God’s Opti­mism

  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
Emi­ly Dick­in­son once said that she knew she had read a good poem when the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. This did not mean she was get­ting goose pim­ples from the thrill of the con­tent. This state­ment indi­cat­ed her excite­ment at hav­ing encoun­tered a real work of art — the kind of feel­ing I imag­ine prospec­tors must get when dis­cov­er­ing dia­monds in a coal mine.

And there are dia­monds in this col­lec­tion of Yehoshua November’s poet­ry. But it is a dif­fer­ent kind of excite­ment these poems bring, the kind that aris­es from the recog­ni­tion of sweet­ness in cer­tain events of life, which bring a smile to the face and seren­i­ty to the heart. One poem is a prime exam­ple of this: In the Unsee­able World” a sleep­less boy watch­es his broth­er reach for a ball in a dream and says, He reach­es for nothing/​it is all a dream. Novem­ber com­pares this to a man pass­ing the win­dow of a shul and, see­ing anoth­er man sway­ing and stretch­ing his arms toward heav­en, miss­es the point:

long arms reach through
the eter­nal
water and the fir­ma­ment
and His hands cleave
to the hands of the man who is
And the man pass­ing by says,
Oh, why does he waste
his ener­gy,
what does he hope to touch?

It is the mys­ti­cal belief that fer­vent prayer reach­es God that a prag­ma­tist can­not visu­al­ize. And Novem­ber hints that because of that lack of belief the ordi­nary man will not be able to reach God or achieve the nec­es­sary spir­i­tu­al­i­ty to make his life hap­pi­er. November’s abil­i­ty to com­pare belief in an invis­i­ble God to the most com­mon expe­ri­ences is what dis­tin­guish­es his poems. In Part­ners in Cre­ation” he claims that God’s renew­al of the world is like the renew­al of a child’s world, when he comes home from school/​and his father and mother/​still live in the same house,/and he hears them talk­ing at the kitchen table.” (This is a tech­nique used by Dick­in­son as well when she describes the busy­ness in the house/​the morn­ing after death” which includes the sweep­ing up the heart and putting love away” to be used much lat­er on. The sim­ple house­hold task of sweep­ing is relat­ed to the infi­nite con­cept of love through­out eter­ni­ty.)

And yet, the young poet, Novem­ber can be irrev­er­ent and fun­ny as well. In Every Fri­day Night” he describes the sad­ness of Ortho­dox Jew­ish men return­ing from shul and con­sid­ers the pos­si­ble rea­sons; they may emanate from God’s con­tin­u­ing to con­ceal Him­self but more often than not Novem­ber feels it is due to the blond woman/​who walks through the mind of every Jew­ish man/​leading him away from his dark-haired wife.” Oth­er poems in this col­lec­tion are a refresh­ing trib­ute to roman­tic mem­o­ries con­nect­ed to his wife.

The impact of November’s poems is a cathar­tic one. They serve to relieve the ten­sions of every­day life and leave the read­er in a tran­quil mood. 
Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

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