Poetry Friday: “The Field”

Field by Michael R.P. Ragazzon on FlickrI find solace in the natural world, in those precious moments alone, outside, away from the clutter and din of my material life. In “The Field” by poet, teacher and translator Jennifer Grotz we are invited to an open field “past the convenience store and the train tracks.” She tells us that as a girl, she would escape to this place to “sit on an oblong rock” and observe the crepuscular life and movement around her. Within this meditative poem, Grotz translates the natural world through concentrated and poignant imagery. The sun a “fiery stare blinking shut beneath the horizon” or stars “like needles piercing through velvet.” This poem engages all the senses and we can sit alongside the young poet and ponder why, as a fellow witness to this “naked field” at dusk, we are not so alone after all.  

—Jessica Gigot

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How To Intuit a Book Title

How do poets and writers choose their book titles?

I didn’t have a good answer to the question, Why did you choose the title Love Nailed to the Doorpost?” posed at a recent reading, though I knew that sooner or later that someone would ask. I did have a superficial answer, but I hadn’t thought through metaphorical or thematic meanings suggested by the title.

Honestly, until I read what a few others had to say about my book, I wasn’t even sure that the title pointed to a unifying concern.

Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, Third Temple, Love Nailed to the Doorpost: these are the titles in order of publication, of my four books of poetry.

The title Tekiah (1996) was the result of some brainstorming with friends around the dinner table, probably over Shabbat dinner. The moment a friend shouted out tekiah it stuck. Tekiah: a blast of the shofar, ram’s horn, sounded throughout the period leading up to and including the Jewish Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Chair in the Desert (2000) was one of a number of possible titles on a list I shared with two dear writer friends. The phrase appears in one of a group of poems set in Israel. The specific poem in which the phrase appears is spoken by a minister of immigration “welcoming” new immigrants by dispelling them of fantasies of Jerusalem they may have arrived with and directing them to their new home, their “chair in the desert.”

I found it fairly easy to come up with Third Temple (2007). “Third Temple,” one of the poems in the book that always (with one exception) elicited a favorable response from listeners and readers imagines me offering my (now deceased) 120 pound Chocolate Labrador Retriever “Bubby” as my sacrifice at the third temple in Jerusalem, should that temple ever be built and should the Jews return to the ancient practice of communicating with God by means of animal and other sacrifices.

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Poetry Friday: “The Fawn”

Narrative poetry has its special challenge: how does it differentiate itself from prose? David Mason’s story of his family’s relation to a dying fawn does this in several ways. First there’s the iambic pentameter beat carrying us along. Then wordplay, beginning with the opening line: “The vigil and the vigilance of love.” There’s the internal rhyming of cracked… black… back in the description of the dying fawn on the kids’ garage floor: “And there, quick-breathing on the cracked concrete, / a wounded fawn’s black eyes looked back at us.” There’s the alliterative “b”s in “Our father brought a blanket from the house, / a baby bottle filled with milk…” There’s the return, toward the poem’s end of “The vigil and the vigilance,” encapsulating the meaning for the poet of this childhood incident. There’s the condensed account, in the poem’s two penultimate stanzas, of the family’s later falling apart, captured in the brief images of his parents separating as “desert and woods.”  Finally, there’s the pensive philosophy of the final verse: years as “a winnowing of lives”; the remembered togetherness of feeling, around the dying fawn, “the silence intervene like weather.” All in all, “The Fawn” is a poem I treasure as a narrative reflection on the poignancy of life itself.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Japanese Wall Hanging”

black and white image of a heron in midflight, wings floating above themI find myself reading this poem both literally and as a metaphor for our lives. On the literal level, Moira Linehan focuses with intensely loving detail on the Japanese brush painter. The first four lines list with tender concern all the things that might go wrong in the painting process. The next five lines move into the painter’s being: his years of training, his now “leaning back on his heels” picturing a heron that will soon return to his pond. Then the poem’s final sentence holds its breath, as the painter waits, patiently alert, for hours—waiting for the “floating line” of the heron’s descent to “take over.” In his integrity, the painter can’t draw this line until the heron’s descent first traces it. So, metaphorically, how does this poem suggest a way to live our lives? First, there are the risks inherent in just living. But, then, do we rush ahead, stumbling through each moment, inattentive to harm we might be doing to ourselves or others? Or do we train ourselves, like the Japanese painter, to pay intense attention to what comes to us each moment—and to wait? Of course, we must go about our daily business; but do we do so in an attitude of alertness to whatever perfection might float our way? And do we allow “that floating line” of perfection to “take [us] over”?

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Reading Love Nailed to the Doorpost

If you want to be submerged in the depths of Jewish spirituality, this is the book to read: Love Nailed to the Doorpost, by Richard Chess.

No, not “read”: at least not “read” in the way you would read an email or a newspaper or a novel. The poems and prose-poems collected in this book draw you beneath reading to a meditation, a pause, a reflection, another pause….

And not really “Jewish spirituality”: for Chess’s spirituality, while deeply Jewish, is more deeply his own particular living of Judaism.

Take “Mezuzah,” the poem in which the book’s title appears. It looks deceptively straightforward on the page. But starting right from the epigraphs, we have to be engaged.

From Emily Dickinson we’re given “Tell all the truth but—”; followed by Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love…” In both cases we’re expected to fill in the blanks ourselves. We know that “tell it slant” completes the Dickinson line. And we know that Deuteronomy 6:5 continues with “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).

But if we read further in the Deuteronomy passage we come to God’s command to “Keep these words in your heart…and write them on the doorposts of your house” (6:6-9).

This is the commandment for the mezuzah that’s nailed slant on the doorpost of every Jewish home. Chess’s poem then follows: [Read more…]