Passing Over by Norman Finkelstein
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2007)
Norman Finkelstein's magnum opus Track, one of the finest long poems of the past fifty years (and sadly in need of a single-volume collected edition), is the culmination of years of thematic development, a rigorous honing of poetic voice and tone; all in all, a remarkable achievement. In the recent publication from Marsh Hawk Press, Passing Over, we are made witness to this process of poetic refinement in works that increasingly point the way toward the masterwork that is Track: from the formal lyricism of “October” and “A Tomb for Ernest Bloch” to the increasingly terse and calibrated serial poems “Mara: The Shape of Absence” and “Passing Over.” Yet the overall concern of Finkelstein's poetry, composed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is that of Judaism; in particular, Jewish-American identity and the Jewish artist in the modern world.
Finkelstein's poems, then, both enact at the same time they describe the idea of the Jew as possessor of the word and the Word, for the Jews, historically, are known as the people of the Book. It is the Torah that has helped preserve Jewish identity in the face of the diaspora, the scattering of Judaica from the Holy Land and the oppression, persecution and rampant anti-Semitism Jews have faced in seemingly every society in which they have sought refuge. Finkelstein's poem “October” portrays this identity of the Jewish intellectual poet in modern America, struggling to create, as spiritually akin to the Rabbinical scholar, pouring over the Torah:
Surely he gave his consent,
but he has no memory of the books arriving,
of years sheltered from the weather,
of studying all the codes (3).
In “Aliyah,” Finkelstein writes of the “corrosive Word” which “calls to the soul” and urges on to “Go up to the Book,” which contains “the world of the strong fragments” where “love curls around the tongue / until it gives birth to truth.” The Book provides a “promised place,” the place where the diaspora is reconciled form the “wreckage of history” and where one finds him or herself “speaking that ancient language / that somehow is always new” (7).
The trio of elegiac poems, or “tombs,” written in memory the composer Ernst Bloch, literary critic Northrop Frye and philosopher Gershom Scholem, are among the more powerful of these early works, addressing Finkelstein's theme of Judaism most directly. “I was waiting for the words to open a space,” Finkelstein writes in “A Tomb for Ernst Bloch,” signaling the incantatory power of the word, or World. Bloch, a German-Jewish Marxist philosopher, was “married / to the old narratives” and was “betrayed” by the “future” which he “must have loved . . . like a mistress.” The Word, while it possesses an “old power,” is futile, subject to the disappointments of time and “doomed to hopeless repetition.” The present, Finkelstein argues, is “dark with promise, dense with the past”; because of this, “we're always eager / to imagine easy prophetic responses.” The promise of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, “a day of absolute stillness” where “everything is returned” (9-10), seems ever more impossible. Thus, Bloch's betrayal is our betrayal, our urge to disguise the future in the expectations of the past, to expect God's revelation to fulfill a longing for the imagined simplicity of a bygone era, to expect of the future a spousal devotion when in fact it is full of passion and betrayal.
Northrop Frye, that great explicator of William Blake, failed to respond to Finkelstein's poems, as Finkelstein observes in his “A Tomb for Northrop Frye.” He must have been “busy deciphering that great code,” Finkelstein writes, referring to the system of metaphor Blake derived from Milton and the Bible. Finkelstein imagines Frye, after his death, of having gone to that
Great Assembly where the critics sing in chorus,
changing the poems they still hope to write,
where a thousand briefcases bulge contentedly
with moldering off-prints, dog-eared copies
The heaven of poets, in other words, in the “Universal Library / that Milky Way of Books” (11-12). If, in the beginning was the Word, as the Greek Johannine gospel declares, then in the end is the Word. From language comes consciousness and from consciousness the world. Thus the Word is the world and the world is the Word.
This theme continues in “A Tomb for Gershom Scholem,” a poem written in response to the death of philosopher Scholem, widely considered the founder of modern Kabbalah studies, and an authority on Jewish mysticism, an influence on thinkers as diverse as Umberto Eco, Jacques Derrida Giorgio Agamben and George Steiner. Finkelstein writes that “we cannot speak of it without speaking of you, / and the books and papers reach back toward that Infinity / from which the books and papers are said to come.” In Finkelstein's words, the word has become that tangible event that makes sense of the insensible, that gives meaning to the meaningless and structure to the structureless. The modern writer, the user of words, and especially the poet, who uses words in an incantatory and creational sense, thus imparting to them that air of mystery from which they were born, is the true judge of history, the only credible diagnostician of its illnesses, the mastery of ceremonies at the celebration of text as world, world as text. And therefore body as text. A theme taken up in the poem that (quite appropriately – the book is masterfully arranged) follows “A Tomb for Gershom Scholem (“who was a kingdom unto himself” (14)), “Inscriptions of the Body on the Text,” describes bodies and texts as “inscribed.” They “curve” and “mingle freely” and are “forbidden.” The poem as body acts as “an embrace,” a “secret kiss” (15).
With “Terminable and Interminable” and “Imaginary Photographs,” Finkelstein's style shifts to the serial form, which makes up the majority of the remaining poems in the book. The serial form, practiced by poets as diverse as Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and George Oppen, is used to profitable effect by Finkelstein, who appears in these poems (and in Track against which they are helpfully contrasted) to be primarily influenced by the serial form as practiced by Oppen. (“Terminable and Interminable,” for instance, adopts Oppen's mid-1960s tendency to include individually titled sections to each individual poem of the series). “Imaginary Photographs” utilizes the serial form to great affect: the poems register like a series of photographs in an album; much like Oppen's Discrete Series each poem has it sown page, providing its own image-event. It is the natural culmination of Pound's “In a Station at the Metro”; the photograph as captured image, conveying emotion:
The moment is registered
by the camera
stored in the file
awaiting the emotion
changing an event
to which it corresponds (33)
Yet at the same time the poem laments, it celebrates: for each captured image conveys its emotion as much by what is says as what it cannot say:
Writing against life
experienced as a scrapbook
he takes a photograph of himself
and puts it in the album
wishing the dark pages
could dwindle into wings (35).
The people in photographs, as in poems, “find themselves . . . clinging to an instant / of supposed significance // when they would as soon pass away / into the oblivion of objects.” So the poem, Finkelstein argues, like the “backgrounds of snapshots,” become a part of the “detritus of our lives.” “Have mercy on the photographs / holding fast to the objects,” the poem implores, for, despite their seeming insignificance, the photographs reflect so powerfully upon our lives they perhaps tell us more about ourselves than we are prepared to know. “Buy them in the albums / put away in the attics,” the poem instructs. “Do not / look at them” (39).
If, as the saying goes, each man destroys the thing he loves, then, so, too, is each man destroyed by the thing he loves, a theme addressed in the serial poem “Mara: The Shape of Absence.” A meditation on love's destructiveness, the poem contains some of Finkelstein's finest lyric moments; indeed, it contains some of the finest lyric moments in poetry.
First, there is repetition, then there is love.
Or repetition is love: the circumscribed life.
Circle-written, I name you bitterness,
Joy beyond any legitimate limits (49).
How much there is to be savored here, in both content and form! The alliteration is magnificent: the long, airy “i” sound in “circumscribed life” followed immediately by the hard, consonant pounding of the four syllable punch “Circle written,” itself a kind of repetition, introducing the “bitterness” of these lines. If love is repetition it is both in the airy freedom of the “circumscribed life,” and the “t” laden masculine “repetition” that is “Circle-written,” and within “legitimate limits.” The love that, circular, knows no beginning or end and is therefore beyond limit is both “Joy” and “bitterness.” And how is love both? According to Finkelstein, Mara, meaning “bitter” in Hebrew, is derived from The Book of Ruth 1: 19-22, where Naomi asks that she be referred to as Mara, “for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.” But this Mara might also be the Mara of the Buddhist tradition, whose punishments are unceasing and thus, their eternal repetition, however painful, is still the promise of love which, ever continuing, cannot be contained and is without limits. The poem's speaker is intentionally ambiguous: it alternates between the speaker, Mara, and Mara's lover. What is more, all three might be the same.
Note the care with which Finkelstein utilizes the lyric tradition, the attention he draws to the act of composition, which contains its own form of endlessness, its own promise of joyful repetition:
When I still composed in the old way,
I would wait endlessly for the succeeding line
and still it would never arrive.
Now, as then, I go on without it.
Mara: the shape of an absence,
endlessness as a kind of bouquet
given to no one on a day like any other (49).
There is “No temple but the poem” and “No resting place but the word” (58). The Jew as poet, the poet as Jew, is reconciled by the possibility of the word, which presents them with sanctuary from the world. In a chilling passage, Finkelstein invokes the Ha-Shoah, a moment when it seemed that the endlessness of painful repetition might cease, the word (and World) might forever be silenced:
They shaved our heads
and made us run
but I won't
come to you like that.
I won't come to you
out of ash and horror
and when I speak
I want to speak with you.
My pleasure, my regret,
I have no song for your
and when I speak
you speak to yourself (59).
The book concludes with the long title poem, which begins with both an incantation and a recitation: “The poem as servant of memory / is notoriously unreliable” The poem “is a prelude / to a ritual of remembrance / performed around the spaces / which oblivion has seized” (67-68). As poet and Jew, Finkelstein, aware of the near-oblivion which has seized his people throughout history, finds the poet the protector of language (both preserving and infusing language with both meaning and life) and the role language plays in the preservation of Jewish memory, “as if the survival of symbols / meant the survival of a people.” The rituals of the Jewish passover, recounted here in loving detail, are a “play of death and rebirth,” “somehow set forth / like food on a plate.” The ritual is meant for the present, for “one who stands apart / forever in transition // between the darkness of the past / and the promises of fulfillment / that would reside in the future” (78). The Passover ritual bodies forth those from the past, “welcome in wandering / sustained by fragments” (73), both the fragments of the matzah bread and the fragments of the Torah which preserved Jewish culture in the face of diaspora and slavery, “which is why the old men stay up all night / heading from Egypt to morning / -- as if to learn how the tale will end” (5).
Yet the tale has no end, as wickedness has no end. Suffering, as the Buddhists insist, is a fundamental aspect of existence.
Rabbi I ask you
when can I stop remembering
When can I acknowledge
it was me it was not me
it is mine it is not mine
When have I filled
my Passover duty” (82)?
The “Words / remain / after all is consumed,” the poem concludes. So, too, will Finkelstein's words, which comprise some of the finest, most insightful, tender and unflinchingly honest poetry written in recent years. The joy of one is the joy of many, the suffering of the one is the suffering of many. These poems account for some of that suffering, some of that joy, and speak equally well for both.
Eric Hoffman lives and writes in Manchester, Connecticut. He is the author of three previous collections of poetry, Things Like This Happen All the Time (2000), Threnody (2006) and Of Love and Water (2008). His article on George Oppen, "A Poetry of Action: George Oppen and Communism" appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of American Communist History. Currently, he is editing a special feature on Oppen for Big Bridge. His poetry has appeared in The Argotist and is forthcoming from Cultural Society.