberg channels Goya’s horror as we face these brutal pictures: the dead become “spirits / dibbiks who will never / find a home” (61). And yet they do find a home, set to rest in the work of both artist and poet, since “those who have died / for nothing / die for truth / no longer / but construct their own” (97). Sacrificing oneself for a personal truth, however lost or misguided, also applies to “The Pound Project,” a set of poems which appropriate lines from Pound himself, interrogating his fascism and antisemitism while at the same time memorializing his genuine contributions to modern poetry. Here is one of the darkest and most revealing:

the yidd is a stimulant
and the goyim are cattle

& the words once written
stay writ all his words
coming back to the speaker
laying him flat.

What a downfall I had
& what havens I reached for
too late. None remained
to embrace me, but

jews, real jews, not shades
in my head but avengers. (111-112)

The voice in the poem moves between that of Rothenberg and Pound (this is the case for the all the poems in the sequence); Pound’s regrets, such as they were, are juxtaposed against the desire for revenge on the part of Jewish poets who learned a great deal from Pound while at the same time finding his prejudices odious. “I lost track of eternity / that makes things new” (110) declares Rothenberg’s Pound: to make it new, as Pound famously urged, requires a sense of the timely, but the timeless as well.

The President of Desolation ends with a moving elegy to the poet David Antin (1932-2016), one of Rothenberg’s closest friends, with whom he developed many of his most important contributions to modern poetics: “I do not see you / any longer / but know the voice / full in my mind // so much like mine / someone had said / imagination all / that makes it sound” (180-181). Antin’s famous talk poems, improvised performances which carried the ethnopoetic concept of the inspired, embodied voice to its logical extreme, are marked by his Jewish New York accent, which bears a distinct similarity to Rothenberg’s own. To be a Jewish poet, as Rothenberg, and Resnikoff both understand, is to be possessed by dybbuks, voices carried by the Jewish imagination. These books by two poets, young and old, prove this to be true.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 3/13/2021 at 1:00 PM