Greet­ings From Angelus: Poems

Ger­shom Scholem; Richard Sieburth, trans.
  • Review
By – April 25, 2018

In addi­tion to being a philoso­pher, his­to­ri­an, philol­o­gist, and pio­neer of the study of the Kab­bal­ah and Jew­ish mys­ti­cal texts, Ger­shom Scholem was a poet. He began writ­ing poet­ry as a teenag­er and con­tin­ued the prac­tice until his mid-sev­en­ties, pro­duc­ing dozens of poems in a num­ber of styles, though only two of them were pub­lished dur­ing his life­time. Greet­ings from Angelus, a bilin­gual selec­tion of Scholem’s verse, presents 21 of these poems in the orig­i­nal Ger­man, next to an air­tight trans­la­tion by Richard Sieburth.

Many of the poems in the col­lec­tion show Scholem adher­ing to a util­i­tar­i­an, didac­tic style that appears pre­oc­cu­pied with either con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion or, in lighter tones, attempt­ing to enter­tain. At best, this trawls in unex­pect­ed, excit­ing turns of phrase (“Hon­or your illu­sions / cas­tles in the air!”), though his per­sis­tent rhyming can come across as idle, unin­spired, and occa­sion­al­ly sim­ple and nurs­ery-like. For exam­ple, the con­tent of Media in Vita,” a verse com­posed in response to the 1929 Pales­tine riots, is noble, but the verse is less than: I’m not fight­ing for any cause’ / all I’m fight­ing for now is me/​I stand the loneli­est of guards / It takes courage to see what I see.” Oth­er poets have more elo­quent­ly expressed the feel­ing of exhibit­ing a per­son­al stand in response to exter­nal dis­or­der with­out resort­ing to back-patting.

The most inter­est­ing poems in the col­lec­tion aban­don rhyme in favor of free verse, and focus on Scholem’s inter­ac­tions with great thinkers and philoso­phers of his time. This should not be sur­pris­ing; Scholem, after all, main­tained cor­re­spon­dences through­out his life with many of the esteemed Hebrew poets of his age. He walked the Jerusalem streets with Haim Nah­man Bia­lik, com­posed a son­net in hon­or of his friend S.Y. Agnon (and pre­sent­ed him with a hand­writ­ten copy of the poem in hon­or of his sev­en­ti­eth birth­day), and expressed admi­ra­tion for the then-new­er gen­er­a­tion of Israeli poets, includ­ing Yehu­da Amichai and Dalia Ravikovich. In per­son­al poems that reflect his inter­est in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his peers’ work, Scholem touch­es upon his appre­ci­a­tion for the writ­ings of Franz Kaf­ka, Wal­ter Ben­jamin, and Inge­borg Bachmann.

Scholem’s poems strike the deep­est chord when address­ing the work he is most famous for: the study of eso­teric Jew­ish texts. The poem Vae Vic­tis, or Death in Pro­fes­so­ri­ate,” com­posed in hon­or of Scholem’s friend and col­league, Hans Jonas, opens with the line, I threw myself into ancient books/​I was awestruck by their signs/​I spent too much time alone with them.” Such insights offer cap­ti­vat­ing glances into one of the most explorato­ry, prophet­ic Jew­ish minds of the twen­ti­eth century.

Elie Lichtschein is a writer and musi­cian based in New York. He is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing an MFA degree in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the New School, where he is com­plet­ing a mysti-fan­ta­sy Mid­dle Grade adven­ture novel.

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