Books In Conversation
Judith Baumel with Catherine Parnell
(Arrowsmith Press , 2022)
The last time Judith Baumel and I engaged in conversation via the Brooklyn Rail was February 2020, during the before times. When Covid took over, life seemed to be in the breakdown lane, but that didn’t stop Baumel. She geared up an eclectic group of scholars and writers and artists for weekly Zoom conversations focused on the classics and, line by line, they made their way through Dante’s Divine Comedy and are now halfway through Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
On Zoom, her wry laugh and understated brilliance held many members of the group together while the world spun out of control. All the while she was writing poems that took on a prescient quality in light of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Baumel’s journey through time and space, from Ukraine to the Bronx, continues in Thorny, her recent poetry collection. What follows is a conversation about where we are in these tragic times.
Catherine Parnell (Rail): Last time we talked, you had just published your chapbook Passeggiate, and we spent time thinking about Italy and the Bronx.
Judith Baumel: Yes, Italy, my happy place, and the Bronx, where I was born and raised and still live.
Rail: And you’ve been back to Italy even in these pandemic times? What was that like?
Baumel: After two years, my husband and I went this winter, at the height of the Omicron season. It was hard to get to Italy and hard to get back, but in between I felt safe. Italy had a terrible time at the pandemic and they developed a vigorous vaccination policy that I saw being enforced. It was easy to eat outside. The lines at the big tourist spots were much shorter. I was in an only-half-empty Sistine Chapel for the first time in years. Also I saw a sublime vase in Bari that opened up the top of my head. On it a woman shakes a magic wheel (iynx) as her lover approaches. Aphrodite protects them from above. A line from Theocritus finally made sense: “Magic wheel, drag that man to me.” And very quickly I knew what the first poem of the book should be. It was a last minute insertion and I’m glad the magic of Puglia brought it to me.
Rail: Last minute is often the best minute, especially on walkabouts. In your 2019 book you used a series of Italian strolls, passeggiate, in pastoral poems as a way to look at the contemporary moment both the rural and the urban. Your latest book Thorny places “Binding Spell with Iynx, Rhombus and Common Pantry Items” as the first poem in the first chapter of strolls. How does this poem connect to the middle chapter, which mostly takes place in the Bronx?
Baumel: I used the iynx to bring together Italy and the Bronx in an incantation. “Magic Wheel , drag to me Palermo and Pelham Parkway.” Both places are mythical to me and magical. And poetry is, in one sense, an incantation. The Bronx of the movies is a twentieth century disaster but I write about more than what you see in pop culture. For example, the Lenape Indians who shaped the landscape and a bit of history too. Their encounter with Anne Hutchinson, the religious exile from Massachusetts Bay Colony was a decisive tragedy for both sides.
Rail: Tragedy never seems to leave us, does it, yet the voices from the past stay with us, bringing us to a place that exists on no map. Some of your poems live in that space, bringing myth to modernity. Aphrodite of Phidias’s “mute and private tortoise” and the presence of a tortoise that “points north and faces west to water” calls on myth, movement, and migration. “The American Cousins A-Z,” your middle chapter, seems sadly timely as it gives voice to twentieth century migrants who have ended up in the United States. Who are these voices?
Baumel: They are composites of women in my extended family, from my mother’s side and father’s side. Mom was born in Brooklyn, New York and had a large family of aunts and uncles who had all moved from Russia, near Gomel in current Belarus, in the early years of the twentieth century. Some assimilated pretty easily—had a chicken farm in New Hampshire, joined the Navy, owned a bar near Madison Square Garden. Others were tied more closely to a life of Jewish home and synagogue.
My father was born in Zloczow, currently Zolochiv in Ukraine, between Ternopil and Lviv. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when my grandparents were born and part of Poland when my father was born and all of them called it by its Yiddish name, Zlotchev. I’ve written about Dad and that side of the family in all my books.
Is this tracking of the different names pedantic? I hope not. The matter of how we name things is important to my poetry. In other words, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Another part of this story that is important to me is the landscape and history of place.
I’ve visited my father’s town a few times. Once I went with him as part of a group that calls itself Second Generation Zloczowers. We’ve placed monuments at what’s left of the Jewish cemetery, as well as in two places that saw multiple mass murders—in the courtyard of the Sobieski Castle and in the Yelechowice Forest which shows up in my poem “S: Absent Spores.” It’s where my grandmother used to go mushroom picking, that was the romantic place for the boys and girls to hang out. In 2009 I stood in that spot with my cousins. We couldn’t even say for sure where our family was murdered. Or when. And standing in the forest, we were overwhelmed. By what, I’m not sure. Spirits. Ghosts. History. Myth.
Rail: You seem to bring myth into what other people might call “history.” For example, your poem “On the Death of Boys” has the three Greek Fates (Moirae) who spin and measure and cut our lives (Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos) arguing with their mother Nyx, the goddess of the night. The scene and subject of the argument however is a place in the Bronx where some pretty bad stuff went down.
Baumel: The central story in this poem is, excuse the cliché, “every mother’s nightmare.” Three teenagers drown after stealing a rowboat to get to the island that is New York City’s Potters Field. I start with that shiver we get when we hear bad news about other people’s children. I’m thinking, for example, Uvalde, Mariupol, Trayvon Martin, overdoses, suicides. All that. No matter how tightly we hold onto our kids, we lose some. John Milton railed against this in “Lycidas” and his wailing set me off wondering if myth more than history matches our feelings about narrative. I have these four goddesses arguing about their job, arguing about why things happen. It was important for me to let Clotho, and not her imperious mother Nyx, have the last word. It’s the kind of last word daughters blurt out to their mothers before storming off. Young children sometimes say “I didn’t ask to be born.” But teenagers know that their job is to “repair the ruin of our parents.”
Rail: Back to the “American Cousins” chapter and the relation between myth and history. Most of the poems are not directly about the war, in fact they feel like fables but the “Proem” is pointedly about fact. Can you talk about it?
Baumel: I was invited to write for the forthcoming New Voices, an anthology of ekphrastic work about the Shoah. The scholarly team assigned us images based on our interests and I was given a photo taken by a Sonderkommando photographer at the Zasylskiy Ravine near the town of Lubny. It happened two weeks after the now-famous Babyn Yar massacre where the Nazis had perfected one kind of their efficient horrors. Reading about the town I discovered Sholem Aleichem was Lubny’s Crown Rabbi before he married, took a pseudonym, and started writing his famous stories. His was not a religious position as much as a political one as a liaison position between the Jewish citizens and the Tzar. He was very unhappy in this job and a few years later wrote the short story “A Vort Far A Vort” (“Tit For Tat”) about the tense relations between the townspeople and their rabbi.
Rail: These lines in “Proem” struck me as words for these times. “Two angels walk beside us every Shabbat/the other days it’s our misfortune to/be human all alone in our distress.” Take a moment to unpack the multiverse aspect of these words.
Baumel: In my mind it’s about the tension we all face to step up and do the right thing. A lot is at stake in our actions. There’s a Talmudic teaching that says a good angel and an evil angel accompany us home from synagogue on Shabbat. If they see the home ready, with candles lit and the table set, the good angel says “may it always be this way” and the evil angel is forced, against his will, to say Amen. And vice versa if the home is not ready. A traditional song that ushers in the Shabbat is called Shalom Aleichem. “Peace be unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, the Sovereign of sovereigns, the Holy Blessed One.” You don’t have to believe in God to believe that life is difficult, often unfair and that everyone needs help and community.
Rail: You create a trifecta with Gus Hall, Angela Davis and Joe Hill in “J: Invisible,” looping communism, the Black Panther party, and labor unions. Let’s talk about community and politics—solidarity.
Baumel: And the next poem “K: WEVD” includes Eugene V. Debs. There’s a lot of political history I’m gesturing at and which, frankly, I don’t remember well. I’m using “solidarity” in an ironic way. There was so much arguing within the groups I joined and sold papers for and quit and moved on from. Everyone was jumping from this kind of communist to that kind of socialist. It didn’t stick for me. The family I grew up in was a union family and voted for worker’s rights. But we argued a lot too. Mostly about how far was too far. I’m proud that two of my adult children are active in the Democratic Socialists of America. Do you remember that when Gus Hall ran for president in 1980, his running mate was Angela Davis? I would have voted for her for president, but by then I found him worse than a fossil.
Rail: I remember it well—the arguments in my house were intense or dismissive. Or both. It closed the door on the politics of my childhood home. The last chapter of the book is mostly about the community of loss. Your father, friends, teachers.
Baumel: My father. A friend who died of ALS. My teacher Robert Lowell, my mentor, the poet Donald Justice. A childhood friend who killed herself, about whom I’ve written in every book. She was a child of Holocaust survivors and killed herself when she was twenty-one. I’ve never gotten over it. Or maybe, never come to terms with it because the terms keep shifting.
Rail: You call the last chapter of Thorny “Bound.” Why?
Baumel: Bound as in family ties, as in the links between people that last a lifetime and beyond. There is a Jewish phrase that is often used in prayers and tombstones, from the first book of Samuel: “May they be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.” I’m also thinking of the binding that comes when we swaddle babies, of the binding of the leather phylacteries straps when we pray, even I think, the linen shroud we are buried in.
Rail: That’s cheerful.
Baumel: I’m not a cheerful person. I’ve always been attracted to cemeteries. The first poem I ever published was in my high school lit mag and it was about the string of cemeteries in Queens, New York.
Rail: Is that what you were thinking in the poem “Nike and Clover”?
Baumel: The poem is about two memorial statues by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Both famous. The first is his Civil War memorial in Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan. The old FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue used to look out on it. It’s a public statue about public values. I have always found the statue weird. As a teenager it was a meeting place and I would stand there, waiting, under this massive horse whose testicles seemed the most important element of the composition. Very masculine idea about war and victory. The other statue is a private one in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC. Henry Adams commissioned it to remember his wife Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams who killed herself in a gruesome suicide. The grief in this sculpture is palpable, profound. The figure is inscrutable, draped almost entirely in a cloak. It’s said that Adams wanted a bit of Buddhist uncertainty after the Civil War shattered a certain kind of Christian triumphalism.
Rail: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders?
Baumel: Yup. It’s an incredible book. I don’t know about the Buddhist theology but I know what it feels like to take the dead—those we know and those we don’t—into one’s emotional vehicle. I’ve just finished Maggie O’Farrell’s amazing Hamnet and can’t shake its powerful mood. One of the things she’s writing is how we keep the dead with us. What do you think?
Rail: That’s a complicated question, one I’ve been circling around since my reading of O’Farrell’s Hamnet—the audiobook, actually, and the pure sensation of sound held me as close as a shroud. I suppose it might be that we are bound by the tangible and intangible, or as O’Farrell writes:
What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.
It’s that “never forget” that seems to be one of the many thrusts in your book.
Baumel: Yup. There’s thistledown that is ephemeral. But O’Farrell ends with the proposition that the play “Hamlet” memorializes not the lost child but the loss of the parents. She seems to say the child is bound up in memory and—
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
Rail: Coming back to the idea of relics, which we find in “Relics of the Fathers and Mothers.” I confess I’m one of those parents who keeps baby teeth and casts from broken arms. To me these things are shrines to a temporal moment, one I knew was so, so brief, yet when I look at these things I’m filled with a form of grace. And laughter. What do relics mean to you? What do you think when you see them in museums and churches?
Baumel: First, some people have told me they laughed out loud reading this poem. So I guess I’m not the only one who collects these unmentionables. I have healthy skepticism for religious relics. In other words I’m really drawn to them and feel amused by their supposed provenances, by the absurdity of believing that these are what they are supposed to be. But your question lets me see my own contradictions. I’m a person of faith, so why can’t I accept the faith that Saint Agnes’s teeny skull is really housed off the Piazza Navona? I’m thinking maybe the relics are about the containers that have been created for them and the works of art that do are metaphors for our memory.
Rail: Circling back again to the idea of being bound. The marvelous “From The Account Books of Bernard Quaritch Bookseller, Grafton Street.” These are books gone to the deep, lost when the Titanic went down. Where did this poem come from?
Baumel: The Harvard Swim Test! It’s been abolished since, but when I was there, we had to swim a certain distance, maybe fifty yards. We all believed the requirement was part of the behest that founded Widener Library. That is my favorite library on earth. It’s not the most beautiful but it’s the library of my youth.
Rail: Let’s end with a somber laugh. “The Quick Brown Fox.” First, you must be joking. Second—how did this come to you?
Baumel: True story. This came from typing class in Junior High School. Does anyone anymore learn to “keyboard” by drilling “The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog”? The sentence contains all the letters of the English Language. There are so many ways poets write abecedarians but I hadn’t seen this one. Why not try?
Judith Baumel will be in conversation with Rachel Hadas
Tuesday, September 13, 2022
More info here.