On these pages you will find the account of a poetic encounter, and of the many experiences that unrolled from it and associated themselves with it.
I have tried to tell this story several times, and the reasons for telling it have shifted somewhat. As the title is meant to suggest, the primary motive was a wish to hold fast certain indications that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Many if not most people have noticed such “signs” at some point in their lives. Yet, strangely, these indications do not always leave a lasting impression. For many they seem to slip away, leaving no certainty behind. By the fifth act, Hamlet has forgotten about the ghost. I began setting all this down partly in order to hold onto the “signs” that I had seen, to give them consistency and context. For (I reasoned) if it were firmly understood that these things happen – whatever name, if any, one chooses to give to their cause – there would be more hope in the world. And then there would also be more love, and more peace.
But then the trail of "signs" led to an encounter with the Torah world, where the reality of “hashgacha pratit,” or Divine supervision of the world, is elementary, and so the story became a conversion narrative, perhaps of an unusual sort -- but every such narrative is unique, though I may have come with more baggage than some.
Then there was the wish to leave a record of larger events to which I was witness, as the life-story that included the seeing of these “signs” unfolded in various settings: The counterculture of the ‘60's. The movements of the ‘70's. Jerusalem in the ‘80's. The America of the ‘90's and the early years of the twenty-first century, may its continuation be better than its beginning. Encounters with history as well as with tradition.
A further motive was the wish to place poetry in an existential context, and thereby remind people of why it is, after all, important. And so the narrative flow is interrupted at various points by the words of two poets: Paul Celan, and – an “and” which is not meant to equate -- yours truly, a poet, of whatever rank, whose poems over the years have been an attempt “to orient myself, to figure out where I was and where things were heading for me,” as Celan once put it. My own poems have been part of my witnessing of events; they have been an aid to memory; they have been one means of holding fast the aforesaid elusive evidence that there is, as said, something more to the world than a reductionist science has been able to find out. As a "reader's confession," this narrative is, as far as I know, unique, though the situation has recently been hinted at in certain fictions (one early hearer free-associated to Pale Fire; there is also The Crying of Lot 49, which I have analyzed at length elsewhere); while the situation of poems in the context of production places this account in a class that for several centuries had only one member – Dante’s Vita Nuova, where the story is told partly by means of the poems inspired by a certain encounter. It seems strangely to be the case that until this attempt of mine, no other poet had used this mixture of poetry and autobiographical narrative, though the form is an obvious and appealing one. The Vita Nuova is an enigmatical work, and scholars will argue forever (or as long as the humanities are funded at all) about the extent to which it is factual and straightforward. I hope this report will be a little less ambiguous. Whatever its shortcomings, and for all the well-known fictional powers of memory, I hereby solemnly affirm that except for changing some of the names, I have not knowingly invented any detail.
And one last reason why this book wanted to be written: In Jerusalem I encountered another poet, Hadassah Haskale, who had been to India and studied in the ashram of a teacher known as the Mother (she was actually a student of Kabbala). Hadassah gave me some writings of the Mother to read. As with many theosophic works I found myself balancing between belief and skepticism, but one thing that the Mother said impressed me deeply. She said that what is remembered after death is not one’s whole life but those moments in which the soul has been especially manifest (or words to that effect). “Epiphanies,” Joyce might have said, though most of his have a negative character. Without representing a dogma for me, this statement expresses the feeling that has guided the selection of events here: the wish to preserve (in this world) impressions that seemed beautiful and worthy of being remembered. Roses in winter, as Voltaire has it. And not only my own winter; for I was young in a time of widespread abundance. Tuition was cheap, and one could make a living by working forty hours a week at simple jobs that were easy to come by. This abundance funded the experiences herein recorded. We live now in a time of greater scarcity, and such luxury of experimentation is now not given to many. Yet experiences can be shared; thanks to Jane Austen, we have all lived in country houses. And I still believe that with inspired planning -- planning informed by memory and desire -- some of that abundance might return.
Where to begin? In any true story, one thing may happen after another, but from each point connecting threads lead to many different points in the past and future. Any point is a possible and impossible beginning. I often wonder how Dante must have felt when he got that first line – "In the middle of the road of our life..." – from which the whole Commedia seems to unroll. But that story could only unroll with such perfect fluency and consistency because it was a fabrication from beginning to end – wasn’t it? – although I’ve heard that the common people, who sang his verses to the ringing of anvils and the crack of cart-whips, shrank from him because they thought he really had been in hell. But I shall begin at the point from which the whole of this story does unroll in a sense: from my first encounter with the poetry of Paul Celan. For this encounter was to shape my future, and it is in the light of it that what preceded it is remembered. And it is, after all, after all, a tolerably Dantean starting point: in a place where the straight road was lost.
As with any book, there are many debts of gratitude. First of all, needless to say, to the aforesaid poet-and-muse, may he not be too ashamed of this second-order creation. To my parents and patrons. To the editor of Bellowing Ark, whose receptivity called forth this version. And to virtually everyone who appears in these pages, which I hope may more or less adequately express my thanks.
November 22, 2011