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The Schmooze

Among the Trees of Exile: Poetry by Ivan Klein

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces three pieces by Ivan Klein.

Image by Courtesy Ivan Klein

Reading Ivan Klein’s work I imagine a man, sitting alone in an empty room, and talking. Not to anyone specific; probably to himself. In the emptiness his words echo off the walls, and in the echoes is the musicality, response, sub-text. Ivan’s work is mystical; both cerebral and physically frank. Kabbalistic imagery and Kafka’s fingerprints keep appearing, as does Melville and the streets of Greenwich Village. Jewishness is among the poet’s primary concerns — the mystery and misery of it, exile and redemption. The writer easily slides between poetry and prose, references and tonalities. As he states: “There is no such thing as poetry, / Just let yourself be.”

Aside from his book of collected works, “Alternatives to Silence,” Klein has also recently published a chapbook “Some Paintings by Koho & a Flower of My Own.” This sampling of Ivan’s work features a timely Tu B’shvat piece, “Amaryllis,” where the strangeness of celebrating the “Jewish Arbor Day” in the middle of January comes as a lingering metaphor for the absurdity and incongruence of exilic living. The poem “Primo Levi Departing Auschwitz” pays tribute to the great thinker and writer and the moment of his liberation — the freedom that is fraught with the inescapable confinement of memory. Finally, “Poem to David” is the author’s tangled and cryptically mighty advice to his son.


It’s Greek for country girl — becomes Latin, Belladonna Lillies, ‘beautiful ladies’. — In full bloom they are, these vulnerable open beauties. — There to be admired in their no foolin’ around bright orange-red.

All bunched together, I can’t choose between them, can’t decide which is the most gorgeous as they come into their full glory.

Turned toward me in the light of my reading lamp, sitting in the window sill of my study, with a blizzard roaring behind them outside, they seem to lose their individuality in an ensemble, become something higher, even more pleasing to the eye, to the harmony of the soul.

Achingly lovely in this moment in time, the more so for their mutability, the fleetingness of them all.

Purchased just a few weeks before as a small but sturdy looking potted plant with a single closed bud of some sort; rescued, in a sense, from the floor in the back of the Korean store on the corner of Bleecker & Morton Streets, where it had been placed to shelter it from the biting dead of winter cold battering the display shelves up front. Brought home for Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day, at the end of January when everything seems to be dead & getting deader, but when in fact the earth begins its imperceptible but irresistible resurrection.

“Amaryllis” — an Internet site where we go for identification calls these “naked lady lilies” & has a funky rap video to go along with it: “I’m going to f*ck you like a dog & make you love it,”

A week later there is still a certain blowsy charm to the blossoms even though they’re past their peak…. A few days after that three of the original quartet arrive at a drooping drunken death. However refined they were, they’re now in that grotesque phase of dissolution that precedes total honorable oblivion. Still, one spritely flower remains in bloom against all odds, then is paradoxically hemmed in by & shut off from sunlight by the dying growth around it. Finally it closes & dies very neatly, economically, discreetly, as I would wish to die.

The snow falls again into the alleyway between our building & its ancient twin; falls in the meandering way of trapped snowflakes, drifts slowly past the plant in the window. – A perfect winter backdrop of dreary brick & stained metal pipes. Strikingly, one straight & stiff stalk emerges with a bud at its top. Yes, a single strong stalk with life rushing through it; – how wonderful, transparent & mysterious are the ways of nature!

F*ck you like a dog & make you love it, indeed


A free-for-all of life & death – a riot of nature is what it is. – sorting itself out according to laws natural & eternal. – Stamen and pistil – the male & female organs of the flower. – How does that reproductive business work again? – Did I ever really grasp it back in high school biology? – I can’t imagine my goofy inattentive self had any real grasp at all. – Better start from scratch with the matter of desire – that desire & yearning that brought the universe into being & of which my humble potted plant cannot be devoid….


Those strap leaves that go along with the flowers of the amaryllis, grown strong & tall, filling most of the lower half of my substantial casement window – nothing fancy mind you – its beautiful ladies just a memory – but free-standing in the brisk April breeze, a vibrant chlorophyll laden green, fanning out to greet the sun & sky, those broad leaves almost like the multiple arms of a Hindu deity, embracing such life as it has been granted.

Primo Levi Departing Auschwitz

The gallows & the giant Christmas tree

side by side Near Roll Call Square,

The huts where he had suffered, matured

& survived, the wasteland of the Buna factory site,

All slid past in the slow motion

of retrospect, of dream,

As did the memories of the demonic,

calculated attempt to demolish his manhood, The foraging for rotten potatoes & turnips on the frozen ground, The myriad shades of the dead up in smoke.

Finally, the steel slave gate with its ironic motto,

sprung from what he would call the heavy, arrogant, funereal with of the Germans, but now, miraculously, seen in reverse:

“Arbeit Macht Frei”

Poem to David

Frankly puzzled
I sit beneath the hell
of the two-headed Christian world,
examining (in minute detail)
the vast white wall
of eternity in front of my eye
And make a mental note
to tell my son one day
never to let the word “Jew”
darken the light

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