About Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

The Best Conditions for Work

Flying BookFor William Carlos Williams

I work best alone. In an empty house.

When I’m ready to work, I take down the sun-faded poster of the Miro museum from my Barcelona honeymoon twenty-six years ago.

I pull the pilled sweaters down from the shelf in the closet—the sweater Nana Sarah knitted for me decades ago, the post-Christmas sale sweaters my wife buys and buys for me: V neck and crew, cardigan, cotton, and wool. Into a trunk they go. When I’m settled in comfort and bulk, I cannot imagine.

Thousands of titles—broken and unbroken spines—swept from bookshelves, dumped into cardboard boxes and shouldered downstairs, through the garage, into the yard. The easy victory of another poet’s epiphany: not for me. [Read more…]

My Prayer Is Not Prayer

Morning light curtainsMy prayer is not prayer, not exactly. It includes words. It may even begin with words: “Modeh ani l’fanecha / grateful am I in your presence; baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech Haolam, hanotein laya-eif ko-ach / Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who gives strength to the weary; ahavah rabbah ahavtanu / with a deep, expansive, manifold love do You love us.”

The words illuminate aspects of my experience. This morning, in the car on the way to an appointment with a urologist, I remembered that a couple of days ago I had set a quiet intention to say modeh ani at some point every morning. Tradition teaches Jews to say those words immediately upon waking: first words of the day. I’ve tried that practice and found it mostly frustrating.

Because I am a troubled sleeper, I feel alarmed when the tone called “ripples” sounds on my phone. When I hear that sound, the first words that usually come to me are, “How am I going to get through this day on almost no restorative let alone nourishing sleep?” Frustrated, embattled, defeated, afraid: that’s how I feel many mornings upon waking. [Read more…]

Caution: National Poetry Month

Aesthetic LightHow do you know if it’s a poem?

Maybe it’s a month, a month-at-a-glance, many days lined with appointments to exchange energy in cells, rows, examination rooms, fields with clients, colleagues, patients, classmates. But, ah, a few blank, spacious days.

Maybe it’s an old-fashioned phone book, the white pages with everything you need to call (or recall) a distant cousin, a local star, a first kiss.

Maybe it’s pre-op, the nurse anesthetist, a tree of life, trying to comfort you. Oh lazy kabbalist, your left eye dull, no divine emanation to be found there, not even when your daughter, holding your hand while fluid drips into your vein, looks deeply, lovingly to draw forth the hidden light.

The last dark poem you loved, the poem you wanted to love you back and live with you under a bridge: how did you know it was a poem and not a prescription for despair?

It’s been so long since you visited Uncle A for breakfast, the elegant table, a grapefruit half glistening with sugar crystals before you. How is your Jewish detective novel coming along, you ask him? Are you disappointed with heaven, or is it hell or somewhere in between? I don’t know the day of your yahrzeit, you tell him, or I would say Kaddish for you, you lie. [Read more…]

Choose Life, North Carolina

workersThis day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live. —Duet. 30:19

Once again, my state, North Carolina, has chosen to refuse life. This time in a hastily called emergency session of the General Assembly, racing to beat the clock, the day when an ordinance to protect LGBT people from discrimination and to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify was scheduled to go into effect. Thus, the General Assembly passed House Bill 2, a bill that bans transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with and nullifies local ordinances around the state that would have protected gay and transgender people from being fired because of their sexual identity or preference.

Once again, my state, North Carolina, has chosen to refuse life, while locally elected officials in cities and counties chose to protect life in all its complex, strong and tender and beautiful diversity.

Unlike the political leaders of my state, I choose life. Here are two places where, in the last couple of days, I have found myself opening to include more life in my awareness. [Read more…]

Changing Positions: A Meditation for Campaign Season

Mount Ranier photo(With help from Donovan, D. T. Suzuki, Qingyuan Weixin, Wallace Stevens, democracy, REM, Bonnie Raitt, David Bowie, Stanley Kunitz, neuroscience, Torah, Ben Bag Bag, The Rabbis, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, you.)

First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is. Donovan, are you flip-flopping? Or is it you, mountain?

It was snowing / And it was going to snow. Which is it, Mr. Stevens, the actual weather or the forecast? You want it both ways?

§

It’s primary season in America. I don’t know who to fear more, Trump or his supporters.

All the chest-pounding, bullying, demonizing, dissembling, threats: they’re going to pay for it; I’d like to punch that protester in the face.

Do you disavow?

And the crowds cheer, how they cheer.

§

That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion. Choosing my confession.

§

A long time in the spotlight.

Someone stands on a stage in a field, a hall, an arena and feeds a crowd what they hunger for.

Someone’s been too long at the fair. Eating data. [Read more…]


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