Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Complete Yiddish Poems of Menke Katz. By Menke Katz. Translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. 2005; 779pp; Hardcover; The Smith, 69 Joralemon St., Brooklyn, NY12201.$35.00.

Here we have another volume that both libraries and readers interested in modern poetry/cultural history/Jewish history/world religion can't really do without. Katz was a Rabbi originally from Lithuania (born in 1906, died in upper NY state in 1991), who came to the U.S. in 1920. He was a mystical kabbalist and spent a few years in Safad in Galilee, the home of kabbalism. For some twenty years I visited him two or three years a year in upper state NY, up in the Catskills, with the publisher of this volume, Harry Smith, and I found him to be a kind of incarnation of Judaism, perhaps the most profound Hebrew scholar I've ever met. Reading through this volume is like taking a time-trip back to old Yiddish-Jewish Europe, to Israel, NY. And to top things off, there is a 134 page expository introduction to Katz and his work by his son, Dovid, who, after years as a professor of Yiddish at Oxford, is now at the Vilnius University in Lithuania. Lots of Yiddish translations in the introduction, so you don't really need them throughout the whole volume, although it would be nice to see another volume perhaps of selected poems with both the Yiddish and English on the same page. Katz's poems about Lithuania evoke the Jewish European past as no one else does: In Michaleshik, a spasm of silence,/The huts huddle in danger.../The ferry raft is moored, the guard has gone.../Over the nearby graveyard they hear/The wind saying Kaddish through the grass. (p. 155, from Bk.1 of Burning Village.) Kaddish, incidentally, is the Hebrew prayer for the dead. But Katz isn't all remembrances of times past. How about his NY poems, before he moved out into the country: in my alleys -- the gray houses/Clamor for light...//Young robbers run/Like sleepwalkers on housetops./In dirty courtyards/Cats are pregnant -- and sick nights hear/The distant, choked rustle/Of half-slaughtered children.You might get the impression that Katz is pure anguish and gore, the incarnation of angst and horror. But the Katz I knew was Rabbi Optimism, more than that, Rabbi Pure Joy, always referring back to the Torah, singing old Jewish songs from the old days, just talking, just being: Wandering at a table is the oldest voyage around the world./A friend at the table is more beautiful than the beauty of all travels./What sunrise can lighten the world like a friend at the table?...//All the good things remain baffled by this dazzle of joy, zest and plenty--/The earth grows young, man is new as Adam's first gaze at Creation. (Friends at a Table, from Midday, 1954,p.671) Maybe he was happiest in Safad, totally immersed in the Kaballah, learning Arabic, not one word ever against the Muslems, who accepted him as if he was one of theirs: All the/alleys of/Safad become in/the sunset holy/meandering paths where/stray angels beg each dying/ray of the sun: O take us with/you, O lead us....back/home to the Garden of Eden. This is a book not simply to read but to immerse yourself in, like reading the work of The Buddha until you finally feel his sanity descend upon you like warm rain, washing everything away but nirvana.

Hugh Fox/Ibbetson Update

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Poets Grey Held and Shelby Have A Captive Audience.

(Grey Held)

Grey Held and Shelby Allen are more than just publication -focused writers. Both are accomplished poets, but they don’t spend their time getting their nose-browned in the rarefied groves of the academy. They go the trenches of the poetry world. They run poetry workshops for inmates at the “Northeast Correctional Center,” in Concord, Mass. Grey Held who was the recipient of a NEA grant and a nominee for a Pushcart Prize, and Shelby Allen a 2004 Boston Herald Poetry Prize winner told me that they are constantly surprised about how insightful and bright the inmates are, most of whom lack a formal education.

Shelby Allen told me she came to poetry from acting. She said: “Acting was a way not to write. Poetry came to my life after a period of creative confinement.” Her work in a correctional center was a natural progression. She recalled: “So naturally I responded to people who were literally confined.”

Held got his start with poetry in College. He had a teaching assistantship in Creative Writing at MIT. Held told me: “I work in the business world, but I did drawing and painting on the side for many years. About six or seven years ago I really felt the urge to write again. I took a workshop with Barbara Helfgott-Hyett. I just loved the creative, free-write process they practice there.”

Held met Allen at the workshop, and through literary circles they found about volunteer opportunities in prisons. This lead to their current stint as poetry workshop teachers at the Concord Correctional Center. Both find that poetry is a lifeline for prisoners, and a way for them to come to terms with their inner demons.

This poetic duo uses poems that inmates can relate to, and encourages them to use objects and experiences from their everyday life.. One inmate poem they shared with me concerned the prisoner’s hat, and the symbolic weight it carried.

Allen said what’s interesting about her experience as a workshop leader is: “Once you get into the experience, it feels like any other poetic situation. The prison goes away.”

Both Grey and Held agree that many of the prisoner’s poems they have read would stand on their own merits in the outside poetry world. Held said their work is: “Evocative and pretty amazing.”

The workshop is voluntary so participants really want to be there. The prisoners are not the caricatures you see on the TV prison drama “OZ” Many of the prisoners are self-educated and erudite. There is a complete range of skills, according to Allen.

The inmates according to Grey and Held write because they are in prison and in spite of it. Held speculated that if they were not in prison in the first place they may not have had the opportunity to study poetry. But many of them do turn to self-enrichment courses like poetry at this phase of their lives. Ironically, Held told me that many inmates have told him: “Prison has saved my life.”

Doug Holder