- The Holy Letters, and: My Jewish Name
Nancy Shiffrin's poetry, collected in The Holy Letters, is reminiscent of such feminist poets as Margaret Atwood, Audre Lorde, and, especially—because of the highlighted Jewish themes—Adrienne Rich. The Holy Letters is a book to set alongside these other writers' and to cherish for richness of emotions and vividness of metaphor. There is no shrinking or prudery here; the author confronts the body frankly, patriarchal repression with rightful anger. The contemporary world, of environmental depradation, poverty, inner-city suffering, is harsh and cruel, and the poet responds with great sadness and a search for hope, ending her book with a section entitled "For Life." Other sections deal with geography and memory, pregnancy and abortion, unhappy or traumatized children, aging, love, death, and multiple longings: for art, for skill, for erotic adventure. Several poems indicate Jewish themes explicitly through their titles— "Yom Kippur, Shabbat," "Kosher," "Seder," "My Holocaust," "Yahrzeit," and "Rosh Chodesh"—and many others grapple with Jewish culture and history. Interestingly, the poems most concerned with Jewishness are clustered near the beginning and end of the volume, suggesting that the author finds her origins in Jewish culture and returns to those origins ineluctably. One poem is actually entitled "Return," and describes the poet's visit to Romania, where her "zada" came from. The penultimate of the volume's ten sections, "Covenant," deals exclusively with Jewish religion.
Shiffrin clearly falls into a tradition of politicized Jewish poets alert to abuses of power. The little girl who speaks to us in her naïve child's voice of mysteries such as the Passover story, neighborhood Jew-hatred, and the gas chambers mutates into the grown woman who feels within her own self the universality of human cruelty. In "Grief," the persona seeems almost faux-naïve, observing the savagery of cats and nasty children, reading "of Pol Pot's Butcher," "research[ing] theories of evil," witnessing a murder virtually on her own doorstep, yet unable to name or fully inhabit her own response. A few pages later, though, in "Gardening," she is haunted even as she weeds by the idea of genocide as weeding-out, and feels implicated in such evil merely by her human tendency to seek cleanliness and control, and therefore to destroy some living things while nurturing others. The poem ends in anguished, disappointed hope:
I want to place stone on stone, restore myth rebuild grand processional stairways. Severed from history, I push boulders up mountains only to have them fall back. Uprooted, I chew despair. [End Page 130]
This is a poet who clearly feels "Tikkun Olam" to be her duty, yet sees that repair is a Sisyphean task, and sees that we all commit destruction continually, even against our own will. The final line is both devastating and beautiful. Her poems are always searing, sometimes lovely, and worth the reading.
While Shiffrin as poet can be linked with strong-voiced and vivid feminist writers such as Rich and Atwood, as essayist in My Jewish Name she makes a fainter mark. Her topics all are worthy and cover a range of cultural questions much written about in the last three or four decades: the response of minority readers to the literature of a majority culture; figures—of Jewish women in particular—missing from the literary canon; the unheard stories of women's lives. The main problem here might be called lack of style, although that is too harsh. The voice is not well defined, and the writing is hard to enter because of sentences containing too many lined-up subordinate clauses which attempt to give the reader supposedly necessary factual information. Still, Shiffrin weaves a compelling web of themes and raises thought-provoking questions. She is admirable for taking on an issue avoided by what one might call, ironically, "mainstream" multiculturalists: the frequent dismissal of Jewishness as a valid minority culture by those who...