This year, the Forward is celebrating National Poetry Month in style. The Arty Semite will be featuring new poetry every weekday, and it is our great pleasure to kick off the series with “Jew on Bridge” by C.K. Williams, an American poet who has been awarded nearly every major poetry prize, including a Pulitzer in 2000, a National Book Award in 2003, and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987.
“Jew On Bridge” appears in Williams’s recent collection, “Wait.” The poem is an epic-length meditation, at the core of which lies the question, “How Jewish am I?” As the poet swirls between Dostoyevsky’s implicit anti-Semitism, the tragic fates of Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin, as well as his own vague, somewhat uncomfortable notion of Jewishness, he finally narrows in: “Your suffering is Jewish. Your resistant, resilient pleasure in living, too.”
That, but also, throughout the poem, the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism of the admired author colors Williams’s notion of Jewishness. Whether this sentiment appeals to you, or appears flat in its limitations, perhaps you’ll be compelled by the poem’s setting, perfect for such a discussion. The bridge, which is meant to join disparate sides and make transitions smooth, here becomes the opposite. The sight is a reminder of Celan’s suicide (he jumped off a bridge to his death in the Seine), triggering an identity crisis, and finally, a rupture.
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