PART TWO: THE GLASS MOUNTAIN
CHAPTER 18: BETWEEN MONA AND MONOTHEISM
“Invitation” is one of the last things in a second chronicle, which I put together after finishing The Web of What Is Written. I called this new collection Heartlines/My Transparent City: The Journal of a Serious Woman. The cover, drawn by another co-worker at the insurance company and printed on gray stock, shows a woman with dark hair in a Victorian bun (me at the time, sort of), lifting the dome off the Capitol Building like a lid.
Again I had a hundred copies made, collated them and sold most of them. Recently someone told me that she still looked at it now and then, at which I cringed slightly. There are things in it which in my present opinion fall into the category of ravings and not very decent ones either. The balanced, judicious, wry, and dispassionate tone of these memoirs does not, O reader, quite fairly represent the person I was at the time of the action; be glad of it. . “The moving finger writes, and having writ...”
Heartlines includes two poems I wrote as a child. So it must have been early in 1975 that I came back to my parents’ house to find these poems, and one other, on the typewriter. My mother had saved them apart from the rest and had just found them again. To judge by the handwriting, the earliest of the three might be from second grade:
Little doll, I wonder,
Do you each day
Have your hour of work
And your hour of play?
What do you do
When the night is still?
Do it in front of me,
Do what you will!
I want you to do it, you see.
The second poem was contained in a story about a journey to a planet at the edge of the universe. (Though my father had told me the universe had no edge.) At the moment when my space travelers landed on it, the planet had found a voice, and I had written:
THE FORGOTTEN WORLD
I, the wind, the cold cold wind,
I blow over the prairie, around dead volcanos,
I sing of a world,
A forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
I, the prairie,
The cold, stone prairie
Dotted with dead volcanos,
Earthquakes have carved crators,
Great, rocky crators,
Out of my surface
I that remain of a forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
We, the volcanos,
The old, dead volcanos,
We that remain of a forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
We, the crators,
Great, jagged crators,
We that remain of a forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
I, the darkness,
The cold, still darkness,
I that remain of a forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
We are that world,
That forgotten world,
That world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
I remember writing that, I remember thinking: That voice is older than I am. I must have been about eleven. The third poem was written a year later; I remembered working on it, trying to get it right.
The stars are little campfires
In the evening sky
Many of these there are, but you
Are first to burn, and first to die.
I sit by my own campfire
And watch you from afar --
O Venus, lovely Venus,
O silver Evening Star!
In 1975 I was surprised at how close I still felt to those early poems. What were my continuing efforts to bring a hidden life into the open, but a continuation of the doll poem? “The Forgotten World” might be the world of a lonely child, or the future of Planet Earth. (Around the time when it was written I asked my father: “If we are using up all the coal and oil that got deposited in the Carboniferous Age, won’t we run out?” My father answered that the supplies were very large and we would never run out.) Or maybe the forgotten world was a forgotten culture. My grandmother’s house, my mother’s stories. Or maybe a distant sensing of someone else’s forgotten world. For despite the difference in literary rank, it is not an infinite distance from these childhood poems to the shadowy world of From Threshold to Threshold, which was being written around the same time. There is in these poems the same kind of primitive crooning, for which neither of us, I believe, had a literary model.
I had been thinking of myself almost as Celan’s creation, although in 1972, on my return to Madison, a former advisor had told me: “You haven’t changed a bit.” It now seemed my advisor was right. Whatever Celan brought out in me had been there to begin with. And yet: had I not met with Celan, those early poems, which I’d written and forgotten, might never have meant much to me. Mother had picked these poems up, but without Celan I might never have reconnected with her. And then there is also the possibility, which has come up with respect to other things here, that I might not have written those poems as a child if I had not been going to meet Paul Celan. As though, like a novel, all this was somewhere plotted in advance.
This incident set me wondering how many real poems are composed by children who do not know what they have written and are not observed by an understanding adult. The poetry children are sometimes encouraged to write in the schools is not of this sort. Real poems are written at moments of lonely confrontation with fate. But there is no reason why children cannot have such moments. Having just happened on the scene of life, they may see it all at a glance. At some time in the 1970's, in a Highlighters, I found the following:
The wind whispered a secret to me,
It ruffled the leaves and blew my hair.
The wind whispered a secret to me,
The secret of all mankind.
It ruffled the leaves and blew them down,
The wind whispered: “Be kind.”
This was attributed to a child named Eric, age 9. (I am sorry that, struck the fact that the first name is that of Celan’s son, I did not copy the last name of the writer.) I wonder whether this Eric wrote poetry when he grew up, and whether as an adult he remembered this poem and understood it.
The poets who took part in the reconstituted Small World read Heartlines and the earlier trilogy, and some of them read chapters of The Web of What Is Written as well. I wrote several papers for the group, and one had a reading list attached, as a further basis for this microculture. I am no longer sure how often the group met -- once a week? once a month? I also had many conferences with the individual members. At its largest the group may have numbered ten. There were people who came to only one meeting; I remember one man who stated emphatically that everything we were doing was derived from Ruskin. (I hadn’t read Ruskin then, and didn’t realize how pervasive his influence had been; Proust was indebted to him, and so, probably, was Kropotkin.). There were several whom Greg J. had brought from Hillel, or whom I had met there, and several whom Greg E. had found, and these two subgroups never entirely coalesced.
At the meetings we read our poems and discussed the ideas underlying the Small World. As in earlier and later versions of the organization, I felt that there was too much argument about the ideas and not enough effort to apply them, not enough experimentation and development in the particular direction of which each person was capable. The perennial problem was to get others to commit themselves to a kind of relationship and a kind of community which they had not been trained to expect. I was not a parent, not an employer, not a teacher supported by a recognized institution, not a spouse or lover, not a leader of the kind whose leadership consists in giving orders. I could not tell them what to do, even if they would have obeyed me; I could only try to help them find the place within themselves where they would understand whatever geasa was inscribed in their being. In an early work, “Edgar Jene and the Dream of the Dream,” Celan had suggested that an “ascent into the depths” of the individual soul would enable us, jointly and severally, to “swear today what will be valid tomorrow” and thus make possible a new form of solidarity. But one would have had to invent a new kind of love.
It might have helped if I had been able to wait patiently, to learn the stillness Rilke describes in those old men feeding the birds. Instead I fell into the trap of pleading and reasoning, and would then be criticized either for being too emotional or too intellectual, and sometimes both at once! As the middle stanza of “The Hate Storm” admits, I could not seem to keep from getting sucked into the vortex and torn apart.
Again, this pattern had something to do with my being cast in the mother-role. My actions were not powered by the kind of pure spiritual energy that the spiritual leader is supposed to channel. The models of gurus who preached nonattachment were always being held up to me. But you cannot talk to your mother about nonattachment. Doctrines of nonattachment seemed to me like attempts to escape from the pain of caring for what needed to be cared about if anything was to be done about the direction in which we were all drifting while “going with the flow.”
On the other hand there is this saying by Rabbi Baruch of Medzibozh, which Buber quotes and Celan is said to have repeated: “What a good and bright world it is if we do not lose our hearts to it, and what a dark world if we do!” The Jewish tradition is not a tradition of nonattachment, but there is something in it that is supposed to prevent people from “losing their hearts” to thisworld. And perhaps if I could have found that strength, I might have gained the patience to wait out their struggles. And then they might have learned to surmount the fear that if they were ever to heed the promptings of the Mother – whether delivered through me or through their own prophetic souls – they would be Engulfed. This fear is the only reason I can think of for the reaction of Alice Clark, who after writing one more poem (about a mother-figure) seemed to dry up completely. My discovery of her resulted in her being read by a few others, but it also seems, sadly, to have stopped the flow.
On another level, the Small World had to contend with preexisting loyalties. The Hillel group were committed to a tradition which they practiced in varying degrees, and which did not seem to predict when I was attempted to do. Greg E.’s faction subscribed to an Eastern-flavored bohemianism, characterized by that commitment-to-noncommitment which had vitiated the “revolutionary” aspirations of the 1960's.
Despite everything, there were moments when the Small World seemed to be finding a language for itself. Each of the participants wrote at least one poem that reflected some glint of the vision I was trying to show them. Christopher X. Burant wrote me the following poem:
I’m strolling amidst trees and gutted buildings
I’m trying to conceive of something amid
The brown smoke and rushing noise
And because I was looking in the right direction
Something caught my eye white
It looked like an ice berg imbedded in fertile earth
It looked like a white tower
It was poetry white and huge and intricate and you
sat at the foot of the tower building away
And there were other such expressions, but usually entangled with ambivalence and defeatism. All this is reflected in the poems which made up half of the one and only issue of the Small World magazine, CHIAROSCURA, which appeared late in the winter of 1976. (The other half of the magazine, the featured work, was a large selection from that sheaf of poems “Alice Clark” had handed me in the preceding summer.) Unfortunately the magazine failed to get reviewed even in the local press, and was probably experienced as a failure. If I had hoped to solidify the group by giving it a sense of accomplishment, I had miscalculated. The group’s internal process did not improve. The members looked to one another for support, failed to find it, and withdrew support from me.
It seems to be a Law of the Universe that if you attempt to influence others, you will be influenced by them. Thus, as the group disintegrated (as it seemed to be doing from the very start), I was drawn after its members in two directions: toward the Jewish community and toward the opposite pole, which was embodied by the late Mona Webb.
Toward Judaism I had been moving anyway for many years. By the fall of 1975 I must have been attending services at Hillel. Christmas had become the season of cognitive dissonance, which reached buzz-saw volume in a December, 1975 poem entitled “Christmas Epistle to a Kind Man.” In the tradition of Plath’s “Daddy,” it must have pained my father grievously. What did I want of him? His open blessing on my undertakings? His participation in them? “If you hear, all hear,” it ended. He withdrew into the stony stoicism that was his refuge when communications reached an impasse. Yet maybe the poem was a kind of prayer, for not long afterwards a kind of answer arrived. As once before, the answer took the form of an unexpected job offer.
After going through the day or so of horror-of-great-darkness that generally followed such fruitless appeals, I had dragged myself to the Reform temple for a service followed by a social hour. I seem to recall wearing a suit I had just bought at Manchester’s, a local department store that had always been the place to go for well-made yet moderately-priced clothing. (Its space on the Square is now occupied by a large accounting firm.) This suit, which remained my Sabbath suit for a number of years, was of hound’s tooth checked tweed, light green and gray with a touch of russet; it had a princess-cut jacket and a full, gathered skirt. Thus attired, with my height and the sort of stillness that comes with the “formal feeling” of despair, I may have cut an impressive figure. At any rate, that evening I spoke with the chairman of the Hebrew and Semitic Studies Department, the late Menahem Mansoor, and his wife Claire. Not much was said, but Mrs. Mansoor later mentioned me to her friends. One of them knew Mother and reported that at the moment I was not working (I had managed to get myself fired from the insurance company in October). A few days later Prof. Mansoor called me and offered me a job as a research assistant. He wanted to give two new courses and needed someone to read through the existing literature and make course outlines. One of these projected courses was on Biblical Archaeology and the other was on the “Intertestamental Period,” the roughly four hundred years around the birth of Jesus in which Judaism and Christianity took shape as separate faiths.
Many people have asked me: “Why did you convert to Judaism?” They might as well ask, “Why do you write poems?” But my new studies did supply a few reasons.
Biblical Archaeology was meant to put scripture to the scientific test. It got started in the nineteenth century, as a corollary of geology and evolutionism. Having questioned Genesis, people began comparing Exodus and Joshua and Kings with the archaeological findings. They also began to analyze the text itself for evidence that the Torah had not been given on Mount Sinai, but had been stitched together from various documents. Some scholars seemed eager to discredit the Bible; others strove to salvage what they could of the Bible’s historicity.
I was not at first in sympathy with the attempt to arrive by scientific methods at the truth about a text composed at a time when the concept of scientific truth did not even exist! To one who had personally experienced more things than are dreamt of in the philosophy of science, it mattered little whether Jericho was inhabited in Joshua’s time or not. And yet: In the book of Isaiah there is that episode where the Assyrians lay siege to Jerusalem. The Assyrians are the great destroyers of the age. Not content with subjugating the conquered peoples, they have a policy of deporting populations, erasing cultures. They have done this to the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, henceforth the “lost tribes.” Had they succeeded in conquering Jerusalem, there would have been no Bible. But just as all seemed lost, invading army was stricken by a sudden plague, a visitation from the Lord of Hosts. A likely story! But it seems there is an Assyrian tablet that boasts of how the Assyrians walled up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage,” and another tablet admitting that the siege of Jerusalem was indeed lifted because of a plague in the army. Jerusalem was conquered later, by the Babylonians. But the Babylonians did not try to erase the identity of conquered peoples; and their successors, the Persians, allowed the exiles to return and rebuild the Temple. It could seem that something did not want the spark of Israel to go out. At a certain moment, there had been an answer. It was like the story of Ste. Geneviève, except that it was not just “damals,” not just a legend. It had happened.
Another thing that struck me was the extent to which the Hebrews, according to some scholars, borrowed forms and concepts from their neighbors. It seemed to bother some scholars that the Bible echoes ancient Middle Eastern contracts, legal codes, proverbs and cult hymns. But I, on the contrary, was reminded of the way Celan borrowed and synthesized from so many sources, and and yet new meanings emerged from his use of them. These historical studies sharpened my ear for the polyphony of the Hebrew Bible, the diversity within its unity, which made the New Testament appear flat and monologic by comparison.
Thus it was that Biblical Archaeology, that stumbling-block to simple faith, actually helped me to to perceive the Biblical faith as my own.
The second topic -- The Intertestamental Period -- proved equally instructive. Until then, I had seen the Judaeo-Christian schism mainly through the New Testament. The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees seemed like the classic confrontation of the exceptional individual and the community. An artist like James Joyce, or a posturer like Versilov, could thus see himself in the role of Jesus while abandoning the community and attacking its standards. I had suspected that there might be something to be said on the community’s side. But now, through these readings, an entirely different narrative took shape in my head, something like this:
“Seventy years after the Babylonian conquest, the Jewish leaders had been permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. It seemed as though the predictions of return, that had comforted the people during the exile, had come true. But those predictions had been accompanied by Messianic expectations which, of course, did not materialize. It was still the same world. The kingdom of Judah was small and weak, no longer an independent state but a Persian protectorate. And after the Persians came the Hellenistic rulers, bearing a culture that demanded assimilation. In the second century B.C.E. a nationalist revolt, led by the Maccabees, established an independent monarchy. Unfortunately this monarchy soon became corrupt, cruel, and Hellenized. In the first century B.C.E. the Romans conquered it and installed puppet kings. One of these, the notorious Herod, sought to redeem and glorify himself by upgrading the Temple to an ostentatious complex on an artificially-extended Temple Mount.
“Under the pressure of events, the vision of the Jewish people was metamorphosed, fragmented and transformed. Prophecy evolved into the apocalyptic writings, where the hope of justice in this world was replaced by the expectation that the Divine power would soon reveal itself in a violent upheaval that would inaugurate a new and perfect order. The figure of a coming Messiah, foreshadowed in the prophetic books, also began to loom large at this time. Various expectations were associated with this figure, ranging from political liberation to a complete transformation of reality. The nature of the expected Messiah also varied, from the human ‘son of David’ to the superhuman ‘son of man.’
“The people were deeply divided. The priestly aristocrats who traced their descent to Aaron through Zadok (hence the name Sadducees) were strict constructionists as to Temple ritual. Otherwise they were much Hellenized and collaborated with the foreign rulers. On the other hand there were radical nationalists, known as Zealots or Sicarii (knife-men), who advocated armed revolt, and who in 70 C.E. would succeed in starting the war that led to the destruction of the Temple. There were also ascetic sects, like the Essenes, that were preparing for the coming apocalypse. And finally there were the “Pharisees”(“Prushim,” or “those set apart”), the founders of a way of life based on study and adherence to a complex system of commandments. They may have been influenced by the Greek academy and by Stoic philosophy. They rejected most of the apocalyptic writings and declared, early on in the Second Temple period, that the voice of prophecy had fallen silent. G-d no longer spoke to humans directly. Instead, the authoritative word of the written Torah had to be interpreted through reasoned discussion among scholars trained in the “oral Torah,” the tradition handed down through generations of teachers. Thus they developed a method of interpreting scripture that made it flexible while still proclaiming it unalterable. For instance, they taught that “an eye for an eye” really means monetary compensation. They believed in immortality and in a coming Messiah, but placed the emphasis on ethical action in the meantime. The Prushim generally did not preach open revolt, but their stubborn autonomy sometimes angered the authorities. On one occasion Herod crucified 800 Prushim.
“During the Second Temple the Prushim, many of whom lived outside the land of Israel, made many converts throughout the Roman empire. Not all these converts became full-fledged Jews; men, especially, found it difficult to face circumcision in those days before anesthetics. Instead they remained “proselytes of the gate,” recognizing the authority of the Jewish tradition but keeping only its ethical components, which the rabbis found implied in the commands given to Noah after the Flood. Thus the rabbis reconciled the Israel’s claim to be a “chosen people” with the belief in Judaism’s universal significance.
“Christianity began as yet another sect among this fragmented nation, possibly among the poorer classes, who may have found the prescriptions of the Prushim burdensome. The sect believed that the final redemption was near, and such promises have likewise always appealed to the most oppressed. This new version of Judaism clashed with the Prushim but proved attractive to the semi-proselytes scattered throughout the empire. As the day of redemption kept being postponed, the Messiah-figure of Jesus evolved through several generations, so as to survive the failure of the prophecy. In a kind of collective poetic process, the images of the Son of David, the Suffering Servant, and the Son of Man coalesced and fused with the cosmic Logos of the Greeks, until the Church decided (by vote!) to incorporate this figure into the Trinity. Meanwhile, the Jewish people settled down for two thousand years as the scapegoats of the Christian story.”
Such was the narrative that now took shape for me, supplementing what I had heard in Sunday school about the early Christian martyrs. Again I felt rather awed at this process by which the faith of my childhood had taken shape; it seemed to me a mystery no less impressive, in its way, than the “Incarnation.” But it came at the price of a terrible injustice. The Crucifixion stories were written around 200 C.E., at a time when Christianity had pulled away from Judaism and Christians were anxious to avoid clashes with the Roman authorities. It was all too expedient to throw the blame on “the Jews” for the crucifixion of Jesus and whitewash Pontius Pilate (the only actor in the Gospel story whose existence is attested outside the Gospels; contemporaries portayed him as a particularly brutal administrator). In all probability the Crucifixion story was a blood libel from the start. The narrative continued:
“When Christianity became the leading religion of the Roman empire, Jewish proselytization was suppressed, along with any narratives of the schism from the Jewish side. Throughout this period the Prushim pursued their task undeterrably. With the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, Sadducees and Zealots alike vanished. The ascetic sects died out, or perhaps merged with Christianity. Thus it fell to the Prushim, the rabbis, to continue the Jewish tradition. They founded the academy at Yavneh that codified the Bible and the Mishna, the first post-Biblical code of Jewish law. They went on discussing the Mishna and memorizing the main points of discussion, which were written down after a few more centuries as the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud. They elaborated legends and reflections on the on the Torah and other Biblical books, which were eventually assembled in various books of “Midrashim.” And futher generations of codifiers and commentators have built on their work, until the present day.”
As this story began to tell itself to me, like a novel whose hero was the Jewish nation, the concept of a “chosen people” began to make a certain sense. I began to feel more and more uncomfortable with those who took from Judaism the materials for their own creeds or movements but did not acknowledge its authority and always seemed to end by turning against it. Wasn’t I in danger of doing something like this? Given my ineffectiveness it probably did not matter much; but suppose I did have an effect someday?
One day it occurred to me that since I had gained an overview of Western literature, I ought to gain an overview of Jewish literature as well. I soon found out that the two undertakings are not exactly comparable.
Western literature: I had small Latin and less Greek, and in no language was my erudition very profound. Still I’d read Homer and the Greek tragedians in translation, and part of Virgil in the original, and Dante in bilingual editions; I had read Shakespeare, Racine, Milton, Goethe and Pushkin; I had read the Romantic and symbolist and modern poets; the main works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Jane Austen and George Eliot and the novels I had analyzed in The Web of What Is Written. And finally -- really finally – Paul Celan. The picture had many gaps, but it looked as though the outline would not alter much if these gaps were filled in. Western literature was comprehensible.
Jewish literature turned out to be a different matter: vast, with many masters the uninitiated never hear of, written in letters that go from right to left with the vowels left out, and in a densely allusive style that relies for comprehension on an immense reservoir of knowledge. An “overview” of this tradition is not for young ladies with a penchant for reading. You start at three or four, like a concert pianist, and study full-time all your life. If you are a gaon, a Torah genius, you may the get some global sense of it; otherwise you take comfort in that saying from Pirkei Avot: “It is not up to you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”
I started on this interminable path in January, by reading an English translation of the Mishna. My first reaction was an angry poem. The Mishna is a legal code, and one does not expect to find much warmth in such a document, but still in the tractate on women there was a certain tone of lovelessness that I found chilling. Around the same time, I think, I read a work by a feminist scholar about the treatment of women in the Talmud. The writer, whose name I forget, theorized that the rabbis’ restrictive attitude toward women was related to their concern for national identity: women tend to be more open to outside influences than men.
Is that generalization true? It makes me think of a popular movie of the early 1970's, Elvira Madigan. The reader will remember that this is about an extramarital relationship that ends in a suicide pact, the “moral” seemingly being that true love has no place in this world. At one point two friends locate the couple and try to persuade them to separate. Elvira holds up her hand and says to them: “You see lines on the hand; I see the whole hand.” This perception that women are connected with something that is boundless, may be one component of the perennial desire to fence them in.
You can see that my first reaction to post-Biblical Judaism was not too dissimilar to George Eliot’s. In Daniel Deronda she portrays Jewish characters and Zionism very sympathetically, but the reason why her hero grows up ignorant of his Jewish origins is that his mother couldn’t put up with the treatment of women.
I had numerous discussions with Rabbi L., and with Greg J. Rabbi L. asked me why, if Judaism was so hard on women, so many women were attracted to it. With Greg J. I had the feeling that becoming a baal teshuva was a way of avoiding confrontation with feminism. If one did not want to hear women’s voices, it would surely be tempting to retreat nto a sacred tradition that justified such deafness. In the spring a prominent writer who was a Holocaust survivor came to campus and gave a lecture. After the lecture I spoke with him for a few minutes. I asked him why, in a recent magazine article, he had chosen to repeat a Midrash, according to which Eve gave the fruit to Adam in order to sure that he would be cast out of the garden with her. Given that the Holocaust was perpetrated mostly by men, why, after the Holocaust, continue to repeat misogynist stories? His answer was: “We have to go on repeating them.” It was now (or so I understood him) doubly impossible to admit that there had ever been anything wrong with repeating them.
The contradiction between my feminist views and women’s place in the Jewish tradition seemed irresoluble. Yet I could not conclude that I had come to the wrong address. That year March 15 (always a sort of anniversary) fell on Purim, which I commemorated in my fashion by writing a poem called “The Fulfillment of a Commandment” and addressed to Sylvia Plath. It ends: “Come home.” The evening before, after the Megillah reading at Hillel, someone had handed out packets to help us fulfill the Purim commandments: two kinds of food we should give a friend, and two pennies for the poor. I imagined giving one penny to Plath and keeping the other with the mate to the earring I had flung to the river in the spring of 1971. But as yet it was only a poetic ceremony.
I was still struggling to make the Small World work. Late in March I thought it might help if I formulated my instructions absolutely clearly, using the outline form which I’d been practicing for Prof. Mansoor.
One of these outlines was called “Proposal for a Program under the Auspices of the Small World School of Poetry.” It envisaged the formation of a group of students who, having read The Web of What Is Written, would attempt to figure out their own tasks in relation to its vision, and to apply its insights in various fields.
The second outline was called “An Outline for Social Reorganization.” It proposed the formation of small groups, each of whom would be led by a central reference person, or “transformer.” This should be the person who exhibits the most global understanding of the others. When the group reached a size perceived as cumbersome, it would divide. Each new group would have its own “transformer,” and the two would remain in contact. This process would be repeated, and an aggregation of groups would form. “Organization is not the establishment of a chain of command, but the intelligible arrangement of complexity.” Wherever possible, the “transformer” should be a woman, because the ability to tune in to each individual, and then coordinate their perceptions, is a feminine characteristic.
Naturally, in projecting the role of the “transformer” I was thinking of myself. In the meetings it always seemed that I was the one who remembered what each of the others had said and tried to pull it all together. But I had had models – Isadora, Marsha -- and from time to time I would meet up with a woman who seemed to know immediately and exactly what I was talking about, although, sadly, the communication never lasted very long.
These repeated failures seemed due to social and gender pressures. It did not seem to make much difference whether my interlocutrix was heterosexual or Lesbian. I have never concerned myself with other people’s sleeping arrangements, nor regarded my peculiar case as a rule for anyone else. I was simply trying to get everyone to spare a little eros for something that no one can possess, but that sustains us all -- the community, the ecology. I believed (per the imagery of The Web of What Is Written) that a poetic sisterhood would form the tissue of the “earth household.” But again and again I would begin to find a common language with some another woman, would discover a “name-sister,” only to learn soon afterward that this bond was felt to conflict with her loyalty to her man. I could not always tell whether this was due to pressure exerted by the man, or whether the woman herself took shelter in submission from a responsibility she did not want to assume. I gathered some people thought that lesbianism would free women from submission; but my limited observations did not bear this out. In a book by a bisexual feminist about her lesbian phase, the detail that struck me most was that in her affair with a young woman who showed some propensities for creative thinking, she found herself making remarks of the “why-should-you-bother-your-pretty-little-head-about-such-things” variety. A poet who had recently “come out” showed me a poem that reminded me of “The Forgotten World.” It sounded as though it came from a deep place of concern for the human future; it had that primitive, crooning sound and an impressive refrain. And it managed to end on a note of hope. But the other poems she showed me were lesbian erotica, and as with most erotica there was not much thought in them. (Celan’s erotic poems had affected me just because there is thought in them, you have to think in order to get the kick.) Our conversation had no sequel.
Despite the disappointment in which they always seemed to end, my dialogues with other women and other poets kept showing me glimpses of a common ground, a nondenominational, nonsectarian, mother-ground, on which I still hoped to make a stand. It was with some idea of giving “scriptural” consistency to such ground that I tried for the first time, that spring, to write “scientifically” of my experience with Paul Celan. The result was a long essay, Folie à deux, which sought to establish through textual analysis that a) some of Celan’s poems are deliberately addressed to the feminine reader in a visionary (these days I might have said “virtual”) encounter; b) that he had in mind a specific reader, one at least who answered to a specific name, and who would continue his quest; and c) that this name, which is not just one name but a complex interlingual pun (bee, Binah, being, the letter Beth) that encodes metaphysical beliefs and Utopian expectations. The essay also connected with the religious history I’d learned from my work for Prof. Mansoor, with the history of the Jewish-Christian schism and the visions of Gnosticism, to which one chapter of my Intertestamental outline was devoted. Gnosticism recognized the female aspect of deity, and some of its leaders were women. Gnosticism died out or was suppressed early in the Common Era, but its ghost has walked in various heresies and also in the Kabbala. The Gnostic Sophia owes something to Pallas Athene and something to the Wisdom figure of Proverbs, and returns in the feminine “emanations” of the Kabbalah – Binah, Malkhut, Shekhinah. And in Dante. In Celan’s imagination the exiled Shekhinah merges with the murdered mother, and by appealing to the reader he is trying bring her back. The struggle with the Oedipal taboo becomes a struggle with history.
On the whole I still think that, with certain corrections, Folie à Deux might pass muster as a solid piece of scholarship. “On the White Phylactery,” “Before a Candle,” “With Letter and Clock,” and “Where Ice Is” cannot be interpreted coherently without acknowledging this relationship. And these poems are linked by by associations connected with the aforesaid name. The difficulty, I found, lay in drawing borders to the domain of the relationship, deciding which associations, which connections, were made by the poet, and which represent only the projections of a reader seeking connection. At moments, in attempting to draw this border, I seemed to sense a vast coherency in which the associations existed, whether or not anyone thought of them. The mind of G-d, perhaps. Some of the conclusions I reached seemed corroborated by the thinking of Jule Eisenbud, a Freudian analyst and parapsychologist whose work I had somehow run across.
What is the truth of it? I still ask myself today. Since 1976 I have learned more about Celan’s life, about the outward circumstances in which the poems were written. And from this information it appears that I was completely wrong about one poem at least -- “Leap-Centuries.” This poem is from Lichtzwang, the book that appeared just after Celan’s death, and I had long understood it as a protocol of our conversation. The reader remembers that I had flown from Berlin, and that he spoke of “lighting a few lights for you”; that must be what was meant by “the menorah-poem from Berlin.” The poem patched in an English phrase “bits on chips,” which contains my initials; I thought it also could describe the bits-and-pieces quality of the conversation, while also recurring to that saying he had given me about the computer. The word “honeycomb,” from the semantic field of my name, is in there. The poem ends “cold start, with/ hemoglobin”; a few days before the interview I had received a blood transfusion. There are a few questions that seem to be about the whereabouts and well-being of some unnamed person. I thought he must have written it while wondering what had become of me, after I didn’t write to him. In Tel Aviv, sometime in the 80's, I showed this interpretation to Ilana Shmueli, and I recall her looking at me after reading it, visibly impressed.
I now know that by the time of our meeting in August 1969 Lichtzwang was already at the publisher! The poem, according to the annotated edition, is from November 23, 1967, Celan’s own birthday; he was struggling. A woman had sent him a poem about a menorah from Berlin (shall I see it someday?). So it would seem like the classic case of a beautiful theory slain by a plain little fact.
And yet. In “The Meridian” he describes the poem as an effort of the self in extremis, yet suggests, as a faint wild hope, the possibility that in the poem “the time of the other” will also speak. Though finished two years before his death, Lichtzwang reaches the reader as a valediction. There is one recent interpreter, Giuseppe Bevilacqua (he teaches in Florence) who reads it that way – and sees in the poems the figure with which I identified. Perhaps “Leap-Centuries,” was one of those poems, like “Birthday of a Courier,” that are written not only because of what has happened but because of what is going to happen.
In 1975 I had lent a collection of Celan’s poems in English translation to poet named Deborah – not the Deborah who had inspired “Birthday of a Courier,” but another, whose had shown me a poem that began “Sail on” written in a style really did remind me somewhat of Celan, though she had not heard of him. Deborah returned the book with the comment that she liked best – she opened the book and pointed – “that one.” “Leap-centuries.” I asked her why that one, and she said, “I don’t know. It makes me think of – another world.” In one of her poems she had written: AAnd nature=s lessons/ spindle the child=s heart@ and “Leap-Centuries” contains the lines “Feelings, frost-spindled.” Perhaps that world where the connections are made, “behind time,” as he put it in Fadensonnen. If only the connections would hold in this world...
Folie à deux ended with a poem by “Alice Clark”:
My mortal people, struck from the everlasting,
Earth of smoke blown from the fiery sea,
Brief speck of dust hung in infinity,
O let us be
This instant, this eternity.
Again I had about a hundred copies made. Each member of the Small World got one. But my hopes of strengthening the others’ commitment by these proofs were disappointed. Already during the writing it had occurred to me that the connections I was pointing out, and the Gestalt that they build up, can only be seen if one wants to see them. It always seemed to come back to the problem of love. You can’t see another person unless you love them. But does that mean that they don’t exist? That summer I put a mimetic little tune to a poem by Archibald MacLeish, “Captivity of the Fly”:
The fly against the windowpane
That flings itself in flightless flight,
So it loves light,
Will die of love, and die in vain.
Prisoner of the open wall,
Where freedom is but turning round,
Still is it bound –
Love barred, there is no way at all. (...)
Maybe that is the real reason why I was drawn to Judaism. When there doesn’t seem to be a way within the natural world, the idea of a transcendant G-d, who made the laws of the natural world and can change them, begins to seem like the only way out. It was like taking my case to the Supreme Court. In August I wrote a “prayer” that began:
G-d of the one I love
And of his ancestors,
Creator of all things,
Ruler of the universe,
I know before whom I am standing,
I know You’re there,
I want to speak to you.
Evidently I had found my way to Beth Israel Center, the Conservative synagogue, which has the words “D’a lifnei mi attah ‘omed” (Know before whom you are standing) inscribed above the bema. Also, I had learned to tap into the tradition of “argument with G-d” which begins with Abraham. The poem voiced my two standard complaints, the status of women and the sacrificium intellectus involved in accepting the “Law as given on Mount Sinai.” Among other things it asked:
Are not the paths of my brain
Were they not framed with the stars,
With the ribs of the mountains,
Are they not sacred as the words of Your Torah?
Shall I, bowing before You, deny You?
Is not my truth a part of Yours?
But before finally placing my bet on the answer to this question, I had to give Mona a try.
Mona Webb, who left this plane a few years ago, was a well-known if somewhat mysterious Madison character. She came from a middle class Southern Black family – father a schoolteacher, mother a piano teacher -- and had been married to a Black professor, with whom she had four children before they divorced. To get away from discrimination in the South she had lived some time in Mexico and had been influenced by Mexican art. Since 60's she had lived on Williamson Street, which was the center of the counterculture in Madison and is still the center of what is left of it. She had collected around her a circle of young people who included Greg E. and a woman Greg had brought to the Small World, a gifted, beautiful, but seriously unbalanced poet, painter and dancer whom I’ll call Deirdre. It was something like a commune, though as one woman recalled after Mona’s death, “We didn’t think of it as a commune, we thought of it as a family.”
For several months before we met, Mona and I carried on a tug of war, through the loyalties of Greg E., Deirdre and one or two other frequenters of both our places. It was evident that Mona was encouraging them to “go with the flow”and avoid commitments. My first feeling about Mona was that she was someone I wouldn’t agree with and should probably avoid. But Greg E. and Deirdre had invited me to come to a dance group at Mona’s, and so one day (wary? curious? wanting to confront the source of the interference?) I took the bus to Williamson Street and pushed open the door of the “Wayhouse of Light.”
It was a total environment. A great dim room with a loft, stained glass windows, the walls covered like a cathedral with papier mâché sculptures in primary colors. Behind the railing of the loft, beside a phonograph, sat Mona, commanding the dancers. I do not recall the preliminaries of our conversation, nor what record she put on the phonograph; but I began to dance.
Thus I was drawn into her orbit, and my objections to her world-view were for a while suspended. I was in Mona’s world and outside it at the same time, like a dream in which you know that you are dreaming. I would go and see her in her bedroom in the loft, where she received all callers; because of her back she did not often come downstairs. She was well-educated, well-traveled, and her views of bourgeois society and the academic world were like mine in some ways. She drew out of me not only a dance but a poem that was its verbal equivalent. The phrase with which it begins – “Yigdal Elokim Chai” (“May the living G-d be magnified”) is the opening of a hymn that is based on the thirteen principles of faith as formulated by Maimonides. Even at that point of extreme blasphemy I wrote the Name as the Orthodox do, in the altered form “Elokim” – unless that too was a kind of blasphemous parody. Well, my teacher was a blasphemer. What can I do. I shall type as much of the poem as I can stand:
YIGDAL ELOKIM CHAI
that’s you, Mona –
you’re the only living God I can see –
that’s going to upset them, like the joke, you know –
I heard the door clang shut and the key splash in the moat,
Then in the dark I heard your laughter starting up like a motor.
VRROOM! Did we get the hell out of there! [¼]
No, I can’t believe it, just can’t believe it
Even that I would dance again –
But you put on your music
And drew my soul out through my fingertips –
I saw you coming down through the hole in the gallery ceiling
Along those spiral glass stairs
With a black cat by your side,
You perched up there instructing the dancers,
The only person I know who can talk of love
Without a speck of falsehood showing.
And in the gallery there’s this shelter
Crammed with holy images –
Masks, ithyphallic crucifixes,
A picture of someone meditating by a lake
That lights up,
Bearskin on the floor,
Whoever comes here has to tell the truth.
Outside – portraits on the wall,
Souls scrawled in black lines and primary colors,
Faces. If my face were half that rea.
And idols, idols,
Saints and Buddhas, totem figures, monsters out of nameless rivers,
Beasts like continents –
You burn incense before Buddhas,
You will put one in the front window to bless the world
You are Jewish, African, Buddhist, Catholic, American Indian –
Come one, come all –
Here these are all given up for safekeeping,
Live again, like dolls in their own houses;
When we borrow and think to buy them, they play dead
It’s the inside of the memory of the world,
Stocked with images dense as jungle fronds.
Oh Mona, how could they go out of here
Build those gray halls
Made of forgetting and ruling everything out¼[¼]
Things talk to you –
You touch one and know who has touched it.
You read our minds like an eye-chart.
You command the angels of coincidence,
We arrange ourselves around you
In a pattern of meetings,
You are the web and the rock.
And you too have seen, seen the worst,
Couldn’t eat in the vicinity of Dachau,
Saw – saw – the past could not hide from you,
Screamed your head off getting out
Of materialist university barbwire round the braing,
Known liars, seen people cross the street to avoid you,
Been to cities where they don’t believe in ghosts
Though they’re so thick you can hardly see anything else,
Got people out of crazyhouses, helped psychiatrists,
Stood by helpless while beautiful humans killed themselves –
Helpless. You too. And yet – even so – the stronger.
You climbed the stairs after telling us the news,
Step by step with your pain like an adagio partner:
“Sing. There is no sorrow.”
If you leave us, Mona,
You’ll have a fiery chariot.
We’ll beg for a portion of your spirit.
No one will touch your home.
Instead it will hunch down, bunch together
In the dark of some night, tugging at the city
From within, like a moon it has swallowed,
And long before morning
We shall all be inside of you.
“We arrange ourselves around you/ In a pattern of meetings.” That, of course, was what I had wished for myself and friends. I was surprised, by the way, when a Breslover Hasidic friend to whom I showed this poem with trepidation was not unduly disturbed by it.
How much of Mona was spirituality and how much was showmanship? That is always a difficult question to decide. Indeed (given the participation of the beholder in the creation of the spiritual object, which I had already noted in writing Folie à deux), it is seldom completely decidable. But could she really touch an object and tell who had touched it last? I can’t recall now whether I witnessed that or whether she just told me about it. And did she really read our minds? Sometimes she seemed very insightful. She said me once, “You’re like a little girl in your mother’s shoes,” which felt (and often still feels) very much on target. On the other hand she did a portrait head of me in clay that I rather shied away from. It gave me a sort of orgiastic expression, like Bernini’s St. Theresa. I felt obliged to write a self-portrait in verse that portrayed me more in the style of a Greek caryatid:
... a figurehead of Thought
to stand upon some windswept cornice high
and guard the house from error and from fear.
Only now does it occur to me that from Mona’s angle, the bust she did of me represented a step toward formality. It had more firmness of line than her other works.
Perhaps the female leaders of those forgotten Gnostic cenacles were a little like Mona. Or like the addressee of my next poem, “Eleusinian”: a rural Wisconsin woman who seemed a kind of matriarch among local poets, who also believed in spirits, and to whom I was appealing to take me under her protection and help me to root myself in the Wisconsin poetic community The second (and better) part of the poem was a reconstruction of the Eleusinian mysteries, based on C. Kerenyi’s Eleusis. It incorporated a couple of lines from fragmentary inscriptions: “These mysteries hold the human race together.” “Lead Persephone back beneath the stars.” At a gathering of feminist poets it read well. The Wisconsin matriarch reacted coolly; the feminist magazine which accepted it for publication imposed editorial changes that rather spoiled the second part.
Mona, at any rate, liked my poem about her. Perhaps I had seen her vision of herself. Besides sculpting the head, she also decided to put on a show. I would recite, sing and play guitar and the group would dance to my singing and to classical music. For classical music I suggested passages from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, and brought the records. We rehearsed for several weeks. I wore a long white robe and recited Celan’s “You too: speak” as well as performing my own poems and songs. The lighting on the stage was blue. I think it was a successful performance – someone in the audience wrote a poem about it – but afterward my relationship with Mona crashed.
I haven’t thought about this in years, and am now trying to figure out exactly why. I have just reread the depressive piece I wrote after the performance, and can’t find evidence in it of any action on Mona’s part that should have alienated me. Part of it was the letdown after a performance. The expenditure of energy always leaves me flattened, and on this occasion I had really expended everything. Mona didn’t help this by throwing a party the next night, with a nihilistic rock singer, as if almost deliberately to shatter the atmosphere she had helped me to create, leaving not a rack behind. Maybe she felt the need to let the others blow off steam after the tension of performing to my words and music. Like the satyr play after the tragic cycle. Whereas I wanted something to come of it immediately, which was unwise. There was also the way my relationship with Greg E. had suffered while I was working with Mona; I remember a rending conversation at the Wayhouse, one of those in which I could not stop myself from trying to stop someone who was pulling away. At any rate I felt shattered. I never returned to the Gallery after that party, not even to pick up the records of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Now I ask myself what would have been if I had been as patient with Mona as I was with the people at Hillel. I am not altogether liking myself over this. Maybe it was simply that I was more strongly drawn toward Hillel, and so I manufactured a rejection from Mona, with this passive way I had of getting others to reject me rather than taking responsibility for my own choices. Maybe I was guilty of what I accused her of in my heart – not being able to allow another her power. Maybe, if I had hung around, Deirdre wouldn’t have felt torn between us and would have acted less self-destructively than she did in the next few years. Maybe I would have influenced Mona a bit too. Maybe the commune would have been strengthened, maybe the Wayhouse of Light, in some form, would still be standing instead of being torn down and scattered after Mona’s death a few years ago.
Mona seemed to embody a way of being – Taoistic, verging on Dionysiac – that I was drawn to and yet pulled away from because it was amorphous, it had no boundaries, and thus no defenses against what I felt to be destructive forces. I could not deal with so much unpredictability, I needed the firm ground of structure and of rules not of my making.
I hope that, somewhere, she understands.
I’m not sure whether it was before or after the performance that I wrote, for the Jewish student newspaper, an article that represented a last attempt to stake out a territory outside the covenant. Like Simone Weil, who having distanced herself from Judaism still could never take that step across the threshold of the Church. The essay reiterated my standard two reasons: the treatment of women, and the general rigidity of the concept of Torah. Humans needed a Torah, all right, to teach them how to live on Earth, but we could not receive it by clinging to unalterable laws laid down in past generations; we had to try to see see what the imperative to preserve the earth and seek justice implies under present conditions. The article was not accepted.
Then, at the end of 1976, there appeared the collection Zeitgehoeft (Time-croft), containing the poems written in Celan’s last year. Many of these poems reflect his one visit to Israel, to Jerusalem, which is the scene of some very direct love poems. “Say that Jerusalem is.” Of the relationship that produced those poems I of course knew nothing, and they affected me as had the others, producing another of those poems which I now cannot bring myself to reread. Even then the struggle was not over; it was another two months before I woke up one morning with the thought that, after all, I could convert.
It was the eve of Purim, the year 5737.