Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In My Bustan by Michael Mahgerefteh

In My Bustan ($13.00) (Poetica Publishing Company, P.O. Box 11014, Norfolk, VA 23517), published 2009.
By Michal Mahgerefteh

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

It’s a fact. Every living person has an identity. There are four main parts to a person’s identity, at least to me: personal, religious, cultural, and sexual orientation. Whether his identity plays a part in his life depends upon the person. Some people readily accept their identity, while many people deny it. And some people never know their true identity. When a person realizes the importance of his identity in his life, it is the mark of self-realization.

In 2009, Poetica Publishing Company published poet Michal Mahgerefteh’s In My Bustan, a seventy-seven page book about a Jewish woman and her personal, religious, and cultural experiences. Mahgerefteh uses her Jewish background as a vehicle to understanding herself, her religion and her God.

It is a pleasure to read a poetry book that has a clear and distinctive voice. And In My Bustan has that voice, a voice that belongs to a speaker who knows she is Jewish and appreciates her ancestry and cultural background. This book isn’t all fun and games, though. Mahgerefteh deals with issues like birth, life, and death and all the conflicts that a person experiences underneath, on top, and in between.

Mahgerefteh has lived in the United States since 1986 when she moved from Israel. Poetica Magazine, Reflections of Jewish Thought, a magazine that she founded, publishes, and edits, consists of poetry, prose, fiction, and essays all dealing with the Jewish experience. She belongs to the The Poetry Society of Virginia. Many of her poems have been published in established literary magazines and anthologies.

Mahgerefteh is also an artist who creates painting with acrylics and paper collages. Her award-winnings works have been displayed in venues in Virginia, New Orleans, and New York and published in Golda Magazine, Being Jewish Magazine, ken* again Literary Magazine, The William and Mary Review, among others.

In My Bustan is comprised of four chapters about life and living it to the “fullness of every moment”, as Mahgerefteh quotes herself in the book’s beginning pages. In fact, the word “bustan” found in the title actually means the word “life” in Hebrew. [It also means “garden” in Farsi and “orchard” in Arabic, as Mahgerefteh defines in the back of the book. (p. 75)]

Throughout the book, Mahgerefteh uses the personal voice “I”. The speaker always knows who she is, where she came from, and what she is doing, through good times, bad times, solemn times, angry times, and enlightening times.
Her personal, religious, and cultural orientations are identified in her poem, “Peaceful Thoughts to my Sleep” (pp. 4-5):

Tell me Mami, still washing clothes
outdoors in the leaking rusted faucet?
I suppose you are attached to this tradition,

something from the old days you do not
want to forget, like cooking on Thursday
night, sitting on a wooden stool in the yard

chanting while peeling and cutting. I pass
these mizrachi tunes from my lips to my
children’s as a token of your memory.

I want to walk in your bustan to the scent
of sweet-lemon tree. Harvest this rare
fruit, prepare marmalade for me. Take me

back to the old days….

Here the speaker reminisces about her younger days when her mother “wash(ed) clothes/outdoors in the leaking rusted faucet” and “cook(ed) on Thursday/night” in preparation for the Sabbath, a weekly holiday celebrating the Jewish day of rest. The speaker seems to be hinting something is going on with her to make her yearn for the past so, to request “Take me//back to the old days….”
Life seems to treating the speaker well, at least as seen in “Friday before Shabbat” (pp. 6-7) when the speaker remembers her childhood memory when

…(she) giggled as (her aunt)
pinned her colorful head cover firmly

with greasy hands. Together we prepared
the table with the white lace cloth, gold-
trimmed china and a silver kiddush cup

on the eighteen-place dinner table near
the veranda. Father kissed my forehead
before he left with my brothers and uncles

for minchah, and I with my mother,
grandmother, sister, aunts and cousins,
recited the blessing over the Shabbat
Lights, wished each other Shabbat Shalom,
eager to start Seudat Shabbat filled with
thanksgiving, song, laughter and spice.

“Friday before Shabbat” reveals the traditional, Jewish side of the speaker’s identity. She is family-oriented, observes the holidays and its customs with close family and relatives. The speaker is recalling her youth and how much fun it was.
But then the tone of the poems change, as reflected in the fall of the Garden of Eden in Mahgerefteh’s “Lilith and Chava” (p. 9) This coming of age poem further solidifies the speaker’s identity.

Lilith, swayed by the serpent’s
hiss, No man is my master as I am
as strong as he, no man will tie my
lips as I have tasted sun and fruit,

echoed above the Trees ‘til God
shackled her tongue, binding her
name to the shores of the Red Sea.
But when Chava bit into the Bitter

Fruit, Lilith rushed to assist: sitting
within a circle of stones on a mat
of reeds, she cleaned Chava’s gypsy
curls with oily wool, perfumed tawny

skin with orchid petals, and fed her
on goat milk, pomegranates and roots.
As the Garden awaited, Lilith gracefully
wrapped her Skin around Chava’s,

Implanting the Infinite Life into the
unborn child. The First Cry rushed
out of her womb and with a stream
of blood became the House Israel.

The speaker’s world changes with the fall of the Garden of Eden as such things as sex, birth, and Judaism have been created. Here she becomes aware of the importance of her sexual identity and of Judaism in her life. But there has been a fall from innocence in “Lilith and Chava”. The poems that proceed have a more mature, somewhat disillusioned tone.
Mahgerefteh begins to deal with hardcore subjects like the death of an infant son in “The Isolated Room” (p. 16), the impending and eventual death of her mother in “Descending” (p. 17), “For Twenty-Three Years”, and “Upon Her Death” (p. 19), and the discovery of “‘pre-cancer cells” in “And I Thought I was Good” (p. 24). All these poems challenge the speaker. She wonders why these things had to happen, as can be read in
“Kaddish” (p. 21) when Mahgerefteh writes:

All colors gone from the world,
life is redone in black as his coffin
lowers into the thawing ground,
and I frail lips and imploring arms,
scour the distance for my Maker.

Through the use of vivid, articulate word choice, Mahgerefteh asks God why death has to occur. The speaker is lost without this man, who is probably her father but could be her husband. She finds solace in her religion as understood when she writes “of the unsayable words of the kaddish, life has meaning, plan and purpose ‘til death overtakes.”
By the end of “Kaddish”, the speaker is rejuvenated and finds life again:

The sun startles into motion. I bind
my left arm in leather straps, warm
under a prayer shawl, and dance on
spines of books like gravestones;
within each scripture words fortify
touch feel hear breathe

Above the waters on many voices,
prayers, passing intensities, refresh
with language and sound, and as
Shabbat starts to depart sweetly,
circles of meaning slowly brush
shoulders with every chorus.

At this point in In My Bustan, the speaker gets angry, but she still remains true to herself, especially to her religious identity. After finding out in “And I thought I was Good” (p. 24), she has “‘pre-cancer cells’”, the speaker wonders ambiguously to God and/or to her lover, “…I can’t do it without You and I thought I was good, wasn’t I good? Don’t be silent, tell me I was good am I still so good, so good?” (p. 24).

The question often arises is why are certain things happening to her. The answer for her is usually because of or for “Elohai”, or “my God” (p. 66). The speaker understands she is Jewish, accepts Judaism in various forms throughout her life’s experiences, and never questions the existence of God – but it is usually on her terms.
Mahgerefteh goes through three stages of Jewish experience in In My Bustan: 1) acceptance of traditional Jewish religious customs and cultural 2)challenging/questioning of traditional Jewish religious customs and cultural 3) returning of acceptance of Jewish religious customs and culture.
To backtrack to “poetry” (p. 3), the beginning poem, Mahgerefteh writes:

As the pen’s
leaves a print
I gladly yield
to its intrusion.

In My Bustan takes you on a personal journey. The speaker implies she puts pen to paper to lead to self-realization, or self-identity. This path may be frightening to some readers; but most people will appreciate this memoir’s truthfulness, sincerity, and brilliance and “gladly yield/to its intrusion.”

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