The Most Challenging Book

This year, I’ll place my hope in books—history, poetry, Torah, and that most challenging book of all, the book of my life. Everything is in it—good and bad. I’ll try to catch myself when I’m tempted to skim, skip, cut words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, pages, entire chapters that challenge and complicate the simple narrative I’d like my days and nights to tell.

Sinéad

I actually don’t think there are words that properly convey what Sinéad conveyed with her music and this is precisely the point. The words mostly get in the way. They are too precise or not precise enough. The things that Sinéad was trying to say are not communicated as declarative sentences or explanations or anything like that. More than anything, what Sinéad did, I think, was to make sounds.

Dancing Toward Common Memory

I was briefly in Santa Fe, New Mexico last month, where a good friend insisted we pay a visit to the Monroe Gallery of Photography. The storefront space displays images from a century of photojournalism: iconic pictures from the US civil rights era, quirky takes on famous writers, moody landscapes, and candid moments in the lives of ordinary people. Among the more recent images was a 2020 color photo of a nineteen-year-old native of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo dancing on a stone platform.

All Things New

I’m going to have to bow out for a little while. In the middle of life’s way I have suddenly returned to school to study environmental science and law. Whether this is wandering in a dark woods—and if it is, whether I will emerge on the right side of the woods—time will tell. I don’t think of this wandering as a complete career shift, as I still have literary work to publish.

David Whyte’s Words

I can’t remember what moved me to pick up David Whyte’s recently revised Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words; but I’m having trouble putting it down. With the Table of Contents a list of common words in alphabetical order—and with a flip-through showing three to ten paragraphs per entry—you might think you’ve got in your hands a sort of dictionary. But you’ve got nothing of the sort.

To Find Wholeness (Holiness) in the Rubble of Our Lives

By the time I got there, the walls had been down for nearly two millennia. The actual Temple walls. That was the year when, on the Western slopes of Israel’s Hula Valley, in a high school classroom used for Shabbat services, I was first drawn into Jewish prayer. May You rebuild it soon in our days, Jerusalem, the Temple, I prayed.

Riding the Waves

We’ll ride the waves of Virgil’s consciousness first as the poet arrives in port and is borne through Brundisium’s streets on a litter, then as he languishes through the night in torment over whether to destroy his unfinished epic, the Aeneid, and then the next morning as he argues with Augustus Caesar against Augustus’s insistence that he preserve it.

An Invitation to Close Reading

When Karen Armstrong writes “Nature does not figure prominently in Judaism and Christianity,” in a chapter which looks mainly at Islam (she goes on to imply this is not the case in Islam and that in that religion, unlike in the other two, nature is a revelation on par with the Qur’an—which is of course also what Jews and Christians believe about the Bible and nature)—when she makes such a sweeping statement, I balk.

Revisiting Proust: Strolling Through Luscious, Long, Winding Sentences

Novels are my bedtime reading. I especially like very long novels—so that there’s an already familiar world I can re-enter each night. So when I decided to take Swann’s Way off my shelf and up to bed with me, I knew I was in for months of Proust’s unique world created in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.

The Nightmare

I had occasion recently to watch the 1986 film Gothic. It’s a Ken Russell film and if you have ever seen a Ken Russell film, you know already that it is going to be over-the-top to say the very least. The film purportedly tells the story of the night that Mary Shelley conceived her classic novel Frankenstein. Through most of the film, the actors roam around a house and its immediate environs behaving wildly and with increasing levels of insanity.

Praying with Poets

What do they think of me, the core group of worshippers at Congregation Beth Israel, the independent conservative shul to which I belong, when, once a month, I lead an alternative contemplative Shabbat service in the small chapel while they davven (pray) the traditional service in the main sanctuary? I join them when I finish leading our group in chanting, meditating, and reflection.

Learning to Like the French

My interior life often proves a struggle between Teutonic Ordnung and Gallic laissez-faire. I’ve seen my German roots on visits to the Vaterland: tidy vegetable gardens like the one my father kept, a measured propriety bordering on obsessive-compulsion, and a dreamy Romanticism often overlooked by outsiders for whom German history and culture is a monotonous succession of wurst and potatoes, oom-pah-pa bands and lederhosen, and—most of all—lust for power and unspeakable atrocities.

Close Reading “The Declaration of Independence”

I think the closest close reading I’ve ever come across is the 2014 book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by political philosopher Danielle Allen. Notice that I didn’t say that this close reading is “in the book.” No, the entire book itself is a close reading.

Studies in the Future Religion

I am always troubled by two things which are really one thing. One thing, or one part of this big thing, is religion: Why does it seem so broken now, so impossible? And the other part is the ecological crisis: How can my work as a writer, teacher, or father answer to these uncanny times?

See So That Others May See

Carolyn Forché is now a celebrated American poet. But she was far from that on the day in the late 1970s when a car pulled up outside the remote California beach house that she was renting. The driver idled the engine, then finally turned it off. At that, Forché, alone in the house and busily typing, noticed the sudden silence and became apprehensive. In her gripping memoir What You Have Heard is True, she narrates what happened next.

Recovering Words

I suppose it’s sort of incestuous to write a blog post about another blog. But so be it. And anyway, Richard Osler’s website Recovering Words is much more than a blog. It does include posts. But the site also features descriptions of retreats that Richard offers on poetry as prayer, on poetry writing, and on poetry for recovering addicts; quotes by a range of writers about poetry; poems by some of his favorite poets; some of his own poetry; and more.

The Sorrow of War

I was reminded of Bao Ninh’s impossible prose style recently. I was sent a book by a person named Cab Tran, who co-translated and edited a new collection by Boa Ninh. It is called Hanoi at Midnight. In the book, Ninh is still thinking about the past. The War still haunts him. But war is also always more than war with Bao Ninh.

I Just Need to Hear the Voice

I don’t know the desert. I’ve slept in a palm-branch hut, rented for $1 a night from a Bedouin, by the Red Sea in the Sinai Peninsula when it was under Israeli control. I’ve spent hours in a broken down Jeep waiting for help somewhere in the Sinai. I’ve watched the sunrise from atop Masada in the Judean Desert. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Joshua Tree National Park, where two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, meet.

Dispatches From the Front

To describe Lindsey Royce’s new collection, The Book of John, as a poetic meditation on her husband’s death from stomach cancer underestimates the scope of her project. The book’s opening poem, “Where Do We Carry the Dead?,” hints at what the remainder undertakes: practices of remembrance, the persistence of love, the ultimate unknowability of the other, an anti-theodicy indicting what a later poem calls a “Godthing.”

Learning to Read Again

All spring, I have been trying to re-learn to read. I’m in a book club with a group of women friends in my neighborhood—the kind of book club that focuses on the book, rather than the wine. (Caffeine, actually, is better with this group, because one must always be ready to heed to the sharp discussion.) This month, our book is Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.