Chapter and Verse: Two Poets Explore Religion

Poetry

By Isaac Meyers

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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The Insatiable Psalm: Poems

By Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Wind River Press, 144 pages, $14.

* * *

Morning Prayer

By Eve Grubin

Sheep Meadow Press, 96 pages, $12.95

* * *

Yermiyahu Taub named his first book of poems “The Insatiable Psalm,” a striking title that foretells the wealth of fine phrases that fill his poetry. Almost every line has an effect to justify its existence. In the space of a few words, with a carefully chosen adjective or verb, Taub can enrich any image — even a meager Sabbath table, as in “Scarcity”:

table scrubbed white of stain,

drained of all impurity,

soup hot and mellow,

calm after its long simmer,

chicken: tenderness heightened in garlic

only just beginning to stagnate under the white candle.

Notice how carefully he arranges his words by sound: “stain/drained,” “stagnate/candle”; the way stress always falls on the first syllable of the line, and the most striking words come at the end or, in longer lines, the middle. And since the point of “Scarcity” is that through the aura of the Sabbath and a mother’s hard work, even a simple, war-rationed meal could become magnificent, the smooth, luxuriant pattern of Taub’s language fits particularly well.

Key words in the aforementioned passage are “tenderness” and “stagnate.” Taub writes about the Orthodox home in which he grew up, and particularly about his mother, with obvious tenderness — but the love is tinged with the nostalgia of someone who has left for good. Taub abandoned Orthodoxy and came out as gay; the timeline is unclear in his book, but the process must have begun in childhood. All his memories reflect his religious doubt and sexual confusion. Sometimes the strangeness of that youthful mental world comes through clearly. For instance, “Boy late to prayer” describes a boy who dawdles on his way to synagogue, “unsure of his step, unsure of reason.” When he arrives, “the scroll has been read and still he cannot finish,” and he runs away, back to his house to peek through the window at his mother preparing lunch.

Taub’s expressive powers falter where they meet cliché: “aretha’s beats slither through me/transforming me into the sexy bar mitzvah diva/i know myself to be.” “Sexy diva” isn’t a description but a byword for a certain stereotype of cheerful gayness, and as such it is not convincing. It contrasts uneasily with Taub’s careful evocation of a serious, sad American Jewish family. What we would like instead is a persona for the post-Orthodox author that is as solid and thoughtful as the world he remembers.

Another first book, “Morning Prayer” by Eve Grubin, provides an interesting contrast. It explores a territory — the life of a baalat teshuvah — where there are not yet any arty clichés to fall into.

Grubin’s voice is less sensuous than Taub’s, more intellectual; for example, she refers to Thomas Hardy and “Antony and Cleopatra” by name. A poetry-biz insider (she works for the the Poetry Society of America), she, too, often writes lines that look “poetic” but, when read aloud, sound flat.

She comes into her own, though, when expressing the whole new range of experiences that accompany teshuvah. Orthodoxy is not just a faith but also a social sphere with its own language. All baalei teshuvah, therefore, are as unsettled linguistically as they are spiritually. We can hear and feel the poet searching urgently for a language that better fits her changing life. a way that she can touch the reader and yet cling to her faith. The key word in her evolving vocabulary is “sanity,” as in the book’s prologue, “After”:

Something Sane. Open the door.

A guest sits down at the kitchen table.

Washing evening dishes:

Something simple, something sane.

Water dreams over your wrist,

Your hand, a round

transparent dish.

Something Simple.

Night, rusty fire escape.

Even the rain: sane.

It’s possible to see several layers of development in “Morning Prayers.” Some poems are not explicitly Jewish, like “After”; others, though, take different tacks, as when Grubin echoes a rabbi’s distinctive speech patterns, or when, in “The Buried Rib Cage,” she retells a midrash in her own voice:

Eve slipped from its arced ridge—

The only body part

You don’t

do evil with

The morning prayers (Birkot Hashachar) of the title form a theme that unites the book. The author’s persona itself does that, too. But this is basically an experimental work with some valuable results. For instance, in poems like “Modesty” and “The Date” she begins to sketch the erotic world of the baal teshuvah, in which a stray glance is a sexual experience and a spiritual challenge. A man’s gaze lies “agitated on the bend between my shoulder and chin what is/a single look? what is seeing? how it digs hard horse hooves striking….” It is hard to be honest about one’s feelings while honestly wanting to change them, but that is exactly Grubin’s goal and it leads to engrossing poetry. “Morning Prayers” is fascinating precisely because it is unfinished.

Isaac Meyers is a doctoral candidate in classics at Harvard University. He has written on poetry and translation for the Forward, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics and Parnassus: Poetry in Review.






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