As I was reading through Richard Michelson’s new poetry collection, Sleeping as Fast as I Can, recently published by Slant Books, I felt I was reading his memoir. Not in a chronological sense—but because so many of the poems narrate or evoke events in his life. As he says in “Literature of the Body,” “But here I am, quiet / as death, writing my life, and sleeping as fast as I can.”
On Shavuot, a few weeks from now, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, I want to stand at Sinai. But if I haven’t joined those taken out of Egypt, how can I? And do I really want to be present for the divine revelation? Do I really want to feel commanded not nudged, as I mostly do now, by Jewish law, to, say, keep the Sabbath?
When I am writing about subjects that touch my emotional life—my mother’s decent into dementia, my father’s murder—the forms help me constrain the passion, which heightens the energy. On a more prosaic level, my mother was a lover of crossword puzzles and word games, and there is definitely an element of challenge and fun for me to work in strict forms. Plus, I just like the way sonnets look on the page.
Lo yadanu. “We do not know what has happened to him.” Moses, that is. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him’” (Gen 32:1).
Some months ago I decided to read Vergil’s Aeneid, all of it, in Latin. A rash idea, given my spotty knowledge of the language. But curiosity and the uneasiness of having missed some essential wisdom by not having met the Aeneid in Latin drove me on.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to fantasy is that I believe it offers the deepest sense of place that art can express. The criterion of fantasy is geographical. Fantasy is that form of storytelling which engages with the world that in the West for almost the past thousand years has been called Faerie (variously spelled). Faerie both is and is not this Earth.
In my imagination, a vav lives in me. I visualize it, the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, along the length of my spine. The other letters of the tetragrammaton, too: yud, the 10th letter, rising like the small flame of an eternal light from the crown of my head; hey, the fifth letter, its roof stretching across my shoulders and its walls protecting each side of my torso, and, following vav, the second hey, its upper line resting on my hips, and its two parallel lines running down the sides of my legs.
I’m always a bit in awe of poems where the rhymes intertwine. By “intertwine,” I mean that there’s rhyme-linkage between stanzas. (We could just as well call it interlocking or interlacing rhyme.) Of course the locus classicus for intertwining rhymes is the terza rima that Dante invented in The Divine Comedy.
I’ve lain or languished on various gurneys in our local hospital’s ED in recent days—cardiac and GI disorders brought me there. But I’m not thinking now about the medical issues involved. I’m thinking rather about what enabled me to find joy and solace in what was otherwise a painful, tedious, disorienting, frightening experience. It all has to do with sounds, beautiful sounds, sounds echoing across centuries. Sounds that I’ve managed to memorize over the years.
If, as is the case, the word “anthology” derives from a combination of Greek words meaning, “gathering of flowers,” then most poetry anthologies might best be described as mixed bouquets. Readers search them for a few spectacular roses and lilies amid the humbler baby’s breath and fern fronds that fill out the collection. Yet I suspect its far easier for twenty people to agree on the beauty of a particular flower than the merits of a recently written poem.
Gawain and the Green Knight begins in Christmastime, the turning of the year, historically a time of revelry and mischief. I like to read Gawain in this season, but this year I decided to watch the film The Green Knight, which came out in the summer of 2021, after observing on social media that it is apparently divisive, people either love it or hate it.
Recently I pulled some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry off my shelf, because I hadn’t read it for a while—not even since her death in 2010. Opening her books now and browsing in them felt like re-connecting with an old friend. The first thing that always strikes me about Clifton’s poetry is what’s missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines.
I remember the American Poetry Review, March, 1977, page 26, cows and bald hills of Tennessee and rabbis of Brooklyn, their foreheads “wrinkled” as their “gigantic lips moved / through the five books of ecstasy, grief, and anger.” That’s from “Psalms,” one of twelve poems by Gerald Stern, whose photo on the cover showed his own gigantic, Jewish lips.
Roger Kamenetz has published nine volumes of poetry. Each builds on his prior work, often revisiting, reconsidering, and reimagining previous poems in the Jewish tradition of midrash. As one critic observes, Kamenetz “recovers Jewishness as a field for discourse, not sentimentalized imagery. In direct and imaginative address, he puts the question of Jewishness under discussion with large parts of honesty and humor.”
I have been a reader of Hölderlin for many years. I took down his collected poems and read his hymns to the Virgin Mary and Patmos, his elegy “Bread and Wine” and his river poems (on the Main, the Neckar, the Rhine, the Ister).… They are fraught, paradoxical poems that display majestic architecture, and they brought me some peace.
So here it is: a quiz game for Close Reading readers. Below are fifteen famous first lines from famous literary works. The sources (the answers) are given below the line of asterisks after the final quote. But DON’T PEEK; it’ll spoil your fun.
I heard of shy Caedmon, sneaking out of the feast before the harp was passed to him, for he could not sing, and he fell asleep in the barn by the animals he was charged to keep and dreamed of an angel who told him to sing, so sing he did, of the creation first and then of every other holy tale until no great thing God had done had failed to find its way into English.
The process of translating from one language to another is often called an art. The late Italian medievalist and novelist Umberto Eco, aware of translation’s inherent difficulties, called it, “the art of failure.” Every attempt is inexact and partial, getting some things spot on, whiffing at others. Translators are continually forced to compromise, choosing the least flawed option while rendering the original in the target language and—devotees of the King James version aside—no one translation proves definitive, once and for all.
It’s the last place I’d have expected to find my Uncle Karl. That’s Karl Shapiro: my mother’s brother, 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning poet who was celebrated in his time, appointed Poet Laureate in 1946-7, editor of Poetry 1959-56, awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1968. But Karl is practically unknown today.
When our son died, I was struck by a phrase my wife repeated both shortly after his death and in the nearly five years since: “Where are you, Daniel?” We need to imagine a somewhere for those we love. I think, in part, that need is connected to our greatest fear—that those we love simply disappear without a trace as time passes.