The sections of David Axelrod’s latest collection of poetry, Folly, are each set off with epigraphs drawn from In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). It’s no accident that Axelrod has chosen the words of this Dutch humanist, priest, and social critic to frame his exquisite poems, since this book is nothing if not a full interrogation of the author’s and our own human confusions as we tangle with systems of faith that are inadequate in the face of so many disappointments and mysteries. As in his past work, Axelrod is still asking the most essential questions: “All this going to sleep and then/waking up, what does it come to?”
Though many of these poems are odes to the transience of our lives, showing us a retired sawyer next door breathing his last breaths, or eulogizing the old porcelain stove that finally blew up, Axelrod nonetheless strikes a balance between the sometimes stark realities we encounter and those few small moments that make it all worthwhile. Whether he’s making love at the Day’s End Motel, contemplating “the juicy flesh of Brandywine tomatoes” or leaving behind those apples that “remain always just out of reach” as a kind of “tithe” for the bounty he’s already picked, this speaker knows how to tease transcendence out of even the worst circumstances. “In This Room of Imperfect Forms” finds the poet visiting his childhood neighbors who, though now ill, have managed to outlive their son. Axelrod does his best to make sense of this and his own unearned grace:
I’m assured we’re more alive here
than the bloodless, eternal horde
that haunts the heights,
where a bush burns but isn’t consumed,
as though that were the miracle, an ideal
form worthy of the ill-defined shadows
cast by divine light–I mean us,
we three, miserable, unforgiven
and perishing shadows of human fools,
laughing out loud at our dumb luck.
Notice how Axelrod says they are “ill-defined” and then “perishing shadows,” implying that the only way to truly appreciate our “dumb luck” is to remember that ours too will someday run out. Though he might humbly cast himself as a “fool,” Axelrod’s intellectual rigor and willingness to engage with the darker sides of humanity have kept me reading and admiring his poems for many years now. It would be easier as an artist, after all, to gloss over the ignorance and cruelty that punctuate our days with an empty, hollow praise. But it takes someone far braver to place hope and despair alongside one another as two sides of the same coin, and to claim them as his constant currency. In fact, his poem, “After Re-reading The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton” reminds us how heartless even Bashō can seem when he encounters a starving child and “gives what food he has and departs/without so much as a word of regret.” Something about that scene of the child left to die keeps gnawing at Axelrod, though he asks himself the inevitable question:
Do I believe that child is the only one
ever to die like that, a rare event
as if justice was the common bread we break,
and pity wasn’t powerless?
He articulates here and elsewhere what most of us would like to believe, that a tragic death like this child’s is the exception rather than the rule, even though many of us (myself included) often speed by the homeless and suffering each day without so much as a glance back. Axelrod ultimately admits that nothing he can do will redeem that child’s death or the plight of others left to starve and die alone, though we sense again his honest confusion when he writes of the safety and comfort of his own home, “Everything in the room glows with dusty light–/pine bookcase, oval jades, geraniums.” The central question of Folly seems to be: How do we make sense of our own good fortune and privilege while also encountering such suffering along the way? How do we process injustice so widespread and commonplace that we come upon it even in the works of a 17th Century Japanese poet?
Axelrod’s answer, then, is to “try to praise this mutilated world,” in the famous words of Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Indeed, David Axelrod’s fierce and brutally realistic poems remind me over and over of those other great Polish poets of the twentieth century, Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, who refused to keep silent about the historical moments they witnessed, yet also knew how to find the hidden, concrete, sometimes ironic beauty of everyday life. This same impulse is evident throughout Folly, and especially in the poem, “The Disquiet,” in which a maiden aunt “from Beyond the Pale” tracks down the poet. We are drawn into the memory with Axelrod, watching as she
. . . disembarks, out-at-the-elbows
in three layers of moth-eaten wool, slaps
her forehead, lifts her hands to the sky, pulls
my face down close to hers, and says, “Kinnehora!
After all the shit of the world, you’re still one of us.”
Like that aunt, each of these poems utter their own version of kinnehora, the Yiddish “curse in reverse,” said to ward off the evil eye. Though tragedy might strike at any moment, though life has scattered us across the globe, this poet urges us (for the time being) to seek out the earthly pleasures offered each day. Axelrod trains our gaze on the plainer, but no less astonishing things of this world, and he keeps us from getting mired in false hope by turning his attention toward both the suffering and the joy. There is no escaping the pain of being human, but as he writes in “After a Fast, in a Field of Germinated Wheat”: “How alive our bodies are! The ache is lasting and wonderful.”