Carol Conroy was browsing the poetry section when my parents Sigmund and Frances walked in. They were visiting with me in Atlanta as they did every year on their way from Israel to the States. I introduced Carol to my folks and they sat in the coffee room of The Old New York Book Shop for a few minutes getting to know each other.
Now, I always joked with Pat Conroy, my friend and Carol’s brother, about how much smarter Carol was than he. But when Carol came to the store a week later and dropped 5 poems on my desk, I had proof after reading the first poem called “The Jewish Furrier Tells How to Write Poetry.”
“Cliff’s father was right.
He said: Simple. You just do it.
You hold the animal and pick your knife.
Courage it takes. The rest forget.
But have the coat on the woman’s back,
not in your mind.
For instance the whistle.
You hold it in your throat
and send the air through the mouth’s toy.
Lips can be silver.
Siggy Graubart knows something.
His advice is good.
It is as natural as the swift intake of joy
in Megan’s smile,
the youngest niece,
when she cries daddy across the yard
and runs to kiss the matted fur
of a father’s head, the poet.”
I was stunned that Carol could glean so much from my father in so short a time. It was 1980, and Pat and I decided that our new publishing company (founded in 1978) would grow into poetry. We asked Carol to expand the 5 poems to 10 and we would produce a book of poetry, and a few months later The Jewish Furrier came out in a limited edition of 150 numbered copies in gray boards and tan cloth spine on Hayle hand-made paper bound by hand at the Pamami Press in Douglasville, Georgia by Mike Riley.
I did not know then how significant that little book would become. Carol submitted the work in a contest connected with Harper Lee and won a year’s residence at a University in Virginia and a contract with W. W. Norton for The Beauty Wars, her first regularly published book.
In 1986, when Pat was going to press with The Prince of Tides, he had created “Savannah,” a poet based on his sister Carol, and incorporated a poem from The Jewish Furrier. Two days before going to press, Carol called Pat’s publisher demanding that the poem not be printed. She was unhappy at being portrayed in the book to begin with, and would not tolerate the printing of her poem.
Pat had two days to re-write the poem, and the book was printed with “The Jewish Furrier” as a different poem.
Serendipity. Carol’s not Jewish. Pat’s not Jewish. Carol writes a book of poetry, about my Jewish father, which opens the door to her career as a poet. Pat writes The Prince of Tides, his break-through novel, which incorporates her book, and has a strong Jewish component in the Lowenstein character, portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the film version. Somehow, I found myself in the center of this creativity and expansion into Jewish themes so near to me, and loved it.
I have always been fascinated by epigraphs — those borrowed words that authors choose to introduce and encapsulate the message of their books. And so, almost as soon as I started writing my own book, Crossing the Borders of Time, I found my thoughts exploring several possibilities, words whose power had won them space in my catalogue of memory.
The book involves a search to find my mother’s long-lost love, the young and handsome Frenchman she’d left behind in 1942, when — fleeing the Nazis — she was forced to board the last refugee ship to escape France before the Germans sealed its ports. She was Jewish and 18; he was Catholic and 21. “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone,” Roland had written to Janine in a farewell note before she sailed. “I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife.” But war and disapproving family had intervened, and even as she tried to build a different life than the one she had imagined, Mom shared with me her longing for the love that had been stolen from her.
The story of their star-crossed romance, culminating in my efforts to reunite the pair, first called to mind Bob Dylan’s paean to a young love that endures:
The future for me is already a thing of the past.
You were my first love and you will be my last.
Yet even in my silent reading, the gnarly twang of Dylan’s unique delivery resounded as unreservedly American. It set the wrong mood as the opener for a love story that unfolded in Europe of the war years, and its tone seemed too lighthearted for the period and the harrowing experiences I was depicting. Besides, Dylan belonged to my youth. His rebellious ballads could be interpreted as a rejection of my parents’ generation. Indeed, the disdain that he expressed was not lost on my father, who actually forbade me to play Dylan’s albums on his phonograph, as if their scathing lyrics might damage the machinery.
Next in top contention for my epigraph were favorite verses from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet had completely captured the spirit of my story, as he spoke to how a past, imagined yet never lived, nonetheless persists in memory. The words that echoed in my mind, entrancing and enthralling me since childhood, were all my mother’s words—her stories from a rose-garden, a lovers’ garden, an Eden from which she had been exiled. Perfect. Except for one disturbing thing. Eliot, whose philosophical poetry I adored, was a reputed anti-Semite, as exemplified most clearly in his early work.
Could I comfortably enshrine the verses of an anti-Semite on the opening pages of a volume that I had devoted in large measure to describing the plight of European Jewry in the Holocaust? I struggled with the question. To make Eliot’s voice my book’s first voice felt like treason. A betrayal of the millions who had suffered and died for no other reason than their Jewishness. And yet it grated, in banishing the artist, to have to sacrifice the art – a dilemma far from new to us. We are used to squirming as we read literary classics from times and places in which loathing for the Jewish people was a cultural prejudice quite shamelessly expressed. Surely, I argued with myself, we cannot be expected to reject all the works where Jews appear unfavorably or whose authors are anti-Semites. And what about music? Must we always close our ears to Richard Wagner?
Even now, after months of debate with myself and with others whose opinions I respect, my answers to these questions feel muddled. Before my book went to print, however, and not without regret, I relinquished T. S. Eliot and wondered whether, had I written something different—a physics text on the nature of time, for example—I might have felt more free to honor his creative voice by quoting him in my epigraph.
As it was, in place of Eliot’s verses, I finally chose a cherished line from Thomas Wolfe:
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
It had the virtue of calling to mind for me the loss not only of Roland, but also of my father, who had died before the lovers reunited, and of Hitler’s countless victims. Beyond that, when my son asked me whether Wolfe, as well, might have been a secret anti-Semite, I was happy to assure him that while the great novelist had visited Germany repeatedly in the 1930s, he had publicly denounced the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Retaliating, the Nazis had banned his books in Germany. Wolfe’s longtime lover, I suddenly remembered then, had been a Jewess named Aline Bernstein. To her, “A.B.,” he dedicated his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel, from which I drew my epigraph with the sense I had arrived at the right place.
I’ve thought a lot about Isaac Babel’s lovely characterization of the Jew as a man with “[s]pectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” The first part is easy: the man is an intellectual, a scholar, a thinker. He is frail, fallible; his eyes are weak and his touch, perhaps, is tender.
The second part is sexier, and more open to interpretation. What does it mean to have autumn in your heart? Is this just an aesthetic flourish, a fancy way of saying that Jews have the souls of poets, that our insides glow amber like sunlit leaves? Would the effect be different if Babel had said, instead, that the Jew has spring in his heart?
Perhaps I’m staring too closely, ignoring the forest for the view of a single tree. But ours is a culture of close reads and commentary–think of the Talmud, think of the overflowing comments section on almost any Jewish blog. This is why we wear spectacles on our noses–we study, we struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible. Think of the sages up all night in Bnei Brak, arguing over the haggadah. Think of what Hillel said — “the rest is commentary, now go and study” — who understood both the simplicity of morality (Do unto others…) as well as the infinite tessellations of its applications.
There is something about autumn. In autumn, we celebrate the new year. In autumn, the book of death is unshelved, left open for a week; the prospect of unwritten death hangs above us. As the leaves fall and the plants die, we face mortality. We savor the sweetness of life and humble ourselves before nature.
My favorite holiday growing up was Sukkot. Beginning five days after Yom Kippur. The harvest festival, Sukkot, reminds us of our history as itinerant agrarians. Our ancestors would sleep out in their sukkahs during the final weeks of the harvest, before the winter frost. They would sleep under the stars and celebrate the bounty of the harvest. We are meant to do the same.
My family wasn’t particularly religious — we occasionally, but rarely, attended a gaudy synagogue I found spiritually void. But we did have a sukkah every year. My mother, an artist, built one out of wood and painted it blue with white polka dots, and inscribed it with lines from Amichai poems. We would decorate the structure in hay, corn, gourds, and flowers. Friends and family would come over to feast and drink wine. When the crowd had dispersed and the sun disappeared I would make one last trip to the sukkah. I would lie on the grass floor and stare at the stars. I would feel the wind on my face. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I remember feeling small, dwarfed by the universe. Perhaps what I felt was autumn in my heart.
Reputedly, Rachmaninoff once said: “There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.” There’s so much to like about the quote! I think maestro must have seen art – in his case, music – as something of a daily practice; certain anti-climatic quality of his pronouncement is also a promise for consistency. He would probably agree that the intentional seeking or digging isn’t called inspiration – curiosity maybe – so, just start talking. Or humming, whatever.
Working on the last stages of my new book, Jazz Talmud, I was lucky to have the mentorship of Stanley Moss, my editor/publisher, and also a really excellent poet. I’ve never agreed with anyone offering me editorial advice as much as I did with Stanley. Except for this one thing.
As we chatted and told each other stories, he kept prodding me to write down some of the stories I told him as poems. He also pointed out certain significant aspects of my life I’ve never discussed in poetry – and thought it was a mistake to keep avoiding them. He pushed hard for these pieces. In principle, I agreed; for the ten or so pieces he commissioned, I went through numerous drafts, arrived at forms that were new to me, had a lot of fun. Ultimately, it was all garbage, and to the garbage it went.
But, while laboring on the commissioned pieces, between the cracks, I wrote notes – sketches – for other pieces, completely unrelated, more distractions than compositions. Those sketches actually worked and ended up as poems; on-demand stuff probably never will. We all have our little tricks. Mine, turned out, is sitting down to do one thing and getting distracted into something else. There’s more free-associative freedom that way, more potential for play and the unexpected. I don’t know if this congeals with Rachmaninoff’s ethos, but I’d like to think that maybe sitting down to write his orchestra arrangements, he veered into solo piano works. Or vice versa.
Here’s a piece that grew out of a distraction. It’s kind of like having a kid “by mistake”. Kind of… just with a bit less at stake, I guess.
All around you
as far as the eye can see
nothing but soup.
Horizon, a dangling zipper
of some deity’s pants.
You’re in a boat on loan
from the demon of Monday mornings.
Questions – birds – it’s the fall
there’re more of them they form v’s
traverse the sky towards a shining yellow bottom
of a pot where much better stuff
is being brewed.
About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.
But taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking – it’s a funny poem – but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things – out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny – don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.
My wife and I spent 2008-2009 in Jerusalem, where I was a Dorot Fellow. It was unforgettable year, the time when, more so than ever before, I had an opportunity to write. Location was an open question. Our apartment was neater beyond anything I’ve ever encountered. We have just gotten married, and my wife Shoshana put up a valiant and edifying effort to keep it sane – despite the combination of me, guests, our belongings, and Jerusalem dust who would gang up and daily raise a mighty paw of offense. However close to Collins-compliance state, our place was too small, too removed from pulsing, yelling life that surrounded us. I had to get out.
And so, most often I’d go to a little cafe, called Nocturno, a few minutes away from the apartment. It was a tiny duplex with a winding metal staircase that at its peak managed to host as many as three dozen people, which was kind of unbelievable. Talmud, describing the miraculous occurrences of the Temple, says: “people stood close together, yet when they worshipped there was enough room for all.” It was that sort of a thing. All the space got used up: tables outside, bar stools, loners were doubled up into joint tables, and even the cement ledge that’s technically outside the perimeter had a few people sitting on it. The menu ranged from soup to cigarettes, but most importantly, they brewed great coffee. And the crowd was very colorful. With Bezalel Art School nearby students came out in droves; but there were also heavy grad school folks buried in their books; a few hip religious Jews; secular population of Jerusalem (a wonderful and underexplored breed of their own!); lots of foreigners. A few times I spotted Israeli Arabs – a fact that, in the city where divide lines run at their deepest, says a lot about the cafe and its vibe.
I sat upstairs, with my notebooks, big mugs of coffee, and watched the noise. It was visible. The noise, like the cafe itself, seemed layered, there were floors to it, and winding noise-stairs. The noise-steam rose from cups of noise-sipping noise-masters. Bringing around plates, waiters, served noise-sandwiches. It was neither grating nor even unpleasant. It was a structure. An organic structure. It felt great.
This is where my Jazz Talmud project was born. I was playing around on the page, free-associating, and within a span of a week I wrote a core of poems that became a book. The idea was to use the Talmudic rhetoric, talk the way Talmudic rabbis talked – but address things relevant to me and my life. Talmud is not what Collins would pine after, nor certainly what Joyce’d call a “clean well-lighted place.” Because there is never a single voice cutting through it. It’s like a body; it’s also like a universe. Everybody is talking to everyone – across centuries, backwards and forward, moving, chatting, chattering, agreeing and vehemently disproving, reminiscing, reconciling, recoiling, trying to bring the house down – you get the idea. The same is true for jazz. I once heard a great American poet, David Meltzer, say that jazz is the closest we’ve come to utopia. Because it is incredibly communal and people who may have never met each other before, or maybe can’t stand each other’s guts, will know how to speak to each other in the language much more real than any words we know. People are listening to each other and composing on the spot, responding not merely to one another, but also to the ghosts who’ve inspired the music they’re playing: be it their teachers, or jazz greats who’ve laid down genre’s foundations, or even people in their actual lives – because of the improvisational factor, jazz is visceral and personal, revealing even.
So then what I begun to construct is poems with many voices. With noise-structures and arguments. Here’s an example.
said Rabbi Zusha: “my mother named me Sasha but I fell into a seraphic orchestra pit, and things have not been the same” his students asked him: “what did you see in the pit?” he answered: “behold, four seraphs held a cello, like a naked, newly-formed body, and eight pushed the bow” whose cello? Adam’s whose bow? Mordechai’s, the refused bow that makes cellos of heaven sing the soul-spilling human heaviness — the essence he also said: “in every horn, their lives a family of shadadademons, a family of three or four, on the average angel Gabriel comes to blow his hot breath to let them loose into the world, their clothes flutter, their hearts beat against the four brass bars of domestication, both breaking as a result” therefore, every saxophone is a ripped cage: no, a rib cage: of an ancient being that de-composed long before names of god became the star-tallis in which hearts are wrapped/rapt taught Rabbi Akiva: behold there are names of god that got filtered by moth-screens others got lost in the loss of the hiss of the vinyl some stuck in Karl Marx’s beard some stuck between the boards of the family-table and can only be extracted with a big family knife some spilled on the mama-apron in the deep-fry-metaphysical back-kitchen but these are the 32 revealed names of god: “jehwaep. shadai-doodah woop elohadip dip papadoo dap. strata doo dampa flip clip dedam pam pa derederedere strip tzuris degatee goat boom dupa goat ratata ratata what? you askin? outer bank, jehwaep shadai doodah wap” New Orleans funk band the Meters inherited twenty crumbs of the god-name from the voodoo grandmother who plucked them at the foot of the great phallic Ethiopian Eucalyptus but some say she birthed these crumbs, each in deep pain, each deep in time, each under the brilliant lamp-lights which are the eyes of Messiah himself