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A Tree Named Jerusalem

Descartes’ Loneliness
By Allen Grossman
New Directions, 70 pages, $16.95.

Jerusalem is a grave of poets. Name
two who are buried there:
the poet Dennis Silk is buried there.
He lived with a dressmaker’s dummy,
in a cave, on the Hill of Evil
Counsel due South of Zion Mount.
She bore him children
after her kind. —In any case, whatever
she gave birth to did not live.
Famous Amichai, also a poet,
is buried there. From his apartment on
the eastern slope you can see
a gate of the City, called David’s Gate.
In ’48, on a beach at Tel Aviv,
the poet Amichai held a dying soldier
in his arms. The soldier whispered—:
“Shelley.” And then he died.
Poets built Jerusalem. Therefore,
poets have a duty to destroy
Jerusalem. If I forget thee,
the world will be better off.
The tree a cat can get up into,
a cat can get down by itself.

— “City of David,” Allen Grossman

‘City of David” is a poem from “Descartes’ Loneliness,” Allen Grossman’s new collection. Born in 1932 in Minneapolis, Grossman has spent much of his life in the academy. And in professorial life, as in poetic work, he has never shrunk from Jewish themes.

His is a vatic rhetoric, girded with tautology: “Poets built Jerusalem. Therefore/poets have a duty to destroy/Jerusalem.” One wonders whether Grossman means Jerusalem the capital city, 31.4N latitude and 35.1W longitude, where my cousins live and my Uncle Antschel is buried, or the metaphoric one, the inspirational ideal of the Psalms that are King David’s, too.

Here, Israeli poets Dennis Silk and Yehuda “Famous” Amichai have been poeticized themselves, into red herrings — their names as if snacks to be swallowed by the cat. After those fish big and small have been served to us on a platter of “Shelley” (Silk was a minor poet, Amichai a major genius in the Romantic mold that now goes by the title Laureate), the American poet commences with a rewrite of Babylon, in its Psalm 137: “If I forget thee,/the world will be better off.” At reading this, at speaking these lines, the tongue cleaves to the roof of the mouth, the right hand loses cunning and this book of poems, like an apple, drops. The tree it has dropped from is planted in italics: “The tree a cat can get up into,/a cat can get down by itself.”

One should proceed cautiously, in the method ascribed to Socrates (which, when inquiry is made answerable only to the primacy of commandment, is also that of the Talmud): What does this Cartesian couplet mean? Is the State of Israel a tree? And if so, a weeping willow? Can a cat ever be a symbol for a Jew? Felines are lazy, it would seem, and lick themselves all day. Grossman, I think, is saying this: Like David’s third son, Absalom, he of the long flowing hair, Israelis have gotten themselves tangled in a tree named Jerusalem, or politics. But, it can be interpreted, they don’t need any help getting down. They can forgo all commandments, especially from “us.” Grossman’s book suffers similarly: The poet has gotten himself into a rhetorical bind that can be understood, and undone, by him and him only; no readers, however lonely, required.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.

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