Academic journal article Shofar

American Jewish Poetry, Familiar and Strange: A Review

Academic journal article Shofar

American Jewish Poetry, Familiar and Strange: A Review

Article excerpt

American Jewish Poetry, Familiar and Strange: A Review Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish -American Poetics, by Maeera Y Shreiber. Stanford University Press, 2007. 287 pp. $24.95.

Those of us who write as Jewish poets commonly have reason to notice that critics and teachers of "Jewish Literature" typically neglect Jewish poetry. What, we often think, are we chopped liver? For Maeera Shreiber, this marginalization is no accident. As she sees it, the elided status of Jewish poetry (as against narrative) parallels that of the Jew-in-exile, women within Judaism, and the sacred in a secular world, and for a parallel reason: poetry is disruptive, subversive, troubled and troublesome. Where fiction gives us the tale of the tribe, poetry is (she quotes the poet-critic Charles Bernstein) "an agent of turbulent thought" (p. 2). In this long-awaited, powerful and layered study, she is herself such an agent.

Shreiber is both an acute close reader of poems and a theorist fascinated by questions of tradition and modernity, of individual versus collective identity, and of the place of poetry in history. She is also a feminist. Structuring her work less on individual poets than on interlocking issues of genre (psalm, lyric, lamentation, elegy, prayer, as they play out in contemporary esthetics) and gender (looking at ancient and modern configurations of masculinity and femininity), Shreiber makes an amazing and persuasive case not only for seeing "exile and alienation" as crucial marks of the Jewish poem, hence the book's title taken from the 137th psalm, but for connecting this motif with "the emergence of the Shekhinah as a shaping esthetic force" speaking to and for "a culture in flux" (p. 25).

Among the early delights of this book is an account of rabbinic disapproval of poetry in the late ancient and medieval world. Arabic-inflected meters? Not kosher! But this is not simply an ancient problem, for debates over Jewish purity versus contamination (alca "assimilation") and religion versus culture, ethnicity and secularism continue to rock the Jewish world, and continue to be reflected in its poetry. And the poetry continues to engage in shaping the culture.

Demonstrating the complexities, ambiguities, and discontinuities of American Jewish poetry is a major aspect of Shreiber's work. Thus she pairs the very different poets Emma Lazarus, author of the socially conscious poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Jacqueline Osherow, author of the witty theological-midrashic poem "Moses in Paradise." Both poems negotiate ethnic borders; Lazarus' "Mother of Exiles" is an avatar of the Shekhinah while Osherow boldly posits a feminized Moses and an embodied God replacing the "disembodied voice" (p. 32) of Scripture and rabbinic dogma. Another pairing is that of Charles Reznikoff and Allen Ginsberg as poets of the maternal Muse. Following a superb examination of the various versions of the maternal in Henry Roth's CaU it Sleep, the film The Jazz Singer, and Cynthia Ozick's story "Virility," Shreiber demonstrates how the figure of the Mother in ReznikofF and Ginsberg in "a world of boundless violence" (p. 73), is simultaneously foundational and demonic, rejected and inspirational, personal and collective, sacrificial victim and cultural critic-and how both these poets in the shadow of the Mother overturn traditional liturgy in their treatment of the Kaddish prayer.

Other pairings follow, each thematically/generically bound. How to re-imagine history is the issue when Shreiber looks at Louis Zukowski and George Oppen as they challenge modernist ferishizing of the (classical. Christian) past-Zukowski turning to the maternal story and the possibility of a future, Oppen's "counternarrative" (p. 127) negotiating "the relation of the individual to the collective" (p. 132), which for a Jew involves the tension between choosing and being chosen. Lamentation, with its biblical models in the 137th psalm and the Book of Lamentations, undergirds Shreiber's discussion of two firmly secular poets, Adrienne Rich and Irena Klepfisz. …

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