Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review Contemporary Jewish American Poetry

One may ask why am I reviewing a book on Contemporary Jewish American poetry on a largely Christian Spirituality blog? Well, for starters we cannot forget that fact that Christians have our roots deep in Judaism; the Patriarch Abraham is our ancestor too! We read the Old Testament including the beautiful Psalms which are poems as well as the Book of Proverbs and the Prophets too. Many of our liturgical prayers are based either directly or indirectly on the Old Testament. I often read the writings of the Abraham Heschel on of the most important Jewish thinkers and rabbi's in the twentieth century as well as some of the writings of the Baal Shem Tov and the other ancient rabbinical writers. Their insight into life, into the world is amazing and refreshing.

This book is really a gem of a book and needs to be digested in small doses. Poems are like prayers, they can be read, reflected upon, and re-read a few times before moving on. I found myself numerous times stopping and re-reading poems like the following one by Lori Desrosiers (p. 49):

Grandmother's Hands

Grandmother's hands, veined soft
petticoats she sewed floated whir
on clothes line blowing far aloft
gathered on her arm for the night 

petticoats she sewed floated white
by Ukraine's river long ago
gathered on her arm for the night
a man her family would not know

by Ukraine's river long ago
long brown curls, green eyes glowing
a man her family would not know
gathered her up, skirts blowing

long brown curls, green eyes glowing, 
grasped the ship's rail as wind's gust
gathered her up, skirts blowing
said to leave, but knew she must

children's laundry gently tossed
on clothes line blowing far aloft
gathered clothespins, none were lost
Grandmother's hands, veined, soft.

I just love the way this poem progresses with certain lines repeating, reminds me of the prayers in Church with the triple "Lord have mercies" sung by the choir, a mantra lifting our prayers to heaven.

A lot of the poems of course deal largely with Jewish themes like the Holocaust, Shabbat, the interplay between the sacred and the profane, between earth and heaven, the material and the immaterial. Themes of journey, pilgrimage, of forgiveness, and lament, they are all here, one in the same. As with most poetry I could only read a few at a time, stop and think, and then move on. These poems made me slow down a bit such as the following by Rachel Barenblat (p. 7):

Eating the Apple

The first time
I spoon applesauce

your long shiver
makes me laugh

one bite, then 
you turn away

this new flavor
not yet familiar

in my imagination
I'm introducing you

to mangoes already,
to fresh bread,

halvah and tamales
injera and kimchi

but you're not
ready for difference

or new discovery
hot fists clinging

to the Eden 
you've always known

If you like poetry with deep spiritual themes, if you like poetry that will make you both laugh and cry in the same breath then this new volume of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry is for you. All three hundred poems worth! Do yourself a favor, take this book, a cup of coffee or tea, and read a few of these poems, they'll change your life!

For more information about Bloomsbury's Contemporary Jewish American Poetry Anthology click here