(Poets and Poetry in America)

The poetry of Samuel Menashe is very distinctive. His poems are concise and seem as if they are trying to grasp the essence of their subject in the most austere and revelatory way. Although the length of his poems might mistakenly lead some to see him as a minimalist, his poems are all-embracing, almost transcendent in their scope. Menashe’s poems are easy to comprehend on their surface, and puzzling out the intended meaning of the poems is not particularly challenging for the reader. The richness of Menashe’s poems lies in the way their language illuminates the percipience of his thought.

Menashe has been influenced by many different poets. In the bareness and austerity of his language, he recalls twentieth century poets in the modernist tradition. Certain critics have, understandably but somewhat misleadingly, associated him with the Objectivist school, poets such as George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Reznikoff. Menashe shares with the above a penchant for austerity and a renunciation of Romantic sentimentality. Unlike these poets, Menashe is less interested in the object itself than in the highly subjective range of human emotions and spirituality. Thus Menashe also has a completely different set of ancestors. His very personal sense of beauty and glory recalls the Bible as well as such maverick religious poets as, especially, William Blake, as well as Dickinson, and Hopkins, who all, like Menashe, excelled in imbuing very short forms with mystery and spirituality.

The Many Named Beloved

This latter tradition is most overt in the poems in Menashe’s first volume, The Many Named Beloved. These poems are the longest and most ornate in Menashe’s canon, although still brief and compact compared with the works of most other poets. Some of the most successful poems in the collection are small narratives or parables. A good example is “Promised Land.” In this poem, the speaker stands “at the edge/ of a world/ beyond my eyes/ beautiful.” Like the biblical Moses, the speaker never manages to enter the promised land he contemplates. Unlike what conventional assumptions might dictate, however, he does not truly yearn to enter this paradise. He realizes that beauty is most vivid when it cannot quite be attained.

Alluding to a Jewish tradition that knows exile far more vividly than it knows fulfillment, the poem concludes, “The river/ We cannot cross/ Flows forever.” To cross the river would be to end the exile, to find a definite salvation. The “cannot” in the poem’s conclusion implies that humankind by nature is unable to cross this river, which in some ways is the border between mortality and immortality. However, there are more subtle reverberations to the “cannot.” These become clear when the whole line is read. “Flows forever” gives an impression of permanence and continuity, not loss or despair. The poem implies that the river is kept flowing by the very way in which its existence allows exile to be maintained. The river’s activity is ultimately positive rather than negative, in keeping alive human aspirations and never letting them become resolved into a settled, final state. This is why exile is, in Menashe’s phrase, “green with hope,” green being associated with optimism and perseverance, especially in the desert world of the Bible, where green was often the sign of a rare oasis amid desolation.

In this poem and in others, Menashe uses religious terms and images. However, he is not a believer in formal religion; unlike some modern poets such as T. S. Eliot, he is not interested in religion as dogma, doctrine, or ritual. Rather, he is excited by the hope and by the poetic magic that religion at times expresses. Menashe is committed to his Jewish identity and is immersed in the poetry and narrative of the Hebrew Bible, though he reads it only in English translation. Although religious believers of not just Jewish but also Catholic and Protestant orientation have found comfort and inspiration in his poems, they are not written to inculcate any kind of articulated anterior body of reasoned thought. Menashe’s spirituality is one of emotion and pathos, caught in the intensity of the moment of its proclamation.

No Jerusalem but This

The poems in No Jerusalem but This mark a new phase in Menashe’s career. There is far less “high” language in these poems. Menashe is less reliant on visionary rhetoric and more content to let his poems speak on their own terms. From this point onward, no comparisons with other poets are relevant; Menashe’s career becomes a solitary journey. This singular emphasis can be seen in the poem that includes the collection’s title line. This is probably Menashe’s most important and memorable poem. “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am” is a kind of hymn, but it is not the sort that could be included in any religious ceremony. This shrine is not a conventional object of worship or reverence, but rather the speaker’s body itself. The poem takes its inspiration from the episode of David dancing before the Lord in the aftermath of the recovery of the Ark of the Covenant in the biblical book of 2 Samuel, “And David danced before the Lord with all his might.” Reproved by his wife, Michal, for his excessive exuberance, David clearly feels that celebration of the divine should brook no artificial measure or decorum. Menashe’s praise of the intense spirituality of the body makes this his signature poem and virtually his poetic credo. Menashe, though, is very canny in that he is not proposing any pagan cult of the body. Instead, he focuses on how the body marks the boundaries of the self and its world. The body for Menashe signifies not earth or blood but the spirit of life itself. He is saying, in a sense, that one cannot have “Jerusalem” without this—without the body, that the spirit and body are, in the Jewish conception of the self, totally enmeshed. This material spirit is symbolized in the early lines of the poem by fire. “Flames skirt my skin,” the speaker says, as he describes his form as having a “fringe of fire.”

The poem goes on to state, “There is no Jerusalem but this.” There is no reason to look for Jerusalem, the holy city, in Heaven, where religious thinkers have often placed it. Nor is any Jerusalem on Earth, whether the actual Jerusalem, which, when the poem was written, had only recently been made part of the new state of Israel, or any other site said to be a sacred abode, sufficient in the view of the poem to express human spirituality fully. If there is no Jerusalem either in Heaven or on Earth, then Jerusalem must be within the self or body. However, Menashe is not saying that Jerusalem definitely does exist within the self or body, only that if there is a Jerusalem at all, that is where one would find it. This limitation of Jerusalem to the human form is not at all a reduction. This Jerusalem is as wondrous and evocative as any heavenly or earthly city. It is “breathed in flesh by shameless love.” The speaker’s belief is as vivid as that of any biblical figure: “Like David I bless myself/ with all my might.” There is no sense that the speaker’s spiritual condition is impoverished when compared with the past.

Still, all is not bliss. The tragedies as well as the triumphs associated with other Jerusalems are also present in this one. The speaker finds that he cannot share the certainty that he attributes to previous ages. “I know that many hills were holy once,” he states. “But now in the level lands to live/ Zion ground down must become marrow.” Whatever the fate of any larger belief, the physical husk of human skin and bones must sustain any hopes for transcendence; yet these hopes are, by nature, ephemeral. Menashe is sensitive to the frailty of bone as well as the pulse and color of flesh. The human body is inevitably subject to time and decay. Thus the speaker, in living Jerusalem within his own body, in a way is bound to reenact, or more truly act in his own way, suffering. As Blake said, “The body is that part of the soul perceived by the five senses.” The body, for Menashe, is the temple of the soul. “And through death’s domain I go/ Making my own procession.” Each human life holds the emotion and the dignity to be found in larger shapes within traditional religion. Menashe lovingly conveys the connections between human hopes for a higher world and the way these hopes are played out in, and by, the course of an individual life.

In “Sheep Meadow,” Menashe conveys a delicate but very accurate sense of this famous green stretch of New York’s Central Park, here glimpsed in winter, when it is usually least noticed. Menashe is so much a poet of his beloved New York City that this park scene is as close to pure “nature” as he tends to get; however, the poem magnificently captures a personal sense of the atmosphere of the place.

He opens by comparing speaking French on the Sheep Meadow to “a very rich hour/ of the Duke of Berry,” the allusion being to the well-known medieval illustrated manuscript. By making this comparison, Menashe instantly transforms what would otherwise have been a nondescript, perhaps even banal, scene into one rife with imaginative possibility. He does this,...

(The entire section is 3795 words.)