In her rich and compelling poetry collection, Once, This Forest Belonged to a Storm, Austen Leah Rose writes about being in religious school, attending synagogue, and studying Jewish mysticism. She belongs to the third generation: her grandmother immigrated to the US from Hitler’s Europe.
The poems in this collection often prioritize uncertainty – about good will, intention, God. Rose shows humility as she considers her relative powerlessness in the face of history. Her language is surprising — sometimes unnerving, sometimes comforting.
In the poem “Ein Sof,” Rose writes that she is trying to teach herself forgiveness, and then she makes an interesting jump:
I am trying to remember that God is cruel because God is lonely, and aren’t we all?
Outside, the day is a confusion of clouds
and people are saying things they don’t really mean.
I did not know there was another sky
behind this sky, bigger than I could ever have imagined, and full of stars.
Ein Sof is the kabbalistic notion of a transcendent God, which may be translated as “without end.” Here, the poet finds redemption in her knowledge of the mystical realm — one that transcends the cruelties and deceptions we experience in our lives.
Poems by Jewish writers often display an intimate understanding of tragedy. Their language can be spare, with line breaks to suggest silences, because sometimes there is simply nothing that can be said.
The writer’s toolbox — like any artist’s toolbox — comes with its limitations. Language is laden with so much cultural context and innuendo that it becomes difficult to use it with any precision. A good writer has the ability to take ordinary words and transform them into modes of expression that stun the reader. At her best, Austen Leah Rose does just that.
Stewart Florsheim’s poetry has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. He was the editor of Ghosts of the Holocaust, an anthology of poetry by children of Holocaust survivors (Wayne State University Press, 1989). He wrote the poetry chapbook, The Girl Eating Oysters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stewart won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His collection, A Split Second of Light, was published by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Honorable Mention in the San Francisco Book Festival, honoring the best books published in the Spring of 2011. Stewart’s new collection, Amusing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.