The Eighth Day: Poems Old and New

Geof­frey Hartman
  • Review
By – December 17, 2013

Geof­frey Hartman’s poet­ry in The Eighth Day is on a majes­tic lev­el, requir­ing a high­ly lit­er­ate audi­ence, steeped in mythol­o­gy, lit­er­a­ture, and Judaism. Hear the rhyth­mic hints of Bib­li­cal rhetoric:

First I mount­ed a bal­loon
Grap­pled for the sun,
Made of it a fiery string
Stretched across a bone.

One won­ders what larg­er-than-life hero­ic char­ac­ter, oth­er than Icarus, can fash­ion the sun into a fiery string.” The poem titled A Short His­to­ry Of” sug­gests that the nar­ra­tor is God, who in review­ing his work nos­tal­gi­cal­ly at first, regrets it, at last. Hart­man goes on to deal with sto­ries from the Bible and oth­er Jew­ish themes in a very per­son­al vision. The prob­lem­at­ic sto­ry of The Akedah is dealt with in Abra­ham,” which tries to defend God’s strange com­mand to Isaac that he mur­der his most loved son.

He who had plead­ed for fifty,
Yes, for ten,
Rose ear­ly to destroy the only one,
To dry up the laugh­ter of the Princess.
But, from a thick­et of thorns,
the father of rams
pro­vid­ed a tan­gled voice,
an ever­last­ing horn:
And saved the face of God.

This philo­soph­i­cal poem implies that God, the father of rams,” sent one to stave off the mur­der, as he had seen that Abra­ham had passed the test of faith­ful­ness to Him.

Hart­man also makes many allu­sions in this book to both the Holo­caust and Jew­ish holi­days. The hol­i­day of Passover is the sub­text of Day of Remem­brance,” for exam­ple. The title of this poem is iron­ic, as it is not Yom Kip­pur here but the Passover Seder which is the hol­i­day of free­dom cel­e­bra­tion that is used as a con­trast to com­mu­ni­cate the real need for remem­brance. In this poem, Hart­man refers to mat­zoh, the flat bread Jews must eat for eight days in place of bread as loaves of flat corpses” in ovens. Although the rab­bis break words” with each oth­er in an attempt to have a clas­sic seder, while await­ing the angel Eli­jah to enter the open door and drink the cup of wine sym­bol­i­cal­ly set out for him, the wine re­mains untouched as through the door echoes fly and unread­able ash enters along with bloody streaks of sound.” This seder is one of mourn­ing, not joy. And Hart­man indi­cates that remem­brance of those who suf­fered and per­ished in the Holo­caust takes prece­dence over tradition.

Although some of the poems seem like prose, with long sen­tences, most of them have strong images which tran­scend the style, such as Evening feath­ers the sea/​like a cortege of gulls” (“Who Gives food to All Crea­tures”), or The trees were jew­els in the icy wind” (“Quest”) and after a storm/​the mild­ness of min­gled skies/​the bosom­ing dark passed oev­er, gone/​and the hearth is the hori­zon, and the light/​pos­sess­es the mon­i­to­ry trees” (“Instruc­tions to a Movie Maker”).

The poems encom­pass a wide swath of Jew­ish his­to­ry and reach ref­er­ences to the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. The unusu­al breadth of knowl­edge under­ly­ing the poems deserves atten­tion and appreciation.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

Discussion Questions