About Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. 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. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at www.richardchess.com.

On the 50th Anniversary of the Six-Day War

What I didn’t know in June of 1967 was that this month and year for Jews around the world was the moment of great triumph, the moment of saying to Hitler and his legions, you lose, you lose, you lose. Pride moved like a fever throughout Kingston Estates Swim Club, from the Jewish mother with her iced tea to the Jewish mother seated with mahjong tiles spread out before her, from the Jewish father at the plate to the Jewish father in right field, the perfect arc of the deep fly about to deposit the softball right into the pocket of his gloved hand.

I was thirteen. It was my mother at the mahjong table, my father at bat. It was my summer, my swim club, where my game was tetherball and I drank vanilla milkshakes half-listening to the announcements on the loudspeaker while proudly wearing my green, deep-end band around my wrist. I was a suburban kid, a middle-class assimilated Reform Jew—Israel was a smudge at the edge of my map of interests, concerns.

My eye was set on Robin. She was my promised land. She was the country in which I would prove to the world, the kids on the block, that I wasn’t a Jew; I was a man.

As I write this, it’s coming on June of 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of my ignorance—let’s say my ignorance of Jewish history through which I drifted until, in July 1976, I landed in Tel Aviv, and found myself already written into a book, thousands of pages of which had already been completed, a few of which had hints of me but without naming me or situating me in a trap that I would either need to escape, proving how clever I was, or a trap that I would need to transform into a home, my home among my people.

Among my people, I am one who didn’t fight in the Six-Day War, but was called to Jerusalem nine years later, to the romance of Jerusalem, the freedom of a young American Jew who hadn’t suffered a pain any greater than the heartache of several failed love affairs—if that’s the right way to characterize a girlfriend here and a girlfriend there, the explosions of young bodies in public parks and VW Bugs and creepy motel beds.

But that’s a story for another time. [Read more…]

Passover and Government Presence

The Seder table set on a tablecloth on the floor, flowers in the center in a tall vase, and a stretch of sun across the middle of the table“In what ways do you experience the presence of government—city, county, state, federal—in your life, your daily life, your professional life?”

That’s how we began, with that question. Asking questions, that’s the practice, isn’t it, that leads to liberation? And that’s why we were there that night, wasn’t it, to recount an experience of liberation in the past and to take the first steps toward our own liberation—personal, communal, national, global—in this moment?

A journey that would begin, as it does every year, around a beautifully set table, crowded with symbols, weighed down with books—one on each plate, with history, with a story that isn’t a story, with blessings and plagues, with songs that anchor us with knowledge of who we are and lift us up with rousing melodies.

Except that this year (why was this year’s Seder different from all other Seders?), the Haggadahs (the books), were stacked out of view in the corner of the room as the guests arrived. In their place, afloat on each guest’s plate, was a single sheet of paper on which was printed a seal—the city of Asheville’s seal, or Buncombe county’s seal, or the State of North Carolina’s seal, or the seal of the United States of America. [Read more…]

Dancing with Words During National Poetry Month

Impressionistic painting of an expansive room with vaulted windows that open to the green of the outside. In the room, various dancers gathered by a bar or in the center of the room, practicing pointing their toes and stretching out their legs. They are wearing loose white and pale lavender tutus and leotards. In the left hand corner, an instructor in black sits and observes.Here’s your assignment. Choose a poem you’ve written (it could be any piece of writing, really, an email message, a shopping list, a complaint to a cable service provider, a toast for a wedding—you get the idea. If it’s a poem, chose only a few lines. If it’s another piece of writing, choose a portion of it. Then, translate those lines.

But here’s the thing. Don’t translate a word from one language into its equivalent word in another language. Instead, translate each letter of each word, in the order in which they appear, into an image, a concrete noun or active verb (“be” is an active verb, too!). What does the shape of each letter resemble? That “h”, is it a shovel? That “s”, is it snow or a leaf falling to the ground?

First do a raw translation, letter to word (or words), letter to word, letter to word. Now, using these words, arranging and adding words as needed to write complete sentences, write a poem. Or, if poetry isn’t for you, write a new shopping list! Or a letter to your senator! In this visual language, tell your senator to protect funding for the NEA! Or write a confession to God. [Read more…]

Love Nailed to the Doorpost

black and white image of a mezuzah on the door post of a house. The commandment to love is nailed to my doorpost. Ritualistically written on a little piece of parchment, rolled up, tucked inside a beautifully painted ceramic case, and nailed aslant to the doorpost.

I almost never notice it. Not when I’m rushing out of the house in the morning, book bag and gym bag slung over my shoulder, head down, rushing to the car, desperate to get to campus before the last available parking spot is taken in the lot at my building. It’s not love, I’m thinking about at that moment. It’s convenience.

Not when I’ve been working at home—on a weekday or Saturday (I know, Saturday, Shabbat, I shouldn’t be working!)—and want to walk up the driveway to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. It’s not love I’m thinking about then. It’s hope. Hope for some surprise, though few surprises arrive in the mail anymore. Mostly junk mail and pleas to contribute to a cause, many of them causes that, in my heart.

Not when, with Laurie, I’m heading out for a Saturday night movie. I like love stories. Romantic comedies. Not that we limit ourselves to them. Most recent film: Paterson. Loved it. Definitely a love story: a love of poetry, a tender love story of a bus driver poet and his partner, a cupcake artist, a whimsical designer. Love stirs when I’m watching a good love story on the screen. Are movies my mezuzah? [Read more…]

I Am an American

Shot of three buildings taken looking upward. Behind them, you can see the blue sky with a few clouds. The building in the forefront is to the left of the screen, tan, and has large windows. On a pole strung from the side is an American flag. The flag hangs limply. To the right of the frame, a tall metallic looking building with cross-cross panels of light and dark fills the sky. Behind the flag, in the background, is a tiered building that has a turret and tower at the top.I refresh the page, I refresh the page, I turn away for a few minutes, I teach a class for seventy-five minutes, I sit in a meeting for sixty minutes, and on the way to the meeting, on the way back to my office from the class, with my iPhone in my palm, at the computer on my desk, I refresh the page, I refresh the page, looking for the latest news, hopping over to Facebook for reactions to the morning’s tweets, back to the Times for an update on the latest leak and his response to the leak, looking for the next lie, on alert for the latest outrageously offensive remark.

These are my days now, my nights.

Work is an interruption. A chat with a friend is a partial interruption—for it’s impossible to get through even a short chat without a sigh, without alarm, without reference to what he’s doing and who he’s doing it to now. Picking up my prescription, reading what I’ve assigned my class (Joy Harjo! The Buddha’s Brain!), FaceTime with my grandson—these are interruptions, distractions.

I am a citizen now. I turn my attention back to the news.

What am I doing? What am I doing with you, news, what are you doing with me, news, not the full range of news:  Travel, Arts & Leisure, Sunday Styles, but the single-pointed concentration on news and opinion pieces on that man? [Read more…]