a man in a room with a tallis on
By Aaron E. Bulman
Flannel Press, 125 pages, $10.
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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
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.