Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review of Joshua Kryah's Glean

My faith lies elsewhere. When I finished reading Joshua Kryah’s Glean (Nightboat Books, 2007) and started thinking about what I would write in my review of the book, that is sentence that came to me, almost as if it had been waiting—who knows how long?—somewhere in the back or just below the surface of my consciousness for me to read the final lines of “Come Hither,” the last poem in the book. (I apologize for the problems with lineation. I could not get Blogger to reproduce the correct layout of the poems I have quoted):

Who will draw you out, now
that you’ve given yourself over?

Who dissolve
your body like a host on their tongue?

What stopping place will be provided, what

Where am I in this emergence—
who comes?

The “you” here is God, or, rather, the god that faith places on the other side of the absence that is all, according to the monotheism I was taught growing up, human beings can ever really know of the one divine being. Yet the first two questions here are not about this god per se, but rather about those whose task it is to draw this god out into the world and take him into themselves. In the face of the absence that is also the divine—and that is, therefore, in itself perhaps the deepest and most fundamental test of faith—who will those people be? At the same time, the speaker of the poem is clear that something is emerging—something which, based on the first two questions, we can assume the speaker believes to be God. Then, out of that clarity another question emerges. What is the speaker’s position in the emergence, not in relation to it, as if he were standing outside of it, watching what was happening, waiting to see the end result, but in it, as part of it, and once the speaker places himself within this emergence, who is emerging is no longer clear. The possibility exists in the language that it is the speaker who is emerging, that he is watching himself become, that he has discovered his god within himself, that he has come to accept that he is himself, somehow, within his god.

Questions of faith have been important to me since I was a teenager and I believed my future lay in the rabbinate. When I set aside the faith that being a rabbi would have demanded of me, however, I did not set aside the struggle to come to terms with the final, indifferent and absolute absence that will fill the space where I used to be in the moment after my death. It is a measure of Kryah’s success that, despite the fact my faith lies somewhere very other than his—and since this is a review of his book, I am not going to turn it into an essay about my own spirituality—the poems in Glean nonetheless confronted me with the question of just where, precisely, my spirituality does lie. In large measure, the poems accomplish this through metaphors that ground the issues they raise firmly in the body. Here, for example, are the first few lines of “My Easter:”

Breathbloom, the resurrection lily
spent on its stem,

the pale throat thrown back

Behold, all at once,
the flesh-like knot
undone, each petal released, their beauty un-
mistakably and

already gone.

And here is “O Hieroglyph (forgotten word, spread your lips around me)” in its entirety:

As if the wet vowel might speak.

As if, plundered,
it might give up its blank stare, and
suddenly, shudder in my mouth.

We exchange a language
dumb as flesh, pressed into and bruised
beyond recognition, its only response the black eye’s dull circle of speech.

Blue, blue-brown,
each color offset by the surrounding skin,
the calcite thought of your returning again.

I cannot muster
what I should have lost, and in the wish gained
more steadfast: your curio, what swings from a locket upon my chest,

a message that now only speaks
with its fist.

The note I wrote to myself on the page below this poem says, simply, “Donne?” The fist in the final line recalled for me Holy Sonnet #14, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” and, indeed, I found myself thinking of Donne’s Holy Sonnets often while reading Glean, so much so that I read through the sampling of them in the edition of the Norton Anthology that I have on my shelf before I sat down to write this review. Donne’s poems, too, are rooted in the body, though very differently than Kryah’s. For while Kryah metaphorizes—if I can coin a term—the body, and the physical world in general, to give presence to the absence in the face of which he questions, asserts and maintains his faith, Donne positions the body in his poems as Other to his god, whose presence in the world the poems themselves—at least the ones I read—do not doubt for a minute. I also thought of Donne’s Holy Sonnets while reading Glean because, despite the fact that Kryah’s poems are written in a very free verse—the sentence fragment and the unconventional spacing of the poems seemed to me just about the only two formal devices used consistently throughout the book—his poem’s share with Donne’s a sense of language as something physical, something to be felt, held in the mouth, savored and then released.

In all honesty, I don’t know that I will pick this book of poems up again. It has said to me what it has to say, and it’s not something I need to hear again. Still, I admire, deeply, the craft and commitment, the honesty and courage that went into writing it. It is the kind of book I think everyone should have to read once, the kind of book that those to whom it truly speaks will treasure for the rest of their lives.

Cross-posted on It's All Connected.

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