New Volumes From Jewish Poets
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New Volumes From Jewish Poets

A roots journey to Germany sparks Sarah Stern’s new book of poetry...

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

JW Collage/Covers courtesy of publisher
JW Collage/Covers courtesy of publisher

Sarah Stern stumbled upon what would become the title of her new book of poetry while visiting Germany for the first time in 2014, and traveling to Rexingen, the town where her mother was born. Her mother and her parents left in 1939, after Kristallnacht, when her grandfather was arrested and sent to Dachau for four weeks. Stern found the town to be as beautiful as her late mother had described it, like a fairy tale.

In the Jewish cemetery, she found the grave of her great-great-grandparents; the family had lived in Rexingen for 400 years. Now there are no Jews. A gentile couple who took it upon themselves to preserve the town’s Jewish history guided her around the Jewish museum they created, and showed her family photographs and two letters written by her grandfather Julius — a corporal who was awarded the Iron Cross and other military medals for his service in World War I — to the town’s mayor. Julius described the horror of war and said, as she quotes in a poem, “And yet, over and over again, /we have been lucky in the midst of misfortune.” The letters were in their original envelopes, with patterned liners, which are reproduced on the cover of her new book.

Courtesy of Sarah Stern

In her third book of poetry, “We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune” (Kelsay Books), Stern dedicates one of five parts of the volume to her trip to Germany. In other poems, she writes about growing up — she was the youngest of seven children, with six older brothers — and about memory, among other themes. Her late mother has a profound presence in these poems. With empathy, Stern also writes about encounters in daily life, one with a UPS man who pays for her meter and won’t take her change, saying, “‘I got plenty in the truck.’/ Sometimes a sentence/ Makes you love a stranger.”

Her poems are like short stories, some more like photographs, capturing a moment in time, in detail, as it will never be again. Most are free verse, as she explains in an interview in Manhattan, “within them a pattern and rhythm that I try to stick with, that pushes the language for me.” Stern, who also teaches poetry, tries to strip language to its essence.

“What I love about poetry,” she says, “is that it allows me to get at things at a slant.” She says that her mother’s garden was always mixed up, never in rows, and that poetry allows her to write like that, in ways that one can’t in prose. A graduate of journalism school, she ways journalism and poetry are similar in the preciseness they require, and the value of listening well.

After journalism school, she worked at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) for six years as a staff writer on its newspaper, interviewing union members and taking photographs.

Stern’s late mother figures prominently in new collection. Courtesy of Sarah Stern

“The job made me appreciate my experience — I met so many people who were first-generation Americans, working with their hands, as my mother did.”

In the poem “On Audubon Avenue,” she writes, “When she was young/the Irish bus driver/ waited for her/ on Audubon Avenue, en route/to her Local 65 job. / She’d run, red hair and freckles, / letting go, turning into an American.”

Stern’s mother was a proud union member. Later on, while in her 50s, when Sarah went to Barnard, her mother took her GED and went on to graduate from Lehman College.

In “My Little Life,” Stern writes, “Mother would say as long as there is something on the table to eat/ Yes, that’s true, but/ After we have that, we get to look around at who is sitting with/ Let us praise them and the light too.”

As a poet, she’s proud and grateful to have a voice, and says, “Speaking as a woman, as a Jewish woman, having that opportunity and to be alive at this time — I can write. It wasn’t always that way. And it matters.”

‘Bar Mitzvah Dreams” is Baruch November’s first book of poetry (Main Street Rag). Written in a clear voice, with attention to atmosphere, his poems seek to understand physical and spiritual existence. November’s tone can be melancholy or funny, or both, in the same poem. In an interview, he says that’s something that he tries to balance, that in fact the sad poems are easier to write.

In a dream sequence in 22 parts, “A Series of Dreams,” he writes of poets, rabbis, pilots and his younger self coming-of-age. He says that these dream-like poems allowed him the opportunity to be more abstract.

The poet identifies as a “very modern member of Chabad.” His family is something of a Jewish poetry dynasty, with his brother Yehoshua November (“God’s Optimism” and “Two World’s Exist”) and sister Deena November (“Mean Mama”). Baruch, who teaches writing and literature, says that their maternal grandmother wrote many poems, often on the back of sales receipts and scraps of paper, but didn’t share them. Baruch says that he and Yehoshua often collaborate, sending each other their poems to comment on and edit.

In another sequence, “A Beard of Poems,” he writes, “I hold onto the copper tuft of my chin/ like a Yom Kippur chazzan/ holds onto the endnote/of his prayer, unsure if it sounds sweetly/ enough to cover the steep/cost of passage to the world/above him.”

Zohar Atkins is a poet with a rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. The founder of Etz Hasadeh, a Torah study center here, he was named one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” young leaders. The poems in his newly released collection “Nineveh” (Carcanet) are contemplative, religious and modernist, laced with biblical, liturgical and philosophical references as well as references to contemporary poets. Some are lyrical midrashim that mix time frames, like the one about Cain and Abel as business executives. In his “Yom Kippur 2017,” the poet is walking in Jerusalem — “After Yehuda Amichai,” encountering an Arab shopkeeper, a store full of shofars, regrets confessed, tears and radiant light, and then “the time of the Closing of the Gates had passed.”

New volumes from Zohar Atkins and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach. Courtesy Carcanet/Kent State University Press

Yonatan Berg, an Israeli who is the youngest ever to win the Yehuda Amichai Poetry Prize for Hebrew poetry, has published three volumes of poetry, two novels and a memoir. “Frayed Light” (Wesleyan University Press) is his first collection in English, beautifully translated by Joanna Chen. Berg, who grew up in a West Bank settlement and now lives in Tel Aviv, writes artfully of contemporary and ancient Israel set against the Middle East landscape, telling of personal and political experience, biblical resonances and the trauma of war. In his poem “Walking,” he writes “…I walked swiftly to Jaffa—/ not to the stone buildings, not the watchtowers, / nor the vapors of the sweet orchid —/but to the ancient within me, the other city.”

Born in Ukraine and the descendant of Holocaust survivors, Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach came to America as a refugee when she was 6. In her debut volume, “The Many Names for Mother” (Kent State University Press), she explores memory, generations, history and trauma with potency and precision. She is mindful of how her own immigrant experience influences her own first-generation, bilingual American child, and ever aware of all that her foremothers went through.

Esther Cohen has published several volumes of poetry, a novel and a book illustrated by Roz Chast, among other works. In her poetry, she writes of daily life, family, politics, chance meetings with strangers, overheard bits of conversations, sometimes in the form of meditations, with deep and funny twists. Visit her website esthercohen.com to subscribe to her daily poems. These are poems that will make you laugh out loud, sometimes cry and, always, want to share. 

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