At a workshop a few years ago, a participant passed out to us copies of something that looked less like a poem than a map to a dream. Phrases of English, Spanish, and an indigenous Ecuadoran language floated across his hand-drawn page. The next week another writer gave us a poem with enough African deities in it that she had provided a key. With no apologies, these writers were making their work a space for investigation of, and dialogue with, their ancestors. I felt challenged and inspired to tackle this for mine.
A break in connection to our forebears has tended to be the entry ticket to American society; Jewish stories of the last hundred years, to say the least, are no exception. As I began to work on poems about this, I found I had to struggle with and write into the gaps and absences in my own data set. This work became the nucleus of my first collection of poems, My Little Book of Exiles.
As an example, here is “Traces:”
Here I found myself trying to get some sense of the landscape that my Romanian grandfather left behind when he came to the U.S. I used two of the essential tools in a poet’s toolkit: imagination and Wikipedia; regardless, I was confronted with how distant he, and his childhood world, are from me.
As we read or write them, poems can let us access kinds of knowledge other than what we get from internet searches: in the images and rhythms we might talk to the dead, or listen for their echoes. In recent years, more and more books have come out by Jewish poets writing in English who are working at similar projects. My hunch is that many of us have come to understand that, with Hillel, we have to begin our engagement with our moment in history by being each of us “for myself.” I believe reaching for who, and where, we come from is foundational for to being for ourselves, and thus for others. Come join the upcoming class on poetry and Jewish lineage at HaMaqom and explore this work with me!