A Cornerless World

Poetry; A Poet Reconciles Art With Religious Judaism

By Mordechai Shinefield

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

a man in a room with a tallis on

By Aaron E. Bulman

Flannel Press, 125 pages, $10.

* * *

The talmudist, the Yiddishist and the yeshiva boy — three characters that could easily be written as relics of a past age. But when they appear in Aaron E. Bulman’s poetry collection, “a man in a room with a tallis on,” they are heartbreaking and alive. Bulman, who died at 54, is in many ways the Jewish e.e.cummings, a poet who disregards form in a quest to liberate his characters from their common caricatures. In describing a yeshiva boy, another poet would have evoked his black hat. Bulman writes: “i walk a cornerless world.”

Bulman, too, walked a cornerless world. An Orthodox Jew from New York City’s Washington Heights area, in his lifetime his poetry has been published in both The Paris Review and Jewish Action. In the collection’s foreword, Bulman’s son writes of his father’s encounter with Isaac Bashevis Singer. Meeting the modest Washington Heights poet, the famed Yiddish writer asked how he had succeeded in reconciling poetry and religious Judaism. The foreword does not give Bulman’s answer, but the poetry within does. In a short poem titled “a hassid dancing,” he writes: “a voice / left lonely, invents / the space.” The depth of care he shows his subjects is testimony to the space he gives them to speak for themselves.

The centerpiece of the collection is the epic “a man in a room with a tallis on.” Bulman considered this lengthy poem, written in the year following his father’s death, his masterpiece. But though it is more thematically ambitious than his shorter poetry, it lacks the economy of language that his sketches possess. Instead we have a flurry of images; physical touches; the study of religious texts, oxen and the relationship of a child to a father. The quieter sketches are the more explosive, if only in their sheer conservation of words.

In “(against the cold),” published by Partisan Review in 1983, Bulman describes his debate with clarity.

the full debator’s length

the stretch a network

of regret; my life,

which has to do with


spoken voices.

The first poem of Bulman’s that I read was “Isaac.” I remember being struck by the tense dynamic of the poem. Instead of playing the scenario for its inevitable deus ex machina, Bulman re-creates the moment of pandemonium as Isaac pleads to be spared by his father. “Father father a ram look / A ram in the thicket,” he says, begging Abraham to turn and see his son’s salvation. We are supposed to see beyond the clichés of the situation into the pathos and humanity of a father sacrificing his son. Like the angel awakening the forefather, the poetry succeeds because it rouses us to the story we have overlooked. The tersest of Bulman’s poems demand our attention, like the conclusion of “Isaac”: “Someone calling out a name/ once twice/ frantic.”

Mordechai Shinefield has written for New York Press, Mima’amakim and New Voices. He is currently working on a collection of short fiction.

Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • 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"...
  • 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.