Hope in November

Books

By Eve Grubin

Published January 26, 2011, issue of February 04, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

GOD’S OPTIMISM

By Yehoshua November

Main Street Rag, 80 pages, $14

By Eve Grubin

Gerard Manley Hopkins stopped writing poetry because he worried that its rhythms were too sensual for a Jesuit priest. Fortunately, Hopkins’s religious superior encouraged him to write, and we now have the musical, muscular Hopkins poems that explode with awe for the natural world and articulate an ardent gratitude toward the divine. Hopkins turned his religious concern about poetry on its head: He served God by writing poetry.

Good Book: November reconciles poetry and belief.
Yehoshua November
Good Book: November reconciles poetry and belief.

A century later, an American poet had a similar struggle: Yehoshua November, author of “God’s Optimism” (from which two poems, “The Meditation of Travel” and “The Yeshiva Fades From Recollection,” originally appeared in this newspaper) also stopped writing poetry because of religious concerns. November studied poetry at Binghamton University and in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Pittsburgh, but as he became more involved with Judaism, he could no longer reconcile the secular poetry world with his faith. He stopped writing, and attended yeshiva for two years.

This conflict is one of the themes of his book. (Later, his rabbis encouraged him to write.) November’s disillusionment with secular intellectuals can be found in his poem “Professor.” He writes of students and professors who “long for eternal truths / and to be published, / to be read by other professors,” and imagines asking his professor, “Did you have to give the lecture / on the imminent failure of marriage?”

At the end of “Professor” a window appears: The speaker’s religious practice lifts away the bitterness. This is achieved by a ferocious cleaving to the spiritual, allowing him to find holiness in the most unlikely place: his professor’s office. He ends the poem:

Once when we met in your office
and you turned to your shelf to draw down a book
that changed your life,
while your back was toward me,
I concentrated all my energy on whispering Hashem’s name,
all irony faded
and angels were swimming from your lamp.

The unenjambed lines project confidence, while the lack of periods reflects a sense of flow between the material world and the unseen. This flow embodies the Jewish practice, emphasized by the Lubavitch ideas that November follows, of drawing down the spiritual into the physical.

The poet Fanny Howe once told me that though many young poets become proficient, their poems are like finely made needlework whose content is nevertheless insignificant. November’s craft is elegant, with its simple imagery and confident end-stopped lines; however, what makes his writing stand out are his two years in yeshiva, which provide the poems with a spiritual foundation. Without this substantial underpinning, his poem “Tennis,” sharp and beautiful, would be well-designed word architecture.

One evening you will walk past a park
between two fading apartment buildings,
and see men playing tennis in white garments,
and long to slip out of your life,
to be buried in the white robe with no pockets,
and float like the ball
between two rivals, two great friends,
this world and the next.

The voice is unusual for contemporary poetry: While poems by others sometimes struggle with spiritual questions, few embody a faith in traditional religion. The concept of “this world and the next” is not a metaphor in this poem. The spiritual world is a reality that exists alongside the tangible.

When November’s nonmodern mindset collides with questions about atheism, something explosive happens. In “The Purpose of This World,” November writes

When some Jews cannot explain the sorrow of their lives
they take a vow of atheism.
Then everywhere they go,
they curse the God they don’t believe exists.

November’s response to this dilemma is almost surreal, yet grounded in Jewish tradition:

But why, why don’t they grab Him by the lapels,
pull His formless body down into this lowly world,
and make Him explain.

With this hostile image of grabbing God, November describes an aggressive mode of prayer. The repetition of “why” emphasizes his bewilderment at passivity. November is encouraging himself and others — angry, frustrated, suffering — to have a passionate relationship with God.

It’s an extraordinary poem that should perhaps have ended here. November, however, betrays his greenness and continues with the following couplet: “After all, this is the purpose of creation – / to make this coarse realm a dwelling place for His presence.” We already feel “the purpose of creation” by the end of the second stanza, and stating it so bluntly here detracts from the poem’s mystery and energy.

Other poems in the book would also have benefited from editing, but the poetry is so satisfying — intellectually, spiritually, emotionally — that the superfluous lines just serve to remind us that this is a young poet’s first collection.

It may be a first book, but some of the poems grapple with issues that most poets address at the end of their careers. “A Jewish Poet” is a tour de force and a manifesto. Here are the first 14 lines of the 16-line poem:

It is hard to be a Jewish poet.
You cannot say things about God
that will offend the disbelievers.
And you always have to remind someone
it wasn’t your people who killed their savior.
And Solomon and David are always laughing
over your shoulder
like a father and son ridiculing the unfavored brother.
And you cannot entice people with the sloping
parts of a woman’s body
because you must always remain pure.
And every day you have to ask yourself why you’re writing
when there is already the one great book.
It’s hard to be a Jewish poet.

This poem embodies some of the same challenges Hopkins faced. What is the purpose of poetry? Why write? Do we have to suppress ourselves when writing? If so, how do we manage that conflict? How do we write ethically about people in our lives? How do we address the divine in poems? People in their lives, and poets in their careers, have to contend with at least some of these questions. Like many of the poems in “God’s Optimism,” this seemingly specific poem becomes universal. And this dialectic poem ends by transcending the conflict in earlier poems, such as “Professor” while not offering an easy resolution:

You cannot say anything about the disbelievers,
which might offend God.

Eve Grubin is the author of “Morning Prayer” (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005). She is poet in residence at the London School of Jewish Studies.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.