The Shrine Whose Shape I Am

The Poetry of Samuel Menashe

Found One Day: Zion has been no easy climb for Samuel Menashe.
LIBRADO ROMERO/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Found One Day: Zion has been no easy climb for Samuel Menashe.

By Jake Marmer

Published September 16, 2009, issue of September 25, 2009.
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At first, Babylonian yeshivas of Sura and Pumpedisa were full of poets. Every wagging finger, every dipping thumb, belonged to a poet; the spittle of ferocious arguments was real poetry. As Shelley wrote: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” These Babylonian rabbis, composing Talmud and midrash, dreamed of legislating the myth; sensing the growing chasm between their mighty imagination — so new, personal, subjective — and the pure universalism of Torah, they gradually turned into dreamy lawyers, advocating their abstract bridges, suspending themselves further in ultimate nihilism. We’re their progeny.

This is why Samuel Menashe, contemporary poet/sage, is so important: His pre-rabbinic imagination is a jolting alternative to things we’ve gotten used to over the past 2,000 years. His scintillating, terse, metaphysical poetry reaches all the way back to the mode in which Torah itself was written — cryptic, mythically abrupt, but enduring.

For the first 80 years of his life, Menashe was off the radar. In 2004, however, championed by literary critic Christopher Ricks, he received the Neglected Masters Award, and Library of America published his “New and Selected Poems” collection. This past summer, a revised edition with 10 new poems hit the shelves and Poetry featured him in its September edition.

Take a look at this poem:

Always
When I was a boy
I lost things—
I am still
Forgetful—
Yet I daresay
All will be found
One day

There’s the deceptively simple, slightly comic tone, but not without a touch of noir. Sure, the poet says, everything is getting gradually lost, but not to worry: You will find it all, on the other side of the fence — one day. Simple enough? Yet, with a closer look, seemingly minor details set the poem spinning. The concept of time is turned completely upside down: “One day,” ironically, here means “eternity,” while the first line of the poem, “Always,” in this context means precisely the opposite — “one time.”

At the heart of the poem, “I am still” is the fulcrum of the reversal; it is on the one hand, a continuation (“I continue to lose stuff”), and on the other hand, stasis: “I stand still in time, and remain, consistently, the loser that I’ve been since the childhood.” And of course, this deathly stillness is also a meditation, that fearful frozenness between the childhood and the finale. What sort of losses can one contemplate in such a moment? Surely not the childhood toys, or the toys of the adulthood, but words, emotions, revelations lost in the flood of the everyday. Which will come back — when you no longer need them. Here, Menashe’s skeptical promise of restitution is not too different from Kafka’s vision of the ultimate showdown: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.”

Everyone, from Abraham Joshua Heschel to Harold Bloom, has written about the Hebraic notion of time, which always takes the upper hand over space: hence the exegetical imagination, hence the obsession with memory and storytelling.

And indeed, aside from poetry, Menashe has great stories to tell. Like the one of his encounter with Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-Jewish dissident poet who won a Nobel Prize in 1987 and received a great deal of well-deserved attention and fame, and perhaps some that could have been redirected toward other, lesser-known figures. In this context, Menashe was walking through Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, down Bleecker Street, and saw Brodsky trying to park his bulky new Ford. The spot was too small, and the frustrated dissident was fussing and cursing, trying to squeeze in. Menashe firmly positioned himself on the sidewalk and, with his arms crossed, proclaimed: “Mr. Brodsky… isn’t it nice to be in America? Isn’t it nice to have a big American car?”

To which Brodsky allegedly replied, “Idiot!”

“What’s with you Russians?” Menashe asked me. “You just love that word, idiot….” I guess he was referring to Dostoevsky’s book under the same title; or maybe his parents, who spoke Russian, used the word. Though I grew up speaking Russian, I never cared for it myself.

Nor did I care for Brodsky all that much. I enjoyed his early poetry, rowdy and full of that uniquely Russian cynical joy, channeled into lyrical and folk-drenched verse. Much of what he wrote after he crossed the ocean, in English, however, became academically heavy, rhetorical, devoid of traces of music and fun. It is not surprising that the one truly great book of his later years, “Watermark,” is set in Venice — the city of suspended dreams and abstract bridges, reminiscent of the paradigms of the rabbinical desperation, luscious imaginations that missed their footing.

Not so with Menashe, who offers his readers the desert, balding patches of land, burned stumps and other such sturdy foundations on which to rebuild. Last Yom Kippur, I took his collection with me to synagogue and referred to it all through the day. Menashe’s work offered an intense opportunity for introspection — and intellectually mature conversation on the life of the spirit. As I read his work, my pangs of hunger transformed into hunger of a more fitting transcendental kind. The poetry became an appetizer, nourishing the mind little, yet teasing and drawing me further into the internal recesses of the unhinged mythical imagination.

Jake Marmer writes about a life of poetry for the Forward.

Read a selection of Samuel Menashe’s poetry below.

Manna

Open your mouth
To feed that flesh
Your teeth have bled
Tongue us out
Bone by bone
Do not allow
Man to be fed
By bread alone

And he afflicted thee and suffered thee to hunger and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not neither did thy fathers know, that He might make thee know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord does man live— Deuteronomy 8:3

Promised Land

At the edge
Of a World
Beyond my eyes
Beautiful
I know Exile
Is always
Green with hope—
The river
We cannot cross
Flows forever

Salt and Pepper

Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

Paschal Wilderness

Blue funnels the sun
Each unhewn stone
Every derelict stem
Engenders Jerusalem

Apotheosis

Taut with longing
You must become
The god you sought—
The only one


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