From Aleph to Tough

A Poet Who Does Not Merely Refer to Existing Tradition, but “Makes It New”

By Jay Michaelson

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
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The Lowercase Jew

By Rodger Kamenetz

TriQuarterly Books, 76 pages, $12.95

* * *

Poets and Jewish spiritual seekers alike have reason to be curious about Rodger Kamenetz’s new work. His life is like the chasidic tale of the man who travels to a distant country to find the treasure buried in his home. A noted poet, Kamenetz began to write on Jewish themes over 10 years ago, gaining acclaim for his collection of verse, “The Missing Jew.” But it was three years later, when he was tapped to document the historic meeting in Dharamsala, India, between the Dalai Lama and a range of Jewish leaders, that Kamenetz was truly catapulted to fame with the book (and later the movie) “The Jew in the Lotus.”

That book changed Judaism. It became a touchstone for thousands of “BuJus,” or Buddhist Jews, and — together with the work of Sylvia Boorstein, Rabbi Alan Lew, Rabbi David Cooper, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and others — formed the first self-conscious and serious attempt to fuse, and distinguish between, the faith of Abraham and the path of the Bodhisattva.

“Lotus” changed Kamenetz as well. Like many Jewish writers who midway through their literary careers wrote books on Judaism — I am thinking here of Douglas Rushkoff, Bruce Feiler and others — Kamenetz brought his own “wandering” to bear on his work. His subsequent book, “Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today’s Jewish Mystical Masters,” was an updated “9 1/2 Mystics,” a contemporary journey in search of today’s “mystical masters.” He became a Jewish teacher, lecturing on such subjects as “the Torah of anger and equanimity” and identifying with Jewish renewal and neo-chasidism.

All along, Kamenetz never stopped writing poetry — he also edits Psalm 151, a monthly poetry feature, for this newspaper — but there is a sense in which “The Lowercase Jew,” Kamenetz’s new book of poetry, marks a return: It feels like Kamenetz is “back.”

Sure enough, “The Lowercase Jew” is replete with Jewish and kabbalistic symbolism — a “clay man” here, numerology there. But fortunately Kamenetz’s poems do much more than merely quote esoteric teachings. When Kamenetz succeeds, and it is often, he does not merely refer to existing tradition but, as Ezra Pound said (and we’ll return to Pound in a moment), he “makes it new.” Probably the best poem in the collection, “Proverbs,” is wonderfully ambiguous, juxtaposing wisdom (“Pray with words that are strange”), self-help (“Be patient with impatience”) and Buddhist-inflected mystery (“Now is as much bud as flower”). “Proverbs” also succeeds because it is a poem that only Kamenetz could write. Without cliché and without oversimplification, it weaves together teachings that resonate with Zen koans (“Loosen your nets and catch more fish”), Abraham Joshua Heschel (“Time is another name for God”) and centuries of Jewish ethics (“Every ten seconds is the day of repentance”), all in a new, highly idiosyncratic idiom. Where some of Kamenetz’s weaker poems seem like better-than-average responsive readings, “Proverbs” is thoroughly original, and evasive: It is Jewish, Buddhist, oblique, direct, ambiguous, contradictory, ancient and new. Joining together the wisdom of his last decade’s journey and his poetic talents, this is precisely the poem one would have hoped for from the “new” Rodger Kamenetz.

Sometimes, the kabbalistic symbols and language are too hot to the touch. Even though the image is meant to evoke talmudic teachings about the creation of man, the phrase “borscht Shekhinah” feels almost like shtick. (Although I went along with “remembrance of things pastrami.”) And some poems, such as “The Broken Tablets,” read more like homily than poetry: “And insofar as memory/ preserves the pattern of broken things,/ these bits of stone were preserved/ through many journeys and ruined days/ even, they say, into the promised land.” These lines, and others like them, fail because they are too easy, too clear, too one-dimensional. To risk a generalization of my own, a good preacher simplifies; a good poet complicates.

Nowhere is this clearer than in “Grandfather Clause,” the first of the book’s four parts (which, respectively, address antisemitism, God, loss and food – perhaps the four essentials of contemporary Jewish neurosis). By far the weakest part of the book, the poems in this section are hardly poems at all, so much as polemics against T.S. Eliot, Pound and all those who apologize for or forgive them. Take these lines from “A Dead Jew’s Eyes”:

This is the way “The Waste Land” endsThis is the way “The Waste Land” endsThis is the way “The Waste Land” endsnot with a bang but a dead Jew’s eyes,a cartoon from Der Sturmer.

Raw stuff, perhaps, but hardly subtle, artful or even interesting. The thorough dissection of Eliot — which in the collection’s title poem takes the form, literally, of a prosecution — is cogent, and certainly will please that crowd of Jewish readers who like nothing more than to be reminded of antisemitism’s evil. But ironically, its clumsy, judgmental language exemplifies precisely what Eliot purported to hate about Jews: all ethics, no aesthetics. No style. Kamenetz is being reverent here, and righteous — but since when do reverence and righteousness make good poetry? I learned more from the single, daring line “God is not a poem but a long disaster” (in “Adam, Earthling”) than from pages of this rather shopworn indignation.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad. Consider “Psalm 1,” which ends “The Lowercase Jew” on a chasidic/Tibetan-Buddhist note of total, God-is-everywhere world affirmation. Quoting and riffing on the first line of the book of Psalms — “Happy is the one who… does not sit with scorners” — “Psalm 1” follows both the psalm’s literary structure and the psalmist’s advice: It leaves irony behind, and dares sincerity. This is dangerous territory: Contemporary poetry without irony often sounds sentimental, like a Hallmark card or a self-help manual. But almost magically, Kamenetz pulls it off:

Happy is the air in the room buzzingfrom ear to nose to mouth, tasting,licking, inhaled, and swallowed…Happy are the wickedsinging at the top of their lungs.Happy the neurotic in the endless technicalityof their unhappiness.Happy the quiet man in his deep meditationdisturbed by the bass of his neighbor’s speaking.

This is profound teaching eloquently expressed. A follower of the Buddhist path, Kamenetz sees heaven not only in a wildflower, but in the weeds as well. And a true Jewish writer, he frames the core teaching of Buddhism and mystical Judaism — that all is God and nothing else — in the literary and poetic imagination of the Jewish tradition.

Kamenetz probably wasn’t happy that I quoted Pound earlier, and he will not be pleased that the last lines of “Psalm 1” reminded me not only of Ecclesiastes but also of Eliot’s “Four Quartets”:

As in the motion of particles,the motion of the creek over the rocks,the happy disappear into the unhappyand the unhappy recirculate into the happyand the leaves fall into soiland rise again as leaves:happy, happy, and happy.

But I mean it as a compliment.

Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture and is the director of Nehirim, a spiritual retreat for gay and lesbian Jews.

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