• Review
By – January 5, 2017

Yehoshua November’s sec­ond poet­ry book, Two Worlds Exist, opens with a title poem that bor­rows ideas from the Jew­ish mys­tics to explain the pres­ence of suf­fer­ing in this world. The expla­na­tion is that two worlds exist,” that is, what one views as pain is a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of good descend­ing from a high­er real­i­ty. But what makes this poem excep­tion­al is how its three sec­tions pair eso­teric Kab­bal­is­tic ideas with mun­dane anec­dotes from the poet’s life, mak­ing the case that the emo­tion­al, spir­i­tu­al, prac­ti­cal, and rit­u­al­is­tic — all dif­fer­ent worlds” — exist, lay­ered one on top of the oth­er, con­stant­ly bat­tling for supremacy.

The dual­i­ty of the intense­ly spir­i­tu­al with the equal­ly intense quo­tid­i­an is a trade­mark of November’s writ­ing. His first book, God’s Opti­mism—a final­ist for the 2010 LA Times Book Prize — thrived on cap­tur­ing such moments of the ele­vat­ed in the every­day; a cry­ing man trans­form­ing a street with his tears, a work­er climb­ing a lad­der as a near­by quo­rum spir­i­tu­al­ly ascends in prayer, and the sixth rebbe of the Lubav­itch dynasty light­ly ask­ing for direc­tions in one breath and dark­ly pre­dict­ing the date and method of a man’s death in the next.

But where­as God’s Opti­mism steeped its con­trast in this world/​that world poems built large­ly around November’s roman­tic life, Two Worlds Exist digs more into his famil­ial life, with only the rare poem revis­it­ing romance (see the love­ly Between Life­times”). November’s poems are still large­ly con­cerned with, to bor­row a phrase from his first book, a Semit­ic sad­ness.” This Semit­ic sad­ness is a weight­ed sense of mourn­ing over mat­ters of inter­est large­ly to an obser­vant Jew. It’s the feel­ing of heav­i­ness that set­tles when tragedy strikes a fam­i­ly and the rabbi’s expla­na­tion is, Per­haps you are not as reli­gious as you should be” (“Con­joined Twins”). It’s the can­cel­la­tion of a pre-prayer mys­ti­cism class after a stu­dent behaves rash­ly upon learn­ing of his parent’s impend­ing divorce (“2AM, and the Rab­bini­cal Stu­dents Stand in Their Bathrobes”). And it’s the slow burn­ing real­iza­tion of a rock musi­cian aban­don­ing his pro­fes­sion to take a job teach­ing at a local Jew­ish school, only to find the itch of his pre­vi­ous life intact (“One of the Few Jews”).

Per­haps this Semit­ic sad­ness is best teased out in Self Por­trait,” the book’s last poem, which is the longest in the col­lec­tion. Novem­ber employs the sec­ond per­son point of view to paint what is essen­tial­ly a day in the life,” fol­low­ing him as he awak­ens to a child crawl­ing into his bed, stum­bles out to morn­ing prayers, dri­ves to his job teach­ing poet­ry, munch­es on cucum­bers, and returns home. Sprin­kled through­out are moments of long­ing for the sec­ond, high­er world that Novem­ber so bad­ly wants to believe exists: it’s hov­er­ing above Novem­ber as he lis­tens to a lec­ture in the car on God’s hid­den nature and it’s at the cen­ter of a dis­cus­sion with a study part­ner about how God’s con­ceal­ment in this world is not real.”

The poem ends sim­ply and won­der­ful­ly with the poet walk­ing through this maze of the sacred-in-the-mun­dane to notice a sin­gle light burn­ing from the oth­er­wise dark exte­ri­or of his home. This appears to be enough to put the weight of the Semit­ic sad­ness to rest, if only tem­porar­i­ly. Two Worlds Exist is flushed with sim­i­lar moments of light pierc­ing the veil of dark­ness cov­er­ing what Novem­ber would view as this low­er of two worlds.

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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