At the AWP conference in Chicago, I attended a panel--the first panel of the first morning--on contemporary Jewish poetry. There was a lot of genius at that table, and an adorable baby in the audience about whom the moderator said, "Don't be angry at that baby. We like that baby." A very happy little panel. Of all the things in that room I found to like, I left there utterly taken with the work of young Hasidic poet, Yehoshua November.
Here is the poem he read that morning, from his first book, God's Optimism (Main Street Rag, 2010).
Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah
Sometimes you see them
in the dressing area
of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning
their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers,
until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos
of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg,
an eagle whose feathery wing span
spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman
other than one's wife.
Then, holding only a towel,
they begin, once more, the walk
past the others in the dressing room:
the rabbi they will soon sit before
in Talmud class,
men with the last names
of the first Chasidic families
devout since birth.
And with each step,
they curse the poverty
that keeps the dark ink
etched in their skin,
until, finally, they descend the stairs
of the purifying water,
and, beneath the translucent liquid,
appear, once again,
like the next man,
who, in all this days,
has probably never made a sacrifice
as endearing to God.
If you take a look, and want to do so with my eyes, here are a few things to keep in mind...(1) "Baal Teshuvas" are people who come into an observant, full-life religious practice from a secular life, (2) religious Judaism does not permit tattoos, so anyone who has one would be displaying something of their pre-observant life, and proving that their holy observance has not been life-long; there would be shame in that, in the past clinging to the present, and a sign of not being syntonic with the present, (3) the mikvah is a ritual bath...think spa, if you need to imagine the setting here.
Lastly, try reading this as it came out at that panel--as an act of sound, of pacing-in-linear-time. Think--before you read the title, what does the silence feel like. After you read it, what image is in your head. And then the first line. How could it have been different, and if it was, how would that have changed the reader's relationship to the story in the poem? The reader's relationship to the speaker of the poem? Also, notice how the first stanza (all one sentence) strip-teases, drawing out the undressing. And keep an eye on shame. On where it begins (in the poem). On how it gives off its uncomfortable aroma. And then--final stanza--how it turns, how the shame becomes a humbling, perfect and holy, restored.
Whether or not one believes in some traditional version of God, or in an engaged inner-self, or in community, or in something entirely other, or nothing at all, I found this poem remarkable in its treatment of shame, humiliation, and dignity. And in how the reader has to be inveigled to enter into the process of shaming and redeeming. "Sometimes you see them". He doesn't summarize here. He makes us walk through the bath itself. Hearing this poem, and then reading the poems in this book, I felt palpably how restorative it is to travel with a poet who finds something whole and holy-making in the smallest and most broken places.
November spoke on the panel about "God in the Lower Realms"--namely our own realm, this life, the earth. But also, I heard through it, about the transcendent presence in the quietest most fragile and broken spots inside a self. These "lower realms" supposedly are brought into being every minute by sacred conscious effort, so that God (or spirit or the authentic self, or...I leave this metaphorically wide enough for you, Reader, to engage as you wish with it) could have a home and a place to be-at-home. And--November pointed out--when we ourselves are at home, we are not assertive and asserting ourselves, and taking action. We are kicking back, putting on our slippers, being so intimate and close and authentic and true as to be almost invisible. Intangible. To be almost "not there".
In one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, Oliver describes the poet Walt Whitman as "slipping through the sleeve of ego". As I journey on through reading and writing, every day I value more the virtue of being lost. Of being little. Of being less. Of being in the lower realms.
In this season of renewal--April, Easter, Passover (which ends, I might add, tomorrow--and my whole household will be thrilled to return to leavened bread)--I have this to say. Sometimes it's nice to rise. Other times, it's just fine to wander for a very long time and go no distance at all.