One doesn’t get a private priestly blessingÂ every day, with fingers spread out and all; and when it comes from an elderly poet, in his fifth floor walk-up in Soho, in the dust-filtered sunlight amidst piles of books — well, that is a memory to tell your grandchildren about. Or at least the readers of MJL, as the case may be.
A few months ago I wrote an informational article about Samuel Menashe, a great Jewish poet whose work has been coming into prominence over the past decade. In the year 2000, he was awarded the Neglected Masters Award; his book was published by the prestigious Library of America. Now, the second edition of the book is coming out, and an analogous publication is hitting the bookshelves in London, as well.
Having been away from New York for a year, I decided to pay Menashe a visit, congratulate him on the new publication,Â and finally see his apartment.
For an 84-year-old, the poet is exceptionally vibrant and lucid. His sense of humor, which has always been on the noir side, is still there: “Iâ€™m still alive, can you believe that?” he asked. As we were conversing, the phone rang; an editor was calling to inform him that a neo-classical musician set one of Menasheâ€™s poems to music, and he is now invited to fly to North Carolina for the debut performance. â€œNorth Carolina? Thatâ€™s it, next time weâ€™re going to Paris!â€ he joyfully shouted into the phone.
Our conversation soon turned to metaphysics. â€œYou know, when Jews began talking about their invisible God of oneness, the whole world thought they were insane. The idol-worshipers made their gods, bowed to the ‘work of their hands,’ but Jews bowed to something invisibleâ€¦ They didnâ€™t believe the idols had any power. Pagans were stunned at their propensity for disbelief; in a sense Jews were the first atheists.â€
I asked Samuel if he thought poets bow down to the work of their own hands–poetry. He answered by quoting his own poem:
Scribe out of work