Every reader of The Rumpus knows that the world “changed, changed utterly” on Election Day 2016. It is still too soon to know how effective the literary community will be in producing poems that sing in a way that helps undo the damage. Most of us, I have to hope, are active on more than one front, and are helping each other when despair threatens to paralyze. Because so much good poetry was published before last November, it goes without saying that we should not ignore it. Norman Finkelstein’s work provides a fine look at the way one writer engaged with questions we’ll all continue to face, whatever the political landscape.
The Ration of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems (Dos Madres Press, 2016) has light, grace, depth, and range. Some of the poems are not so different from the work of other contemporary writers who enter the territory of the mystic religious seeker, and Roger Housden, Jerome Rothenberg, and Michael McClure come most strongly to mind when considering Finkelstein. And Leonard Cohen, and Martin Buber, especially in dialogues they hoped would bring them closer to God.
Finkelstein’s “Moldavanka’’ is typically meaty :
With raspberry waistcoats, lemon boots,
______their chocolate coattails streaming out behind
they rush down alleyways at steamy midnight;
______or in grand coaches, off to see their whores
___________parade before impassive crones.
This is Odessa, this is how its done :
_____the page wears spectacles, peers into my own.
Sweetness is strength, pleasure is violence—
___________do not look away.
_____There’s more to be learned on the waterfront
___________than in any rabbi’s study;
___________for the Torah is a fountain,
_____but does it flow like Bessarabian wine?
Drink and forget the ensuing generations,
_____their escapes, apartments, small lawns of home.
The pious gangster is soothed by illusions,
_____but the revolutionary intellect bursts into flame ,
_____rides with Cossacks to visit heathen priests
___________where the moon is a cheap earring
_____and the students shiver by the stove.
_____A roll with onions, a shot of rum-
anything to stop these speeches in my head!
_____When Grandfather was a little boy,
_____the teacher would fall asleep in class,
_____so they glued his beard to the desk.
_____But I would have paid attention,
_____waiting respectfully until he awoke,
__________so that the lesson might go on.
_____For I have chained myself to the Gemara,
_____though the texts have long since rotted away,
till all that’s left is the afterlife of the spirit,
___________the matter of the poem.
In the thieves quarter everything is stolen;
bootleggers and smugglers bring the news
_____with olive oil, paprika and sardines.
_____Do not trust them—the messenger
_____has been waylaid somewhere outside of town.
Its Friday night but he’ll transgress the Sabbath
_____in order to bring you the Word.
This, like everything after the 2016 election, is draped by Putin’s pall. The setting is, after all, a town in Eastern Europe. The poem is both a vivid painting of a “vanished world,” and, when we get to the word Gemara (the rabbinical commentary comprising half of the Talmud), a hint at the world to come. Part of that world was the cheders, small Jewish schools where boys studied. (In the case of my foremothers, and I assume millions of others, girls were busy being household drudges while boys studied, and if they became literate it was thanks to an indulgent relative. Some might have followed the lead of my great grandmother who listened through a keyhole and was probably whipped when she got caught.)
“Moldavanka” is a poem that celebrates curiosity, young boyhood, and Finkelstein’s eye for detail. The fact that it is both gritty and profound is one of its many pleasures. The details, and the way the boy is so authentically present, keep it from becoming trite. You know this lad will aim for adventure that tests senses and intellect, and you hope he grows up to have adventures in mind, spirit, and body, much the way we all see children and are given to irrational hope in dark times.
“Invitation” is an accomplished heartbreaker :
These are like rags sewn together, still insubstantial,
after all the mending is done. Dress up the beggars
and take them to the ball. They think themselves lucky,
and they are, they are, and yet have the devil to pay.
Not once, but twice. This coin is forged, and so you lose
your fortune, your house and your lands. This card
holds your future, but who will dare to read it?
The fool will, he who now stands at the edge
of the abyss. Look how he climbs up into the air,
ascending from sphere to sphere, even as he once
descended. Is he one of that crowd, hungry and impatient?
Now the musicians are tuning up, now dancers in masks
are seeking partners. They would bet their lives ,
sell their souls for precious little. And if there is to be
gold, then the king must give birth to himself And if
there is to be a new king, then the old king must die
on a certain day toward the end of winter. There are
flowers in the winter garden. The orphans are seated
in the chapel, each one holding a rose. Some have been
taught to sing.
Although the imagery here is very pre-twentieth century, every word fits with the world as it is right now. “Rags.” “Beggars.’’ “Fools.” And lots more than could make one yawn. Except that there is a big “except” here, the “except” of how everyone in the world right now is still just as insubstantial as those rags, even if sewn together. Prufrock famously said “that is not what I meant at all,” and it would be reasonable for Finkelstein to say the same thing in response to my thoughts here. But I will make a case that a poem is weakened and unfairly shrunk if it displays nothing more than the exact intent of its composer. Meaning changes with epoch. Or smaller circumstances.
There are many ethereal short poems in this collection that support the whole, this one untitled:
The whispers rise
into the clouds
The wraiths rise
into the beautiful writing
The wraiths writhe
when beautifully written
The wrathful writing
rises and writhes
Finkelstein knows his way around the Kabbalah, Jewish mystic texts that play passionately with sound, letters, and numbers in an effort to connect with the Divine Spirit. Kabbalah can be mistreated with surface, pop exegesis if one is not careful, and some consider the texts so powerful that they don’t think anyone under the age of thirteen should be exposed to them. Reading this and other excerpts from Track (1999), has made me, and I hope will make others, wish to go deeper into the puzzles and mysteries that infuse almost every religious tradition.
If poetry is to remain a bulwark against the flagrant coarseness and cruelty at work in this moment of history, Norman Finkelstein’s work belongs right here with us. Let’s accept the invitation he has made with such grace. We may be fools, and writhing fools at that, but his singing will help us get through the kind of political winter some of our ancestors—literary and genealogical—have faced.