Seen from one angle, Samuel Menashe’s poems belong squarely in a tradition of verse construction that spans several thousand years. The poems—almost all of them startlingly short, compared to most poems by most of his peers—are self-contained epigrams, charms, wishes, prayers, descriptive one-shots, shapely units of quotable wisdom. They draw on tropes as old as civilization: Odysseus’s “river / We cannot cross”; Jacob’s angel, “flesh / Wrestling in the dark.” They make sense when read for the first time, even to many readers unused to much modern poetry (though you can recognize them as modern poetry if you have read Dickinson or Creeley or Niedecker); they are the considered speech of the self to the self and to future passers-by, “serious, engravable,” as another modern poet said.
Seen from another angle, Menashe is unique: there will be no more poems of this kind. Menashe’s poems—and these aspects did not change very much over fifty-odd years—spoke in English to his Jewish sensibility, to his sense of spiritual isolation, of living out of place and out of time. Most of his critics—following his own lead—have begun with that sense. And Menashe’s way of being, thinking, and feeling Jewish was neither primarily cultural and historical (as it was in, say, Adrienne Rich) nor irreducibly, wonderfully bound up with ongoing interpretive disputes, with Mishnah and Gemara, responsa and argument (as in John Hollander: both Hollander and Rich, it is odd to recall, were four years younger than Menashe).
Instead, Jewishness in Menashe is a root in the heavens and a rock on the naked earth, an unmediated listening (the holiest prayer in Judaism, and one of the shortest, enjoins us first of all to listen). He did not transcribe God’s words, but left space to hear them, and then to write down the weighty, interlocking sets of words his own soul could show. Not all Menashe’s poems were epigram-short. Yet to come upon a longer one (“On the leafless winter vine,” for example) is to find an anomaly. Menashe did not want to narrate, to construct a slow build, to set scenes; he had little patience for the kind of common talk, the low-intensity speech, that in longer poems provides frames for the gems, backgrounds so that figures stand out. Instead, his poems were all figure, sometimes even all holiness, or all regret for holiness denied; he took each moment within a poem as potentially a holy one, the only one. The holiest day in Judaism comes once a week; the nearly holy language of these poems is, like the Sabbath, respite from the world, set off from the world, even though its words are common, its deeds unexceptional, performed over and over, renewed each time.
And that holiness, that way of being set off (like the Sabbath) from regular language and regular work, becomes, in the poems, a matter of sound: of the sound Menashe makes when he says, of the God of the Book of Exodus, “the world was salted / When one hand made a sea sunder.” Or, at slightly greater length, from the same early book, in a poem called “Cargo”:
I am made whole by my scars
For whatever now displaces
Follows all that once was
And without loss stows
Me into my own spaces
It is a graceful chiasmus, a gathering of phonemes around one metaphor, rarely equaled in English (one parallel might be Langston Hughes’s “Cross”). But Menashe equals it many times: for example, in “To Open,” whose almost punningly Objectivist title belies its spirit of delight: “Spokes slide / Upon a pole / Inside / The parasol.”
He does not always perform so well with sound. Sometimes the poems sound unfinished: sometimes, many times, they sound too rough to work as poems in any ear but Menashe’s own. More than anyone else besides Dickinson, Menashe shows that he either accepts, or refuses, the tradition of epigrammatic finish, of professionalized perfection, of immediate comprehension, that comes with other poets’ very short poems. “We are left enough / Love for grief each time snow flies,” for example, sounds over-sincere at first, even amateurish.
And yet the appearance of over-earnestness, the weighty sincerity, in such a line lets it do what turns out to be intricate work. How much love is enough? Do we love grief itself, or do we retain just enough love that it lets us grieve? Why does snow fly, rather than fall? (Answer: it flies when wind lifts it up, as if to reverse its fall; as if to reverse death, to resurrect.) “We are left enough / Love for grief”: that’s a lot to say. It is almost—almost—a poem in itself. A Menashe poem in itself.