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…]

Poetry Friday: “Prayer”

I used to collect poems that are prayers, so Sharon Cumberland’s “Prayer” immediately leapt out at me from the pages if Image. Leapt out—but then instantly grabbed me uncomfortably in the opening line: “Ignore, O Mystery, this thing You made.” The speaker’s plea to God is not for connection but for separation. Why? Because, as the next lines explain, the speaker feels merely a “thing”—so utterly different from God that she fears even “to conjure You with prayer.” So this will be a prayer about the terrors of praying. Further along, with the line “Hold me, O Mystery,” we think that the relation has changed, that the speaker now longs for connection with God—until the following line (“in your sidelong view”) brutally cuts off any connection in that startling “sidelong view.” The plea to “hold me,” it turns out, is a plea not for physical warmth but for a chilling separation. The poem closes by returning to its opening prayer, but with a difference: the line-breaks now put the speaker as “thing” and a trembling “me” at lines’ ends—until the final, still distant, terrifying “You.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “June Prayer”

image of the shape of a window falling onto a green wall by a staircase from the sun.How to pray for someone bent over by grief when nature is stretching upward in the June sunshine? This is the question posed by Robert Cording’s “June Prayer.” We learn in the course of the poem that the young son of a woman “I love” has died months ago, and that she asks the poet to pray for relief from her grief. Much of this poem’s action takes place in the final words of lines whose grammar runs into the next line (in what is technically called enjambment). Take line 2’s “I know”: it sounds like the beginning of a statement of certainty until we drop into the “only” of the next line. Or line 6’s “Lord, take pity”: we expect this to be a prayer for the woman, but it turns out to be a plea for pity “on this prayer.” Or later in the poem “Lord, the sun is…” drops into “stronger,” a strength we’d pray for the woman herself. Then “all she sees” leaves us hanging, until it settles onto “the boys she must forgive each day” for simply being alive. Finally, there’s the enjambment of the poem’s closing sentence. The poet prays that the woman might be released “from her season of captivity in the dark”—which we take to be the darkness of her grief, until in the final line it becomes “the dark / belly of memory where she waits for you.” That is, for God.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Key”

I love this poem for its exuberance. The fat bee, “big as a blackberry,” bumping heavily against the pane. The impossibility of an acorn’s power. The very idea of “infant waterfalls.” Each vivid, particular thing of beauty from the natural world that Friman presents to us bears itself simply and humbly– yet appears remarkable when dressed in Friman’s carefully chosen verbs. There are few poems about happiness that demand my attention in quite this way (Malena Morling’s “Happiness” is one), and I think the secret is in those verbs and images, how they strike against the page like bells. I also love how the quiet, hopeful little word “happy” is tucked away in the middle of the poem, as if the speaker is a little embarrassed to even mention this desire, so certain that the ability to be happy should just come naturally. Should not even be thought of as an ability, in fact, but ought to be her way of being in the world. “To wake/ each day having to slog through scales.” Is there any better description of what it means to be human? So much a part of the natural world, and altogether something else, too. 

—Melissa Poulin [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Spirit of Promise”

image of an individual in a church looking upwards and maybe taking a photo; her back is to the camera.Memories can make good material for poetry. In “The Spirit of Promise,” Daniel Donaghy is remembering his Catholic childhood in the particular church that he’s now re-visiting. At first the poet’s memories are negative: “my grade-school nuns shaking // their heads at me”; the priest “putting down his Chesterfield / to tell me how many decades // of the rosary I’d need to say.” Then he recalls his parents in church: a softer memory, which however ends in their deaths from smoking. The remainder of the poem turns to his interlocutor, who had asked “what church was.” I love the poet’s multifaceted answer. “Church is a building, // or a service, or a group of Christians.” But then it’s even more: “something / you can give, so I’ll give it here”—and this something is “a blessing.” To think of “church” as a “blessing” is very moving to me. And the blessing given carries out the “Spirit of Promise” of the poem’s title: it’s “a blessing to a young woman / at the start of something or, /  like you, the start of everything.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]