Our world is, in some ways, a baffling place in which to live. On the one hand, daily existence teems with news of enmity, violence, and loss; while on the other, these same days bring unexpected, persistent kindness and the staggering beauty of our planet.
But maybe my framework is too simple. Maybe I shouldn’t be thinking about life in terms of two separate hands — this or that, this and then that. No; as a Jewish poet, I feel pretty sure that my responsibility is to try to hold it all at once.
Let’s start with the Jewish part. The idea that we might encompass both kinds of extremes goes back to the earliest chapters of the Torah, when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit — fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. One bite contains that full range of knowledge, and, after eating it, so does each human being.
Jewish tradition is steeped in such willingness to see both the good and the bad, from our texts to our practices. We have blessings for when we see natural wonders, and blessings for when we hear about a death. What’s more, these forces often coexist. Breaking glasses at weddings, for example, or a Mourner’s Kaddish that consists entirely of praise. Indeed, one of my favorite Jewish teachings comes from Rabbi Bunim, who told his students to carry in their pockets two lines of text. The first read, I am nothing but dust and ashes, and the second, The world was created for me alone. He encouraged the students to place these messages in separate pockets, so that they could contemplate one at a time without ever forgetting the other.
I don’t want to turn away from one truth in order to embrace another. I want my eyes wide open. I want to see it all.
This all makes sense to me. Life itself makes it hard to forget about the ashes when reveling in creation, and vice versa; and so Judaism builds that truth into our traditions, holidays, teachings, and rituals.
Poetry is a way to get that same truth onto the page, and into the breath.
As poet Maggie Smith has said, “We live in a broken place, and yet it’s a beautiful place. Both are true.… And so some of it is just being able to hold those two things at the same time.” Or, in the words of Marge Piercy, “To be a poet is to open your eyes to everything around you.”
These words by Piercy echo Genesis 3:7, which takes place right after Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of Knowledge, when the eyes of both of them were opened. Opening your eyes to everything means seeing just that — everything.
Writing it down invites a reader to see it all, too.
In my new collection of poetry, What’s Left to Us by Evening, there are poems about gun violence, global warming, economic inequities, and angry societal divisions. There are also poems about community, family, political change, and the breathtaking beauty of trees in bloom. Many of the poems try to hold both extremes at the same time. In “Plague City,” a person walks to see the cherry blossoms in the early days of the COVID pandemic, carefully avoiding people along the way. In “City of Sides,” a kid dresses as the president and encounters “everything — the strange anger/of some houses and the unearned welcome of others.” The poem “Double Rainbow” begins, “Yesterday someone robbed me, and today,/an afternoon of rain brings a double rainbow.” And “Saturday Morning” reveals that, “Despite everything, sun finds the synagogue window.”
This, I think, is life — not just now, but always. At times it feels like I’m trying to navigate a contradiction or paradox; how can all these opposites be true at once? In wiser moments, however, I understand existence to be an incredibly complicated whole. That latter view is the one I want to hold onto. I don’t want to turn away from one truth in order to embrace another. I want my eyes wide open. I want to see it all. Judaism and poetry, and especially the two together, invite us to do exactly that.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including the new novel How to Mars and the creativity guide The Artist’s Torah. His work has won such awards as the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, and others. David lives with his family in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. You can find out more at davidebenbach.com