There is a plastic rooster and a frog to the left, and the hind legs of two brown horses to the right. It’s a spooky old merry-go-round, set against a yellow backdrop, and crowned with an appropriately morose title: “Sitting Shiva For Myself.” Welcome to Renee Blitz’s latest poetry collection (Regent Press), the underrated gem of the year.
Pathetic animals, set in mechanical motion, stare at the reader from the book’s cover with uncanny sadness, as if warning: This is a book of mourning — for us — for we were never alive to begin with. So too, Blitz’s poems address all manner of innate miseries and built-in human dysfunctions. There are generational conflicts; death and its intimations; sexuality and the inability to cope with it; poverty and failed ambitions.
Blitz, a native of the Bronx and the author of the short story collection “In Berkeley’s Green and Pleasant Land,” describes growing up in a Yiddish-speaking immigrant home in New York, with a God-fearing Orthodox father who also happens to be obsessed with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Yiddishisms and Jewish references pervade the collection, but what is most Jewish is the form of the pieces themselves. Blitz’s dense and lyrical prose poems are as brief and vivid as vignettes, but in their essence and tone they are really just crazed, wild and despairing Jewish rants.
If you’ve ever spent time sitting on a bench on Ocean Parkway or on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach, you’ve surely heard them before. Mad aging Jews, with one leg on Brooklyn concrete, the other still in the Old Country, ranting to each other, to themselves and to God. The pitch is always decibels above the tolerable. Renee Blitz masterfully transposes this culture of rants into art.
Blitz’s works employs the stream of consciousness, following its roots somewhere far below the surface and unearthing the most unsavory images, from unpleasant smells to cheating, frigidity, and hatred of self and of everyone else. At the same time, however, Blitz is funny and entertaining, exploiting the old Jewish trick of turning life’s most bitter dregs into humor. Misery and irony copulate in every sentence.
This is, undoubtedly, a shiva for nothing less than the human condition. But while mourning, you will also laugh.
Read excerpts from “Sitting Shiva For Myself”:
Happy New Year It is late in the day in a few hours it will be New Year’s Eve people are greeting each other people who have never had anything to say to each other before people who formerly passed you by as though they hated you they are now all turning a soft eye on you they are all rushing towards you on the wings of the dove wishing you a happy new year, Happy New Year! Happy New Year! and the same to you you say rushing past I hope next year will be better than this one and I hope it doesn’t fly by as fast yes … some one the goyim, are fooling with the clocks fooling with the time it’s because they want the Jews to die faster than they are dying already they are fiddling with the clocks kill the Jews, kill the Jews! they cry under their breath while wishing you the best they are messing with the calendar also they have eliminated months they have torn out pages first a month or two and now they are so unbridledly aggressive they have only left maybe two months out of the twelve month calendar year for you they are smart they are wily these goyim they have handed you a two-month calendar while wishing you the best, have a good year, have a good year! they cry, what shall we do with these goyim are we supposed to emulate their wretched ways pretending we don’t notice their wretchedness or are we just to go on with our own wretchedness? loading up each day as though it were a hundred days while acknowledging their greetings and good wishes, singing along with them ‘god rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay’. In The Region of Ice She couldn’t co-habit with anyone he’d come home all sweaty from work throw his sweaty socks on the table in their bedroom then throw himself down in the bed, come here, he’d say holding out his arms to her and it infuriated her, he smelled so bad, your nose is your problem he’d say, you can smell a cockroach farting ten blocks away, but it was the smell of old age that got her not that she smelled so good herself, he was not the only one who smelled bad, what was it that made her so mad? the longing of a young person in the body of an old man? that he couldn’t admit that he wanted his own company more than anything else, that the game of intimacy bored him profoundly and sad to say das spiel ist aus and now he was in the region of ice, hadn’t Jean Genet told the world he loved the smell of his own farts best, he had told her once that he’d rather be alone than have someone around that he got nothing out of, but try living like that, ah, that’s a different kettle of fish… with what excitement she ran out of his house to her own cottage across the yard a mere 20 feet away a run for freedom wild freedom wild sorrow heavy guilt ordinary confusion, run for your life girl, across the yard o what a yard! wild with happiness her heart racing, nonetheless once inside her house, after all a mere 20 steps away from his back door she could see him in his window, his arm raised, stretching, alone at last, hello, she said on the phone, this is your wife calling you from across the yard and he’d laugh, “you’re too much, Stella, you’re too much.” Running on The Path of Great Beauty I was hating my daughter and I didn’t know why, I was in anguish about it, I didn’t want to hate her but it was happening anyway maybe because she rejected me first , so … I decided to praise her, she had a dog she loved so I thought I’ll start by praising the dog. The dog’s very beautiful I said, you made her beautiful, her coat of fur, the look in her eye, her intelligence her sweetness her swiftness, her terrier wildness, you made her that way, if you give a creature a certain juice I said you release something in them, yes, you gave that to me she said, I had nursery school, summer camps, dance lessons, friends, toys, no, that’s not it I corrected, in my terrible mother way, I laid beauty on you, nobody knows what it is, a spark a spark was released and you shone you were running on a path of great beauty.