Friday, April 07, 2023

The Sacrifice of Isaac: A Poem Series. Keith Tornheim Poetica Publishing. 2022. 40 pp. $15.00



When I think of the story of Abraham and Isaac, I think of a Rubik’s cube—with its colored squares you’re supposed to shift until each side of the cube is a single color. But shift one panel to make it right, and another shifts out of place. In the same way, that story about God and Abraham fails to make sense to me no matter how many times I turn it this way and that. I can admire Abraham’s faith as long as I don’t look at what God’s asking him to do. I can admire God’s provision of the ram, as long as I don’t look at what he put Abraham and Isaac through first.

Keith Tornheim’s recent collection of poems, The Sacrifice of Isaac, works the story as if it were Rubik’s cube: turning it every which way, each poem giving voice to a different participant (not only God, Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, the servants, and the angel, but also the ram, the thicket, the rock). I found the juxtaposition of these viewpoints surprisingly moving, and surprisingly surprising: such an old story can still appear strange.

The thirty-one poems open with an account of a Persian plate the speaker’s mother admired in a Boston antique shop, a plate depicting “Father Abraham with the knife/raised above Isaac his son,/whom he clasps against his chest.” Tornheim bought the plate as a gift for her, then inherited it when she died, but found himself “uneasy as the heir/of this testament of her certainty and faith.”

He’s not the only uneasy one. How can a righteous God ask such a thing? How could a loving father do it? Kierkegaard, Leonard Cohen, and countless rabbis have asked the same question. Tornheim works very much within the Midrashic tradition of rabbinic commentary; in

fact, many of his poems have been read as part of High Holy Day services, when the “binding of Isaac” is the Torah portion for the day. “Who knows what really happened atop Mt. Moriah?” the speaker asks in the title poem. “All are dead, except God./Perhaps Abraham acted differently from what is written.”

Or perhaps the rocks did. In “Memorial Stones,” those rocks which “by God’s grace never tasted Isaac’s blood” become the site of future suffering:

And afterward that angel of the Lord

carried the stones away one by one

and dropped them at designated points

in places in a distant land.

There they waited for four thousand years

in Dachau, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen…

until at last their thirst was quenched

in Buchenwald, Treblinka and the rest…

with blood of Isaac’s seed.

Tornheim’s poems have the stark, paratactic style Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis associates with Biblical narrative—we see only spotlit actions, with minimal context. But each poem shifts the spotlight, aligning us with contrasting, contradictory viewpoints. In the process the emphasis shifts from the story’s message to what it might have felt like to the individuals involved.

One poem, “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” points out that the story is more properly known as the “binding,” not the “sacrifice” of Isaac, since Isaac is not sacrificed. For many rabbis, this is the point: the story teaches us that human sacrifice is not acceptable. But surely the same point could have been made without causing so much pain. Because “Abraham sacrificed his son/in the depths of his heart” the poem suggests, “it was his heart/that Abraham gave to God”:

And Isaac knew it.

And Sarah knew it,

and it broke hers.

So it was that Abraham sacrificed

their hearts, too.

The poem ends blessing God (somewhat bitterly, it seems to me) as “King of the universe,/Receiver of hearts.”

Because the human price seems so disproportionate to the lesson learned, Tornheim can’t rest with any single explanation. In “I Should Not Have Asked,” God decides it was all a mistake. Both “The Testing” and “Adonai-yireh”suggest that rather than God testing Abraham, perhaps Abraham was testing God:

And when I raised the knife,

God had to answer, to reveal Himself

as a God of life,

not one of the old gods of death.

Other poems suggest it was God’s test, but he failed to understand its consequences. Sarah’s heart, Abraham’s heart, Isaac’s heart: all are shattered by what they learn. “How long must I rock him in the night,” an angry Sarah asks Abraham on his return. “And then who will comfort me?”

But my favorite poem is “Borrowed,” in which no one’s heart gets broken. Even the sheep turns up unharmed, returned to its shepherd although “not so frisky as before,” and smelling of smoke. When the shepherd later journeys near an encampment “whose headman we were told worshipped/a strange and solitary god”:

. . . Abraham himself came out

to see that we were well provided for.

And when he saw our ram—

it was the strangest thing!—

he bowed his head in silent thanks,

and our ram nodded back at him.

In its simplicity, its refusal to explain, and in the stark beauty of its language (the assonance of “thing” and “him”; of “thanks” and “ram”; the defamiliarizing effect of Abraham as “headman”), “Borrowed” is typical of Tornheim’s best poems: their strange, evocative mix of understated mysticism and humanity.

Ultimately, The Sacrifice of Abraham suggests, we are the stories we tell. The book’s final poem, “Looking Back,” invokes history and collectivity—the “we” formed by shared stories:

Scars become legends,

legends become scripture;

a family becomes a people.

And the ram becomes “ancient smoke/that still swirls around us.” What all this says, finally, about God, violence, sacrifice, and humanity, I’m not sure. Maybe just that we need to think, when we read those old stories or even the newspaper, less of what the lesson is and more of whose heart is getting broken.

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Red Letter Poem #155

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner






Red Letter Poem #155




To borrow a phrase from another illustrious poet, there is an artful arrangement within even our ordinary days, which Mr. Heaney termed the music of what happens Unfolding in a single lifetime – or in the cycles of centuries – there are rhythms, refrains, changes in key, and distinct melodies.  Some are hauntingly beautiful, some shrill and jarring, and others so blessedly nondescript they become our background accompaniment, barely noticed.  Walt Whitman made a conscious choice to move away from the classical forms of European poetry, to fashion something closer to the conversational voice and more embracing of the ordinary.  I can easily trace a direct lineage – from the songs of the Bard of Democracy; through someone like Frank O’Hara and his peripatetic I do this, I do that lyrics; to today’s Red Letter poet, Mark Pawlak.  Not only have they all, at one time or another, been entranced by the blab of the pavement on some of those same New York City streets, they maintain a faith that within the clear-eyed, matter-of-fact moments of our days, something essential is revealed.  Beauty is what rings true within the quiet mind.


So it is in “Signs and Cyphers”, a brand-new poem from his forthcoming collection Away (which will appear in the fall from Hanging Loose Press.)  The narrator steps out into a spring day (very much like the one outside my window right now), and makes his way – where?  Work? Grocery shopping? Simply wandering?  And on his way, there is a melodic unreeling of verses where the mundane reveals just the faintest glimmer of capital-B Beauty, before receding beyond our attention.  Most of us possess the sorts of lives that will go unrecorded in the chronicles of our tumultuous era.  And yet, when it’s our shadow yawning across the crosswalk; or our breakfast berries, still sweet on the tongue; or our lost shoe, Cinderella-like – these artifacts seem mysterious, like items recovered from some Egyptian tomb.  We feel in them an utter momentousness that may be the hallmark of human consciousness.  After all, what thing more precious do any of us possess than the claims on life staked by an observing mind?  And Mark is the sort of poet whose attention is keyed-in to the modest glory to be found in such dailiness.  Whitman, I believe, would smile at his singing.  And as for “Billy J. 1987”, wherever you are: may today’s sun be warm upon your shoulders.


Writer, editor, educator, peace activist – Mark is the author of nine previous volumes of poetry including Reconnaissance: New and Selected poems & Poetic Journals (also from the Hanging Loose imprint) which gathers selections from across a decade of published work.  He also published recently My Deniversity (MadHat Press) – a memoir of his friend and mentor, the late Denise Levertov – in which he describes how he learned just how much of a life one could commit to the search for honest poems.  A native of Buffalo, New York, for many years now you can find Mark pounding the pavement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and gathering up in language what others could not stop to notice in their hurried day.

Signs and Cyphers

Stepping out into the spring breeze

to find pear blossoms scattered

over where someone wrote in

the once wet cement: “Billy J. 1987.”


And chalked on another concrete slab,

faintly visible beneath hopscotch squares

a palimpsest: outline of a child,

legs and arms akimbo.


And at the busy avenue,

my long shadow in the crosswalk:

run over by passing cars,

again and again.


Yesterday, two women—a team?—

silently worked opposite sides

of this same street, where

trash cans were out for pickup.


One, slender, primly dressed:

dark stockings, dark skirt,

matching waist-length coat,

sensible shoes and pillbox hat;


the other, heavyset, sweat shirt,

sweat pants, high-top sneakers, dark curls

peaking out under multicolor knit hat;

each pushing a grocery cart bulging with plastic bags.


And yesterday stepping off the bus

in a sudden downpour my hatless neighbor eyed

the broken umbrella discarded

in the gutter and cracked a wry smile.


Today, on the bus shelter’s metal bench

an empty Marlboro flip-top box next to

a plastic container half full of ripe berries—

someone’s hurried breakfast?


It’s moving day and out bus window:

lamps, chairs, dressers, sofas,

box-springs—you name it—

heaped at curbsides.  In the square,


passersby can’t disturb this man

sleeping in the alley behind the post office

on a mattress dragged off the sidewalk—

overstuffed rucksack, his pillow.


Around the corner outside the boutique shoe store,

canvas lawn chairs line the sidewalk

where suburban boys in sleeping bags have spent the night

to get first crack at limited-edition sneakers.


And on brickwork at the subway entrance,

a woman’s high-heel shoe,

black patent leather—lost? discarded?

— just one, the left.


Where was she coming from?

Where was she headed?

Did she leave this one shoe behind

and continue hobbling on?


Or did she slip off the other as well

and proceed in stocking feet

along the cold pavement

late for her rendezvous with what prince?


Yesterday, dressed in fatigues,

a panhandler on milk crate

extending to passersby his upturned cap

which jostled with a few rain-damp coins.


Today, same milk crate, unoccupied

except for a rude, cardboard sign—ANYTHING HELPS—

block lettered message left for contemplation,

cypher to interpret—ANYTHING HELPS!


Spring breeze,

pear blossoms scattered

where someone wrote in

wet cement: “Billy J. 1987.”



    ––Mark Pawlak




The Red Letters 3.0


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