The Poetry of Sam Menashe

Taken by Storm
Photo of Samuel Menashe by Matt Valentine

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.

 

You can, if you try, read Menashe as a poet of careful, distant, loyal companionship.

Because he has had to be reintroduced over and over, in volumes whose contents overlapped, across decades, to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, it has been difficult until the present volume to see how Menashe’s verse developed or changed. But it did change. The false starts, unaccommodating kinds of poems, that appear in The Many Named Beloved do not show up in later volumes, and the poet gives us the chiasmatic, internally rhymed quatrain (a form I love) more often. He also writes more about landscapes, and more about grief.

Moreover: starting with To Open (1974) we begin to get, along with poems of solitude, poems of companionship, of devotion to others. The quatrain called “Solitude” would look for all the world like a goofy poem of romantic love were it not for the title. “Transplant” could scarcely be clearer in its speaker’s devotion to somebody else’s body: like the Greek heroes who feel things in their thumoi, he would “give / My liver,” if needed, “For you to live.” It is also a poem of anticipatory grief: Menashe cannot see other adults without remembering that they will leave him someday, that we are mortals too. He also grieves his parents, over and over: the thought of their absence tears a hole in his being, and to cover that hole, to feel less naked, he stitches together his characteristic internal rhymes.

When Menashe describes what he sees, we see it too. And he describes tersely, or else describes scenes of absence, sparseness, solitude: all-erasing snow, for example; a hermit’s hut; the sun on the sea. “Landmark” depicts (Menashe often depicts) empty windows, figures for “the awe of death” (compare Tennyson’s “Dark house, by which once more I stand”). Even a poem that begins with the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry, that famously elaborated manuscript, concludes with its locus amoenus almost empty, “one of those hours / in early afternoon / where nothing happens / but time makes room.”

But no description here is mere description. No object deserves to appear in a Menashe poem unless its description evokes the divine: “Every derelict stem / Engenders Jerusalem.” That city flowers, here, one stem at a time: all its images mean a great deal, and the ones that seem melodramatic often enough unfold into something stranger and deeper. It’s a pop-lyric cliché to say that rain represents heaven’s tears, but Menashe says instead that rain on snow is “Adam’s afterbirth”; “the windows weep” because they share his pain. All manner of poets describe their grief-saturated later lives as haunted houses; Menashe, on the other hand, in “The Host,” is “haunted / Out of my house” by remembered spirits that suck marrow out of his bones.

Almost any image in Menashe could drive an entire poem, could become a self-portrait or an emblem: “Sleep / gives wood its grain / dreams knot the wood.” Of course they would, and should. When his work has recognizable characters (often allegorical ones), his antagonists share the laconic disposition that characterizes its questers, its hermits, its prophets: in what could be almost any temperate urban “park at night,” “armed trees frisk a windfall / Down paths that lampposts light.” The trees frisk the wind in the way that police frisk a suspect; they may also play with it, run after it, chase their own falling leaves, and of course they can never catch up.

Sometimes Menashe does not describe at all—he is a man (and, specifically, a man: a twentieth-century male human, “the King’s son”) without a fitting landscape, alone amid gray streets with his thoughts and his words, a man alone in the city, where objects of unproblematic, traditional beauty are hard to find. Like poets before him, he took the discovery of beauty in the crowded city as a challenge, one his way of life would let him meet. He might be the last significant American writer to describe his own residence, unironically, as a “tenement”: a book that appeared in 2000 contained a beautiful diptych entitled “Tenement Spring.”

He also portrays himself alone in another sense: he lives and works in an apartment with bed, windows, and little else, with neither romantic partners, nor a child. He names himself Adam, repeatedly: an Adam without an Eve. At one point he wants to make out with a pine tree. And yet he speaks, in the poems he wrote after the early 1970s, to the long Western tradition of romantic and erotic poetry: “Clair de lune,” for example, with its lovely echo of early Auden, or “Western Wind,” with its admiring answers to the medieval lyric that now goes by the same name. There is courtship deferred, or turned into a tease, for example, “in a tug of war,” and there is sacred parody, love displayed for God, displayed over a glass of milk, “Draining it dry / In praise of Him.”

You can, if you try, read Menashe as a poet of careful, distant, loyal companionship. It has been easier, though—especially if you start with the poems first published before 1970, or after 2000—to read him as lonely, or lost. “I have not been found / Since my twentieth year.” “Bearings” becomes a poem of urban self-isolation, a poem of despair, to set beside Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” or even Frost’s “Desert Places”: “How far can I go / To get where I am.” An earlier poem concludes with the absent prophet, “the one / Who does not come.” A man alone as this version of Menashe is alone might compare himself to the Jewish people whose messiah, also, has not come. And yet “All will be found / One day.”

 

The poems, like prayers, remain in the memory; like prayers, they are short enough to be memorized.

I care deeply about Menashe’s poems, I reread them for pleasure and recommend them to friends, for the ways that they work as poems: “emotional machines made of words” (as William Carlos Williams put it), arrangements of language and sound. Yet to dive all the way into them, or climb all the way to the top of their spare, shining structures, is to see how Menashe was the kind of poet whose poems are never just poems: they are ways for the solitary soul to communicate with, or aspire to, the sublime, the world beyond merely human communication, ways to speak with and to—though never for—the aniconic God. “Stone,” Menashe reminds us, “cannot undo / Its own hardness.” But God can split a rock, or get water, blood, nourishment, from a stone. As for the secular light of the well-made poem, the mere pleasures of sight and sound, “The disc / Of the Sun / Is Adored / In Babylon.” This poet, these poems, set their figurative sights higher.

They also go lower. Menashe seems never to have left behind his experience as infantry in the Second World War; the sparest, most compact of the American poets to have emerged from that war, Menashe and George Oppen, also seem to have been the only significant poets who saw ground combat as members of the infantry. And it hurts: it hurts, or something hurts, “each vein,” something whose sadness he cannot specify, in poems published forty years after the combat he saw.

Menashe’s poems may point back to what “No one born / After the war / Remembers,” and forward to the repetitive decrepitude of old age. They sound hurt, and make him sound experienced (even elderly) even when we know he wrote them young. He said he was “taken by storm / Every morning”; sometimes he sounds like someone who found it uncommonly hard to make tea, to ride the subway or get in a car, to get through the day. The poems, and their implied author, come off as almost monkish that way. One wants to know what kind of world, or nature, or city, or society, if any, this unworldly poet would have preferred, and where, if anywhere, he felt at home.

Some poets’ virtues do not fit neat patterns; some poets appeal to various readers for various, even antithetical reasons, displaying talents and goals that do not fit one another very well, or even work at cross-purposes. With Menashe, though, all the virtues fit together. The poems, like prayers, remain in the memory; like prayers, they are short enough to be memorized. And like prayers, they point beyond this world, beyond the self—except when they are not like prayers at all, and point, with their brevity and their emphatic closure, to the closure in all human endeavor. As you approach the end of this collection—should you decide to read it straight through—you will pass many windows, many landscapes, but you will end at a narrow door, the door through which we all must pass. Its frame is the fallibility, the limits, and the fragility of the single human body, from birth to death, from toes to nose (does any poet in English say more about his own nose)? They insist, in their euphonies, on our limits. At the same time, they “rejoice” in a “Maker… / Whose promise is kept.” They speak beyond the poet’s single mortal body to many of us, in their depth, in their memorability, and to that other world some of us know through spiritual practice, through human intimacy, and through durable art.

The Shrine Whose Shape I Am
The Collected Poetry of Samuel Menashe

Audubon Terrace Press, $25, 440 pp.

 

Three poems by Samuel Menashe

Paradise: After Giovanni Di Paolo

Paradise is a grove

Where flower and fruit tree

Form oval petals and pears

And apples only fair...

Among these saunter saints

Who uphold one another

In sacred conversations

Shaping hands that come close

As the lilies at their knees

While Seraphim burn

With the moment’s breeze

(From the August 8, 1958 issue of Commonweal)

Judgment Day

Stone towers float

Out of dense fog

Sudden as ghosts

Loud trumpets sound

Among empty houses

Running men collide

None has found

Where to hide

(From the February 1964 issue of Commonweal)

Voices

There is a world

When the gramophone makes music in a room

Lifted in green leaves.

Voices of the opera that Mozart wrote

Sing in the morning,

Chaste and passionate.

(From the September 23, 2011 issue of Commonweal)

Published in the February 2020 issue: 

Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard University and the author of several books, including Belmont: Poems (Graywolf Press) and the forthcoming After Callimachus: Poems (Princeton University Press). This essay appears as the foreword to The Shrine Whose Shape I Am: The Collected Poetry of Samuel Menashe (Audubon Terrace Press). Used by permission.

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