The Dream of the Poem; Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492
Peter Cole, trans., (Princeton University Press, 2007)
This period of Hebrew poetry represents a flowering of the language not seen since the Bible. This community, semi-protected by the Muslims, grew for half a millennium. The book begins with Moroccan-born Dunash Ben Labrat. In the 10th century, he studied in Baghdad and brought secular interests to the traditional, liturgical Hebrew verse. The Arabian meter made the verses melodic. Often they were accompanied by music and began to address new subjects (like a tattered coat, fleas or a symbolic doe) with confidence and insight.
By the 13th century the troubadours spurred irony, subversion and innovation. Todros Abulafia sounds like a precursor to Sir Thomas Wyatt writing about “that fawn sent/ to torture lovers with endless grief.”
Persecution and dispersal ended the golden age, but not before the final masters had put all the pieces together. What began as heavenly praise evolved to the highest expressions of earthly love, travail and faith. The last poem: “In my lap—a doe,/ and in her lap—a harp;/ she plays it with her fingers,/ and kills me with her heart.”
The translations are superb. The rhymes are innovative and supple (pearl/ peril). They sound natural but ring like a hammer. Built upon a bedrock of devotion—wisdom, romance and defiance pack all 500 pages.
Something Bright, Then Holes
Maggie Nelson, (Soft Skull Press, 2007)
Grit and solitude, a poet’s best friends, are front and center in Maggie Nelson’s fourth book. Known for her genre-bending tale based on a personal experience, Jane, A Murder, this collection is pure verse.
Of the three sections, the main one is about hanging around the toxic Gowanus Canal. Loss and redemption are central themes and the poet finds company in the company of the lonely. A “birder,” a “man in black,” strangers and rain attest to the somber mood. Though a significant other is referred to, the poet always seems to be leaving or addressing this person in abstentia. “I get so happy when I think you exist.”
These poems fight for their meanings. Written mostly in spare, heartfelt couplets, they are also caustic—a hot iron on a wound—searing but healing. “There is a truth that/ I’m going for, but I can only sketch// its contours. God knows/ I am still waiting for an answer.”
In the final soaring epiphany “Afterword (or, The Bridge,)” the author finds the freedom she has been “trying to wear… like an amulet.” Repeating the word “because,” the rhythms build until they find a powerful conclusion. “Because I want you to be happy, with or without me…. Because I walked across the bridge and was free.”
Tony Towle, (Hanging Loose Press, 2008)
Ah, Tony Towle… a lion, a grandee, a wizard, a vizier. A native New Yorker, he lives in the New York School mansion. The muse ushers him down corridors adjoined by antechambers, where each receding sequence is more intriguing than the last. His style bears the hallmark of total engagement. The exciting pacing builds on unexpected projections that are sly, wry and winsome. And comely.
Winter Journal chronicles language and strings it together with verbal beads. Dates, names, animals, slang—they act as vertebrae in the poems, from which the author branches out. In “Shelf Life” titles serve the trick: “I pick up a copy of Mediaeval Ways to Have Fun.” And here’s the poetic return: “in case I’m ever back that way….”
Like waterfalls, the lines drop away from an undiminishing height. Pivoting on a key concept, each line grabs its own brass ring. The long title poem starts off with a melodramatic soliloquy, beautifully wrought. The speaker declares, “If I were a wizard, I would reveal/ how you could gaze upon her.” She is the one who is “signaling the ships of fate with her jewelry.” In the resounding coda, Towle follows her. We should follow him and “continue the long campaign.”
ContributorJeffrey Cyphers Wright