May 10, 2011
Chasidic poet blends sacred, mundane in acclaimed debut
Surely the most unusual title among the finalists in the poetry category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes is “God’s Optimism” by Yehoshua November (Main Street Rag, $14). After all, the rarefied world of poetry rarely encounters a Chasidic poet who declares that his intention is “to restore the sanctity to language.” And in case the book won first prize, I was asked to be ready to read the author’s acceptance speech, because the prize ceremony took place on a Friday night, and he is shomer Shabbat.
As it turns out, I was not called upon to speak in November’s place. However, “God’s Optimism” has already been honored with the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and was also a finalist for both the Autumn House Poetry Prize and the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. The poems collected in “God’s Optimism” were first published in an impressive range of periodicals, from The Adirondack Review to ZEEK: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Several appeared in the well-regarded Prairie Schooner, which awarded the poems its Bernice Slote Award.
What matters in poetry, of course, is not how many prizes the poet has collected, but the impression the poems make on each new reader. Clearly, November is one poet whose work demands — and has attracted — much attention from serious readers of poetry. “Even when the poem is about apparently mundane subjects — tennis, billboards, Harpo Marx, a tangerine — this tension between the daily and the sacred hums just under its skin,” declares poet Liz Rosenberg in her foreword to “God’s Optimism.”
For me, the best qualities of November’s work can be found in “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah,” a poem that begins quietly enough: “Sometimes you see them/in the dressing area/of the ritual bath/young bearded men unbuttoning/their white shirts,/slipping out of their black trousers.” The poet goes on to raise the stakes, presenting us with a wholly unexpected moment of revelation: “…until,/standing entirely naked,/they are betrayed by the tattoos/of their past life. …” Among the tattoos he describes is “the scripted name of a woman/other than one’s wife.” Yet November praises these born-again Jews above the frum-from-birth Jew “who,/in all his days,/has probably never made a sacrifice/as endearing to God.”
To be sure, some of November’s poems are concerned with what appear to be wholly secular matters. “Harpo,” for example, is a deft paean to the Marx brother who never spoke aloud, but even here the poet reveals what really matters to him: “And who would have known/that, after performances,/the most lighthearted of five brothers/would race to his wife and children,/instead of card games and wild women?”
More often, he speaks explicitly of his spiritual concerns, many of which frankly address the anxieties that beset any strictly observant Jew who lives in the secular world. In “Every Friday Night,” he ponders “a Semitic sadness” that weighs on Jewish men as they walk home from shul. Sometimes it’s a theological matter — “… the thought/that God will go on concealing Himself” — “but more often it’s the blond woman/who walks through the mind of every Jewish man,/leading him away from his dark haired wife.”
The same tension can be found in November’s love poems to his wife. In the poem titled “This Morning, I Recalled Our Belated Honeymoon,” he catalogs the blissful experiences of the newlyweds, but he pauses to ponder an encounter with a Jewish family at a Shabbat dinner in Paris: “And do you remember how,/hoping we were not/a young unmarried couple/traveling together,/the boy’s pious father finally whispered to me,/You are brother and sister?”
Now and then, however, November conveys the ecstasy that is the counterweight to anxiety in the Chasidic imagination. “God’s Optimism,” the poem that gives the collection its title, ponders how much we depend on God’s willingness to bear the weight of the world: “Think of the optimism of God, then,/how, every second, He recreates our lives —/I who have not served Him honestly,/and you who believe you have never served Him.” The fine detail of the poem is painfully honest, both about the poet’s self-doubt and his awareness that his reader is likely to be a nonobservant Jew, or someone who is not Jewish at all.
Indeed, the things that matter to November will not necessarily matter to all of his readers. But what makes “God’s Optimism” so unique — and so praiseworthy — is November’s insistence on confronting his readers with values that they will seldom encounter in other contemporary poetry. Like all poets, he clearly yearns for attentive and appreciative readers, but it is to his credit that he will not compromise his art or his faith in order to attract them.