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The Emotions of a Jewish Family Told in Poetry

THE ART OF BLESSING THE DAY: Poems with a Jewish Theme;\o7 By Marge Piercy; (Alfred A. Knopf $23, 180 pages)\f7

May 08, 1999|ZACHARY KARABELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zachary Karabell is a frequent reviewer for TheTimes' Religion Page

When King David meant to praise the Lord God, he praised him with the Psalms--arguably the world's first great cycle of poems. And ever since, it seems, the great language of spiritual celebration for all people has not been prose, but poetry. Rumi, St. John of the Cross and others have all set their spiritual ideas to the metric hum of the lyric.

Reading poetry, like listening to classical music in a concert hall, can be meditative. As the words draw you into a world of images and feelings and buffet you with startling and beautiful sounds, the specific content of the poems becomes blurry.

In her new collection of poems, Marge Piercy focuses on a few core themes: family, particularly the mother; body, particularly the woman; faith, particularly Judaism; history, particularly that of the Jews. Piercy, the author of numerous novels and more than a dozen collections of poems, manages to be both mysterious and didactic, both explicit and evocative. Some of her poems tell linear stories, of visiting the Jewish cemetery in Prague or of listening to her grandmother reminiscing about Russia. Others are more tonal, conjuring up images and feelings in impressionistic fashion. The overall effect of the collection is to plunge the reader into a maternal, familial, Jewish world of bodies, relationships, sex, fertility, land, pain, loss and acceptance.

The collection is book-ended by two poems; the first gives the collection its title, the last is called "The Ram's Horn Sounding." In the opening poem, most of the book's major themes appear. She writes, "We must never forget, pleasure is real as pain." And she invokes the seasons, food, family and the cycle of life. The next segment, "Mishpocheh (Family)," contains the most poignant and emotionally raw poems in the collection. When Piercy writes of women and family, she brings an acute personal voice that manages to be both specific and universal.

In one of the more searing poems, "The Wicked Stepmother," she recalls the sense of bewilderment and betrayal a young girl feels as her mother's love turns to judgment. The mother begins to approach her daughter with the "acid of resentment: / how dare you turn on me, my / child, and grow apple breasts." Later her mother needles and questions and accuses. "Was there a synonym for slut / you missed. . . ." And then, turning 80, the loving mother returns. "Oh, Mother / you returned to love me again / just before the end of time."

It's clear in this and other poems that Piercy is writing about herself and her family. What might be maudlin or self-indulgent in a prose memoir, Piercy conveys piquantly in verse. You can hear the angry spitting of her mother; you can sense the unspoken dialogue between parent and child, grandchild and grandparent, husband and wife. In the second section, Piercy turns to marriage, and in a remarkable poem called "The Chuppah," illuminates the marital experience using the image of the Jewish wedding canopy. In "Marriage in Winter," she homes in on the urgency of marriage: "What we need is to thrust / into each other with a hunger / for spring, the bear in each / wakened from hibernation. . . . / We must enter each other / as if we were in a new garden / strange and fruitful and fragrant / with vines and trees / we have dreamed but never seen."

When Piercy turns to the other themes, to history, prayer and the cycle of the year, her poems lose some of their emotional vitality. Away from the personal, she floats a bit too much for my taste, and though the rhythm of these poems still compels, they do not penetrate as deeply. When she writes of Judaism as ritual, the poems tend to feel perfunctory, and she never quite manages to fuse the mysteries of faith with the calendrical rote that characterizes traditional Judaism. Yet when she accesses family and body, her Judaism seethes with energy and vitality.

The final poem, "The Ram's Horn Sounding," is beautiful, and it leaves us with a powerful sense of Piercy as a personal poet who is herself mystified by her compulsion to channel life and feelings into words. "Like any poet I wrestle the holy name / and know there is no wording finally / can map, constrain or summon that fierce / voice whose long wind lifts my hair / chills my skin and fills my lungs / to bursting. I serve the word / I cannot name, who names me daily, / who speaks me out by whispers and shouts." As her words cascade over us, as we feel the passion and contradictions that course through this poet, we can only tilt our heads, respectfully, toward someone who fills us with such luminosity.

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