This new collection by poet/philosopher/spiritual thinker Rodger Kamenetz is, to quote his own assessment, “a book of books,” containing poems from four different collections. That said, Kamenetz’s afterword seems to warn against “subdividing” his writing. He reminds the reader that the poems from the original manuscript of The Missing Jew were typed “on a continual scroll.” This idea of non-separation comes up again when the poet remarks that he has chosen to “group” more recent poems thematically rather than chronologically.
Given his refusal of standard ordering, one possible way to honor this intensely spiritual Jewish poet might be to travel not forward but backward through the current mega-collection, as though it were written in Hebrew.
The book’s final poem — now the first — welcomes the reader to the essential dynamic of Kamenetz’s oeuvre. Namely, it portrays the poet hiding in a clothes closet, effecting an ambiguous process of self-transformation. What kind of metamorphosis is this? The reader isn’t certain, but as the poet changes one physical attribute and literally hangs up another, he paints a surrealistic picture of emptying as constructive, dynamic, and empowering. The beloved is encountered, the poet suggests, in the process of cleaning out the closet of one’s very self.
Kamenetz’s poems often dance between apparent opposites — between what is there and not there, between physicality and evanescence. No wonder, then, that when the poet lands on something tangibly mundane and present, like gefilte fish, there is a complex joy that grounds him in the savory moment:
My fork divides you, my mouth waters. I crave your permanent humility your humble inadequacy. You accept you will never be beautiful which is beautiful. Like me you can only be yourself.
Elsewhere, Kamenetz turns our attention to people who may be right in front of us, but whom we refuse to see, as with the houseless man in “Homeless Chanukah”:
He’ll light a candle for courage
and watch the tip of light twist
through the braided wax. He’ll light
a candle and set it in the mud
where it is most needed.
Proceeding through biblical quotations and talmudic references, Kamenetz poems culminate (or begin, depending on what direction the reader has chosen) with the voices of his family, real and imagined, and their Ashkenazi, Yiddish-inflected past.
“Good Yuntiv,” said my father.
“Good Yuntiv,” said my grandmother.
What did Good Yuntiv mean?
It meant the clothes were new
The rock was pickled
And my grandmother had put up
With another encore
Of the family reunion reunion.
This deftly poetic book of books is both celebratory and sad, metaphysical and earthly. To write about what is here and not here, what evades our gaze, is to admit both loss and fresh discovery. Or, as the poet puts it in the opening, or final, poem: “the history of my family is/the history of breezes.”
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a 7‑time Pushcart Prize nominee in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She has published in the Bellevue Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Café Irreal. She is the author of two poetry collections, two novels, a novelette, and a how to write magical realism craft book.