- Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture ed. by Paul Miller and Daniel Morris
Edited by Paul Miller and Daniel Morris
The University of Alabama Press, 2010
552 PP. $39.95 978-0-8173-5563-0
This book works like a Talmud in both senses of Mishnah and Gemara, where the Mishnah explicates and debates Jewish Oral Law and the Gemara takes on, with risk, related topics and Torah Law. Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture is a tractate in which the “rabbinic input” on definitions of Jewish law and culture comes from some of the most outspoken literary and scholarly voices of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Each writer included in this anthology becomes his or her own Rashi or Rambam in written forms ranging from poetry, experimental composition, memoir, literary criticism, cultural analysis, and an almost kabbalistic meditation, all of which circle like birds landing in the same tree on branches that grow off the words in the title. What does “radical poetics” mean? What is “secular Jewish culture?” The pages aren’t sure. But they explore, and can be explored by the reader; during the experience of “learning” this book, one’s mind flies inward. In other words, one must introspectively situate herself during the reading process and be willing to evolve, agree, disagree, and become in response, like a sort of Chazal.
Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture need not be read in the order of its commentary. In fact, after reading Stephen Paul Miller’s poem “Meet the Preface” and its explanatory notes, which was one of the most original and inviting ways into a book I have ever encountered, with its footnoted references to the content creating the mystique and seriousness of a holy book, I jumped [End Page 272] to a piece by my beloved former teacher, Alicia Ostriker, whose essay “Secular and Sacred: Returning (to) the Repressed” elicits the same inspiration that her spectacular courses at Rutgers did. She reflects upon her earlier work, especially The Nakedness of the Fathers and The Volcano Sequence. While rereading herself and others (to borrow from Philip Roth) should be a more common occurrence among writers for the opportunities it affords to revise the self, accept the self, and offer that as a model for readers, I am not sure anyone could do it as well as Alicia Ostriker has. From this essay alone—its memory of foremothers and forefathers like Adrienne Rich and Karl Marx informing Ostriker’s poetically driven questions and answers and unique ability to acknowledge uncertainty (which, indeed, makes her definition of radical something to embrace)—the book radiates. For Ostriker, God can be a Mother: “May her awful beauty be reborn to us and to the world” (197). And from there the possibilities are endless.
And, in the best way, the possibilities are confusing. It was in the margins of Merle Bachman’s piece, “An ‘Exotic’ on East Broadway: Mikl Likht and the Paradoxes of Yiddish Modernist Poetry,” where I took the most notes and asked the most questions. After all, there is no solid definition of culture in this anthology, and secular seems like the wrong word to describe the Jewish identities perhaps opposed to religiosity or orthodoxy, yet that paradox makes it all the more Jewish. Half jokingly, one might recite the cliché “two Jews, three opinions,” but in the half of the meaning that is serious and implicit, Bachman ignites Yiddish Modernist poetry as the spark that might come closest to defining the term culture here: she suggests that to choose umfarshtandlekhkayt, incomprehensibility, is a worthy challenge that comes with the task of maintaining tradition while pushing it forward to fit its political era, its public spaces, immigration, and “individualistic expression” (81). The culture, after all, of Judaism, even in the Talmud, is made up of individualistic expression that forms community. Bob Perelman’s “Addendum: On ‘The Jewish Question,’” for example, explains that Jewish community is not about similarity: something in its writers—going back to Rabbi Elieser and Rabba and Rabbi Yosef’s Talmudic discussion—has always existed as “radical.” Perelman cites a Poundian translation...