Wednesday, February 14, 2007
An Essay by Donald Lev about his late wife the poet Enid Dame
This essay is by Donald Lev who is the publisher of the New York-based independent literary review: "The Home Planet News." Donald Lev was born in New York City in 1936. He attended Hunter College, worked in the wire rooms of the Daily News and The New York Times and drove a cab for twenty years. He also ran messages for and contributed poetry to The Village Voice. Donald also operated the Home Planet Bookshop on the lower east side, and, in 1969, reached the pinnacle of his underground film career with his portrayal of "the poet" in Robert Downey Sr.'s classic, "Putney Swope." Currently, Donald lives with his reclusive cat, Kit Smart, in High Falls New York, continuing to publish and edit the literary tabloid Home Planet News, which he and his late wife, Enid Dame, founded in 1979
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE LIFE AND WORK OF ENID DAME
by Donald Lev
I first met Enid (who was my companion, wife, and colleague for 25 years) through some poems she sent to the New York Poets' Cooperative--it could have been as early as 1975, but more likely 1976 (my sense of chronology is as weak as my sense of direction). The Co-op started in ’69 as an organization that promoted readings—at that period you couldn’t get more than five minutes anywhere in NYC to present your work orally unless you kissed ass at one of two holy edifices—St. Marks in the Bouwerie or the Ninetysecond Street Y. I thought, what is this? Who is this? Does she really spell her last name with an m not an n? Does she either not know what she’s doing or does the sober but funny magic of those unusual poems come from a genuine ability and authority. I guessed the latter and voted with the majority (I believe it was unanimous) to welcome her into membership. One of the poems, “Before,” which subsequently appeared in her first Downtown Poets chapbook Between Revolutions began:
The catshit reproaches me in the bathroom.
The icebox has regressed:
incontinent, it leaks
and puddles on the floor.
The drain’s in pain again.
It vomits when I do the dishes.
The dishes crack.
We’re all of us
a bit unwell.
I finally got to meet Enid Dame at a meeting of the New York Poets’ Cooperative. And I came to appreciate her cool literary and political intelligence as well as her inner warmth, honesty, and humor. We soon became friends and allies in some of the controversies rife in the organization (of which I recall nothing now—which fact at least reveals how petty they must have been). When,.in 1978, Mike Devlin and I were beginning to produce issues of Poets Monthly out of Mike’s strategic office in Union Square, I suggested to Mike that we needed a good, organized, literary-minded person to center the enterprise. He agreed. So I got Enid, who at that time was looking for an excuse to lay off her doctoral dissertation for a while (she eventually finished it and became a fully exploitable member of Academia) to take on the task with the title of “associate editor.” But before that time Enid and I met in connection with two other interesting New York City literary institutions of the time: The Print Center and the Downtown Poets Cooperative.
The Print Center, in Brooklyn, was where all the small press publishers went in the ‘70s and ‘80s to put their chapbooks and other publications together. Any work you could do yourself, say saddle stitching, trimming, or even typesetting on one of their fine IBM Composers, you did yourself, without any cost to you. And anything the Print Center did for you—which was printing for the most part—was done at very reasonable rates—thanks to NYSCA and NEA funding. The operation was run by poets. When I first dealt with the Print Center—I notice my third book of poems, copyright 1973 was done there—it was located in a little storefront on State Street. The manager was a pleasant chap named George Faust. All the work was done by the long-suffering Larry Zirlin. By 1975 the Print Center was occupying the first of two similar spaces—large commercial lofts in downtown Brooklyn, near the BQE and the waterfront. In these new locations the manager became Robert Hershon (of Hanging Loose fame); and of course the long-suffering Larry Zirlin was on hand to do all the work. At some point the long-suffering Larry Zirlin was replaced by the uncomplaining Frank Murphy, who also printed the New York Poetry Calendar, which I came to distribute for about fifteen years. (Hershon currently runs something called the Print Center out of offices in Manhattan, which is a much different animal from its predecessor). Among the many many small presses (those were the days when we were a truly powerful movement) that enjoyed the benefits of the Print Center was the Downtown Poets’ Coop. headed by David and Phillis Gershator, two excellent writers and poets themselves, who managed on grants, which were much more plentiful those days, to publish several books and chapbooks. The Downtown authors whose names are most recognizable today were Ivan Arguelles, Irving Stettner, and Enid Dame.
Enid’s two Downtown Poets chapbooks, Between Revolutions (named “one of the half dozen best of the year” 1977 by Bill Katz of the Library Journal) and Interesting Times (1978), both well printed and illustrated with interesting collages and photographs by her husband of the time, Robin Dame (who, changed in name and gender, is still a good friend and important member of the Home Planet News editorial staff), consists of poems reflecting a period of Enid’s life when she was coming off a long hiatus during which poetry had been replaced by politics (she was a member of that section of SDS which did not use drugs or play with bombs, but also did not get to write the histories of the movement). Now, having left the party which denounced her as a “Bourgeoise Individualist” and moved with husband and cats to Brooklyn, she began writing the funny, sad, nostalgic poems that appear in these books—all soaked in a marinade of place, politics, and Jewish ethnicity.
four days a week
the streets, the terrible subways
the human explosions
food cats poetry
sex keep me sane
the recent past
almost sustains me:
Browning and Ruskin
hoarded and measured
an inch at a time
know the score:
the past a bad joke…”
under the surface
caught in a conch shell
Brooklyn looks like Russia
In the snow.
The subway stop:
snow on its roof
snow down the tracks
like a railroad station
after a revolution.
People stand muffled:
boots woolen mittens furs
and shopping bags. A woman
reads a Yiddish paper.
A man reads The Daily World.
(“Waiting” in Interesting Times)
Enid’s next book, also from Downtown Poets, was a full collection called On the Road to Damascus, Maryland (1980), which included two types of poems not to be found in the chapbooks: family poems (of which the only example in this particular volume is the title poem), and what Enid was later to call “midrashic poetry”—poems concerned with biblical characters and stories with a view to fill in the blank spaces and answer questions raised in the scriptural narratives. This latter category fills most of the second half of the book in a section called “Traveling Companions.” Here is the first appearance in print of Enid Dame’s signature poem, “Lilith”:
Kicked myself out of paradise
left a hole in the morning
no note no goodbye
the man I lived with
was patient and hairy
he cared for the animals
worked late at night
under the moon…
Taking hints from a 1972 article by Lilly Rivlin in Ms and Susan Sherman’s poem “Lilith of the Wildwood, of the Fair Places,” which was first printed in 1971 (both pieces are reprinted in Which Lilith? Feminist Writers Re-Create the World’s First Woman (Jason Aronson. 1998), an anthology edited by Enid Dame, Lilly Rivlin, and Henny Wenkart), Enid converted Lilith from the Judaeo-Christian Demon to a perennial hip Jewish feminist with some sisterly connections to Mae West and Sadie Thompson.
the middle ages
were sort of fun
they called me a witch
I kept dropping
in and out
of people’s sexual fantasies
One transitional poem did appear in Enid’s chapbook, Interesting Times. This is “Vildeh Chaya” which she pointed out in her article “Art as Midrash” (published posthumously in Home Planet News #53) was “(a) pivotal poem for me…(n)ot exactly a midrash since there is no such character as Vildeh Chaya in Jewish text. I invented her—a wild Jewish woman—because of a misunderstanding on the part of my mother (who) thought this Yiddish expression actually referred to an archetypal shtetl character—wild Chaya.”
in the woods on the edge
of the shtetl she hides
mud-splattered dress torn
barefoot she won’t
peel potatoes get married
cut her hair off have children
keep the milk dishes
from the meat dishes
climbs trees talks to animals
naked sings half-crazy
songs to the moon. …
(Interesting Times p.26)
Midrashic poetry is featured also in all of Enid Dame’s subsequent books. Her chapbook Lilith & Her Demons (Cross-Cultural Communications, 1986) and her last book, Stone Shekhina (Three Mile Harbor, 2002) were wholly midrashic in content. In Confessions, an earlier chapbook (1982) from Cross-Cultural Communications, she joins the midrashic “Lot’s Daughter” with two other dramatic monologues (almost all of her midrashic poems were dramatic monologues) featuring Martha Scott, a victim of the Salem witch trials, and Adah Isaacs Mencken, a mid-nineteenth-century American (probably Jewish) poet, actress and femme fatale. Her 1992 collection, Anything You Don’t See (West End Press) is the most comprehensive to date (I have been putting together two posthumous collections, one of which should be out soon from Three Mile Harbor) in that it gives the reader a fine sampling of Enid’s entire oevre. including midrashic and family poems, poems of place, and poems of politics; and contains good examples of the sestina and the dramatic monologue, forms of poetry in which she particularly excelled.
Poems in Anything You Don’t See catalogue Enid’s family history from her birth in Beaver Falls, a small mill town in western Pennsylvania
The walls shook, and I broke into the world,
skidded into a bedrail and found my voice
in the summer hospital room, in the quiet milltown.
Mother shuddered, “I think it’s already happened.”
“Impossible!” Father insisted. “It’s still too early.”
The doctor, meanwhile, was out fishing. …
to politically progressive parents who met at a labor rally in Washington, D.C. when they were young government workers during the New Deal ‘thirties who suddenly removed to Pennsylvania where her father (originally from The Bronx) became a furniture salesman (introduced into that calling by his father-in-law); to the city of Pittsburgh, where Enid spent her early teens, and her Indiana-born mother—who suffered from depression, and, later, from multiple sclerosis—painted.
In Mother’s city, there are no doorknobs.
Someone has pulled up the trees.
In this Pittsburgh, the sky is yellow,
oilspilled, streaky. The color of despair.
Telephone poles throw up hands,
gawky crosses, then fall over backward.
No wires. No birds. Here,
everything is inside.
In Pittsburgh Enid started high school—which had a writer’s club. Then the family (which by now also included her younger brother Phil Jacobs—currently editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times) moved to Baltimore where there was no writer’s club. So Enid joined the gun club. Thence to Towson State Teacher’s College (now University) where she published poems in the Talisman (Towson’s literary magazine), got involved with the science fiction “fanzine” movement, where she met her first husband, married, got involved with the Baltimore peace movement, graduated, taught high school; then dumped it all, “caught the red-eye to New York/ reading “America” in the City Lights Edition,/ ecstatic on no sleep and bursts of fantasy…” (“The Seders”, published in the Woodstock Journal).
The city Enid loved so passionately is celebrated even more strongly than in the previous volumes in Anything You Don’t See. Consider such classics as “Brighton Beach” (“…a place of immigrants, radicals, exiles,/ serious eaters and various gifts…”) and “Riding the D-Train”:
Notice the rooftops,
the wormeaten Brooklyn buildings.
Houses crawl by,
each with its private legend.
In one, a mother
is punishing her child
slowly, with great enjoyment.
In one, a daughter
is writing a novel
she can’t show to anyone. …
In this volume also, her powerful sestinas begin to appear: “My Father and the Brooklyn Bridge,” “Sestina for Michael,” and “Ethel Rosenberg: A Sestina”:
I picture you in your three-room apartment, a woman
singing snatches of arias to yourself as you set the table,
loving and hating the house. I know the type.
Scraping and rearranging, refusing to take things easy,
Foreboding washes over you, an extra sense.
Dramatic monologues are here in abundance. Besides the midrashic Lot and Eve, we are addressed in the voices of Cinderella, Persephone, and citizens of Brighton Beach like the persona of “Closing Down: Old Woman on Boardwalk”:
Still holding on in this body,
an old house;
One by one they’re sealing its rooms off.
like ghosts through the cracks.
In the last section of the book, Enid celebrates her parents’ lives and deaths in several haunting poems.
Now hold your mother
lingeringly on your tongue.
Her fruit is still alive.
It tastes as it always did:
heavy resonant edgy.
It makes you think of old coats
fur collared camphor-scented
worn in another country.
Inside my father’s blood
a battle is raging,
directed by doctors and chemical companies.
He’s been invaded twice.
Like any other war,
this one is heavy with talk
of blasting, destruction, intrigues,
and, naturally, false reports.
(“What We’re Here For”)
In the elegant “God’s Lioness,” also in Anything You Don’t See, Enid Dame addresses one of her great models, Sylvia Plath:
Art can do just so much—
it can’t save you.
These lines move me to reflect on Enid Dame’s late poems, haunted by cancer, 9/11, and impending war. This from an unpublished poem, “Bulbs”:
You gave me six daffodil bulbs
to plant in my upstate front yard,
letting each one stand for an unrescued name
entombed in the Tower wreckage.
I carried the box to my mountain,
set to work with a shovel.
It proved slow going,
that ungiving October day.
One of the bulbs had split:
two bodies joined at the stem.
I thought of those mythic co-workers
who held hands before they jumped.
I thought: I’m burying six people
I probably never knew,
their bodies unfound their names amputated.
All we’ll have is six flowers
if they actually bloom next spring,
if we’re here to see, to remember.
Those daffodils have been blooming ever since, more profusely each spring. The theme of remembering became important in these last (perhaps Anthroposophy-influenced) poems. In “Catskill Mountain Book Fair: May 2003” (published in Heliotrope) she begins:
Remember it all.
It won’t be here next year.
Woman poet in red velvet blouse on stage.
Grand piano (covered like a toaster) behind her.
Pieces of quilt on the walls.
Publishers listening at their booths.
Backdrop: a road climbing a mountain,
trees slowly finding their green,
an apple tree in frail flower.
One poem lays cold fingers
on your shoulders.
You shudder in ecstasy.
The next poet reads too much.
Everyone here is good-humored.
Remember them all.
You reach for a hand.
It is here this year.
It feels warm and comfortable. You handle it
while the poems’ rhythms gently rock the room.
This is a pleasure. You will need
to remember it later. …
In emulation of another great role model, especially during the last year of her life, the Mexican painter and political activist Frieda Kahlo, Enid participated in peace demonstrations and recorded what it felt like to be in those moments in poems like her villanelle, “The War Moves Closer,” printed posthumously in both Home Planet News and the “Beat Bush” issue of Long Shot:
The war moves closer and we can’t stop it.
Four million marched in Rome and London.
We read our poems on a Woodstock stage.
Winter goes on forever.
Four million marched in Rome and London.
A few lay down in the snow in Antarctica.
Winter goes on forever. …
and the monumental “This One,” also published posthumously, in Tikkun:
The first one wasn’t real.
But I opposed it.
I opposed it in a workshirt.
I opposed it in a mini-skirt.
I opposed it on my way to buy birth-control pills.
I oppposed it ecstatically.
I opposed it in my kitchen bathtub
on the Lower East Side.
I opposed it on the streets with my friends
who were scruffy and raucous and funny,
who opposed it with their youth and great bodies.
This one is different.
We’ve lost so much already:
a way to be together
a fantasy of hope
(which glimmered like a silver-misted island
at the edge of possibility).
Now it’s hard to see that island
through the thickening smoke.
An awful force is gathering.
It’s real. It’s getting stronger.
It doesn’t mean us well.
But I’ll oppose it
With my smoke-clogged brain.
I’ll oppose it with a stone in my breast…
On December 3, 2003, during a bitter, unseasonable, cold spell, Enid flew out to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to read at a fundraiser for the Jewish feminist journal Bridges, of which she had been a poetry editor. She died of pneumonia and complications from breast cancer three weeks later, on Christmas day.
I’m going to conclude here. Not that there isn’t more to say. This has been little more than a brisk survey covering the small part of Enid Dame’s work included in the seven books and chapbooks published during her lifetime. I have said nothing of her fiction, which included one completed unpublished novel, and many short stories, including parts of the novel, which appeared in small press periodicals and anthologies over many years. I have said little of her editorial work on three periodicals and an important anthology; the readings column, for instance, which she developed in Poets and Home Planet News; nor have I spoken much of her scholarship, which included writings on Victorian literature, Jewish-American fiction, and of course midrashic poetry and Jewish feminism. Besides her work on Which Lilith? noted above, she wrote papers, gave lectures and presentations of her own and other women’s work, and at the time of her death was working on a second anthology, this one of writings on the Prophetess Miriam. This project will reach some fruition in a forthcoming issue of Bridges.
Hundreds of notebooks attest to Enid’s serious life-long reflections on, and struggles with, poetry, teaching (which she took very seriously), politics, history, Jewish-American literature and religion, and, finally, cancer, and the meaning of life. This little essay is meant to break some ice over deep, deep water.