The Schmooze

The Best Jewish Poetry of 2014

Since 2010, it has become the Forward’s tradition to highlight five memorable poetry releases of the year — but this year we have six. Among this year’s selections are “Breathturn Into Timestead,” a collection of five final volumes of poetry by Paul Celan, newly translated by Pierre Joris, and three vastly different retrospectives by David Antin, Chana Bloch and Dennis Silk, as well as a posthumously published collection of Harvey Shapiro’s work. Alexander Nemser’s release, however, is a debut — and a most memorable one, at that.

Please note that the works below are listed in alphabetical order — there’s no ranking here.

How Long is the Present
By David Antin
University of New Mexico Press, 408 pages, $39.95

The story goes that one day, invited to a give a poetry reading at a university, David Antin showed up without the usual paraphernalia — books, notebooks, or anything he could read from. Instead, he began to speak. The result — a sort of improvisational speech that weaves together philosophy, literary criticism, anecdotes, witticisms — became an invention known as a “talk poem.” Worlds away from anything one would expect to hear at a regular poetry reading, Antin’s work is fascinating, masterful, and possibly one of the most stimulating challenges to a reader of contemporary poetry.

Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015
By Chana Bloch
Autumn House Press, 220 pages, $19.95

The acclaimed translator of Yehuda Amichai — Israel’s most loved and renowned poet — Chana Bloch is also a poet in her own right. This collection is a formidable sampling of her work that dips into folklore, family histories and the passing of decades. There are quite a few midrashic poems, and riffs on Jewish practice and culture. For an extensive review of one of her earlier collections here at the Forward, see “Chana Bloch’s ‘Blood Honey’”

Breathturn Into Timestead
By Paul Celan, Translated by Pierre Joris
FSG, 736 pages, $40

What can be said about poet and survivor Paul Celan, whose singular and incomparable power of composition redefined not only poetry but the very idea of being human? A remarkable poet and thinker in his own right, Joris not only translated these volumes, but added detailed annotations and an excellent introductory essay. This hefty bilingual collection will remain a staple and a reference for years to come.

The Sacrifice of Abraham
By Alexander Nemser
Bookieman, 89 pages, $20

You won’t find a single line-break in this collection; any rhyme would be an accident. In tone, too, these poems are exegetical, more reminiscent of the Passover Haggadah than of a book of poetry. Yet, undoubtedly, poetry it is: a smart, experimental, painful, and lyrical collection of prose poems that build upon the classical Jewish dialectic, as the author explores one of Judaism’s strangest and most formative myths — the Sacrifice of Isaac — with all of its universal reverberations of generational conflict and family trauma.

For a more extensive review of the book, see “A Delirious Interpretation of the Binding of Isaac for Yom Kippur.”

A Cloud Inhaled Me: Collected Poems
By Dennis Silk
The Sheep Meadow Press, 256 pages, $24.95

The Jerusalem home of this British-born Israeli poet was, for decades, a stomping ground of local writers, as well as esteemed visitors ranging from Robert Frost to Jorge Lois Borges, W.H. Auden to Saul Below, Robert Lowell to Stanley Moss. Silk’s poetry, too, is a home to a litany of poetic influences and styles, with occasional dips into drama and prose. What remains constant is his humor, pithy observations, and syncopated philosophizing. As he reflects upon himself in “Loom,” one of the poems in the collection:

A man from Hebron
played out his loom how to get out of Dennis.

Clack clack — dreamy train journey — strands
submitting to the penetration of the weft.
Cotton-rhythm journey-rhythm
the dunams of God.

Fruit of this workshop in the souk
gets fingered and sold, I ate it when it was growing,
Dennis Dennis a man of this century,
Grammarian
of a skull-clutter of sound.

A Momentary Glory: Last Poems
By Harvey Shapiro
Wesleyan, 124 pages, $24.95

As the title indicates, this is Shapiro’s final collection, published posthumously, and written in full awareness that each poem — perhaps even each line — could be the last. Here, moments of transcendence are spiced with a healthy dose of sarcasm, illness is redeemed through humor, and memories are alive with desire and poignancy. Not a single poem is a letdown, nor an easy diversion — each one brims with intensity and completeness.

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The Best Jewish Poetry of 2014

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