Of all the poets whose work I’ve come across while reviewing submissions for Mima’amakim, Samuel Thrope is probably the most mysterious. I don’t know Samuel, though I hope our paths will cross some day soon. For the past two years, Mima’amakim has published poems by Thrope that encompass the unpredictable sweep of the Jewish past, while playing some serious postmodern tricks.
Last year, Thrope submitted a short, translated excerpt from the “Dabestan-e Mazaheb” or “School of Religious Doctrines,” a 17th-century book that documents and compares Asian religions. The portion of the Dabest?n that pertains to Judaism was taken from the anonymous author’s encounter with a Jewish convert to Islam named Sarmad. Sarmad, himself a poet, traveled to India, whereupon he fell in love with a Hindu boy and renounced everything, becoming a wandering ascetic.
When I first encountered Thrope’s translation, the notion of a gay Jewish poet who becomes Muslim and falls for a Hindu in the 17th century seemed too outlandish to be true and I suspected that Thrope was some kind of brilliant academic prankster, fabricating an obscure figure and “translating” a fake text. A bit of research, however, showed that Thrope was not kidding around; Sarmad was real and Thrope is a keen student of Jewish history (a PhD candidate at Berkeley, actually) illuminating the breadth and strangeness of the Jewish past.
This year, my suspicions from a year ago proved correct (at least I think so). The newest issue of Mima’amakim features a submission from Thrope entitled “Four Geniza Fragents: A Poem.”
Purportedly a collection of fragments from some lost Jewish texts, Thrope formatted his submission to look like the scholarly translation of a long lost and partially decayed old book, with each line numbered and brackets marking where indiscernible words break up the text.
The fragments deal with a supposed meeting between the author and some alleged angels. The text is full of holes but the angels seem to offer a utopian vision, reveal that Moses made a mistake and foretell of an impending apocalypse. After learning the extent of Thrope’s ability as a researcher, I would have accepted it and believed that Thrope has uncovered another extremely fantastic and obscure text. Except that the second of the four geniza fragments quotes a verse from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming.” The allusion both tips Thrope’s hand and helps enforce the tone of apocalyptic dread, which is similar to Yeats.
With Thrope’s writing then, you never know what you’re reading, whether the text is a discovery from the past or an original creation, unless, that is, Thrope lets you know with a sly, well placed reference.