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From My Bookshelf: Poetry for Jewish Book Month

As you may already know, tomorrow brings the beginning of the 90th year of Jewish Book Month. And in anticipation, I’m sharing a few poetry titles that are on my tbr list.

But first, a quick look back on my latest read: Inspired by sample poems written by Dan Pagis (1930-1986) about the biblical characters Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel—poems distributed by instructor Amy Gottlieb in a class I’m taking at the Drisha Institute—I spent a chunk of last weekend reading Variable Directions, a full collection of Pagis’s work translated by Stephen Mitchell. And I’m very glad that I did.

Now that I’ve returned Variable Directions to the library, here are three additional poetry titles awaiting my attention.

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1) Adam Kirsch, Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander. True story: I missed the recent launch of this collection at Greenlight Bookstore because that event conflicted with my Drisha class! But, having been stunned by one of the volume’s poems (“My Wife in Joy and Sorrow, 1911,” which was published in The Paris Review last year), I was quick to order a copy of Kirsch’s latest book as soon as I knew it was available.

From the jacket copy:

Through his portraits of ordinary people—soldiers, housewives, children, peasants, and city dwellers—August Sander, the German photographer whose work chronicled the extreme tensions and transitions of the twentieth century, captured a moment in history whose consequences he himself couldn’t have predicted. Using these photographs as a lens, Adam Kirsch’s poems connect the legacy of the First World War and the turmoil of the Weimar Republic with moving immediacy and meditative insight, and foreshadow the Nazi era. Kirsch writes both urgently and poignantly about these photographs, creating a unique dialogue of word and image that will speak to all readers interested in history, past and present.

For more information and insightful discussions about this book, read Willard Spiegelman’s Wall Street Journal review or Laverne Frith’s analysis for New York Journal of Books.

2) Itzik Manger, The World According to Itzik: Selected Poetry and Prose, translated and edited by Leonard Wolf, with an introduction by David G. Roskies and Leonard Wolf. Manger (1901-69) was a Yiddish poet whose work I have also discovered thanks to Amy Gottlieb and our Drisha class. As with Pagis, the sample poem offered to me at Drisha (“Hagar’s Last Night in Abraham’s House”) sent me in search of more—and thus, to the library.

You, however, can get a sense of the poet and his work right from your screen. See the resources assembled by the Yiddish Book Center, including Judy Bolton-Fasman’s review of this volume, excerpts from the book, and discussion questions.

3) Alicia Jo Rabins, Divinity School. If memory serves, this one came to my attention via an online group to which both the author and I belong. But here’s another introduction:

God wrote me a letter in invisible ink,” Alicia Jo Rabins writes in her debut poetry collection, Divinity School. “But I got overwhelmed: the parchment, the lemon juice the light and the candle. I accidentally set it on fire.” These sorts of mythologies populate the book, which won the American Poetry Review’s Honickman First Book Prize, judged by C.D. Wright. In Divinity School, Rabins’ speaker is constantly stumbling through the sacred, trying to juggle too much, existing in a world somewhere between the distant past and the imagined future.

Poetry, it seems, is but one of this author’s talents. See this JTA profile, published last year, for more about this composer, musician, and Torah scholar.

So these are some of the books I’m looking forward to reading during Jewish Book Month. What are yours?

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6 Responses »

  1. I just ordered Sigal Samuel’s The Mystics of Miles End. I am also reading Jews: The History of the Lower East Side. I HIGHLY recommend Ben Nadler’s The Sea Beach Line, nu?

  2. My students at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland, are really enjoying your book, QUIET AMERICANS. Last week, we discussed “For Services Rendered”, and next week, we’ll be discussing “Lebensraum” and “Mishpocho”. The story generated stimulating discussions in both the classes I’m teaching. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book!

    (Rabbi) Mindy Portnoy
    [email protected]

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