The master of mosaics


POETRY: New and Selected PoemsBy Samuel Menashe Bloodaxe Books, 240pp. £12

LIFE IS IMMENSE, the DVD that accompanies this book, begins with the film-maker Pamela Robertson-Pearce panting up five storeys of stairs to Samuel Menashe’s minuscule flat in New York. A moment’s afterthought allows the viewer to realise with some horror what the climb must do to an 84-year-old man with lung disease. Menashe may well be America’s truest living voice but he has great difficulty drawing breath in his own country.

But “truest” or other superlatives are petty in a field that is so narrow – and not just in the continental United States. All that needs to be said is that Menashe is a once-off and that we shall not see his like again – but once is enough for a miracle. However, as well as horror, his admirers are entitled to feel a certain indignation on his behalf. The makers of anthologies and the academic critics have shamefully ignored him. It is a source of some honour to The Irish Timesthat Austin Clarke and Derek Mahon recognised his gift in these pages early on (in 1961 and 1987 respectively). Eventually he was honoured at home too: in 2004 the Poetry Foundation made him the first recipient of its Neglected Masters Award. Bloodaxe reprints the expanded 2008 Library of America edition published in conjunction with that prize; Christopher Ricks, the champion of Bob Dylan, writes an admirable introduction; and there are also perceptive pieces by Donald Davie and Stephen Spender.

One reason why the critics have written so little about Menashe is that he is simply too little for them. But to be little isn’t simple, and to be simple isn’t little either. The poems are massively concise: the shortest is five words long, the longest 91 words short. The words themselves are usually of one or two syllables; three syllables are unusual enough to be noticed; and in these 194 pages I counted only six words with four syllables: “intersected”, “astronomers”, “conversation”, “Jerusalem”, “shadowboxing”, and “unravelling”. So “extraordinary” is outside the pale. What’s in the bucket is the ordinary, “the pure drop”. (Writing about Menashe, one is tempted to put on his attentive habit – “pale” made me think “pail”. As a consequence, his turns of speech are wickedly difficult to translate: this American is utterly English.) There is another master of concision in 20th-century poetry: Paul Celan. The differences between him and Menashe are abysmal, not least because both poets are Jews, survivors of the destruction. In the world of fact, while Celan’s parents were being murdered by the Nazis and Celan himself was a slave labourer, Menashe was fighting his way across Europe towards him with the American infantry – how one wishes Celan knew this. In the world of poetry, Celan’s language is a tightly packed train heading for the concentration camp. Menashe works all to the contrary. Although it is ever present, he rarely, if ever, mentions the Holocaust. And his language is never his enemy. Always an ally, pellucid and instrumental, it grieves for, laughs at and glorifies the reality of life. Glory is the goal and terminus: the existence of god is not in question; suffering and joy are engraved on the tablets of the law. Moses, according to the Bible, heard a voice from the burning bush telling him to take off his shoes, and that is how the poet goes towards the reader: barefooted. Menashe is a humble but also an authoritative rabbi, watchful and witty, a New Yorker after all.

Actually, Moses suggests useful words to apply to this fundamental poetry. The laws of Judaism are Mosaic and Menashe constructs mosaics. The very simplicity of his tiny verbal tiles, though, constitutes a stumbling-block the reader must surmount. The big picture, observable at a distance, can only be seen in this instance by focusing on its details. The room that most good poems allow for contemplation is here at once too small and too large to rest in – one could read this entire book in less than an hour and savour the time spent and yet miss the depth of its grace. Watching the DVD makes the matter plain: Menashe speaks the poems from memory, but what in the listening lasts “as long as a shortness of breath” (the phrase is Celan’s), the reader needs to learn off by heart.

The poem called Promised Landis an example – but with a twist: “At the edge/ Of a world/ Beyond my eyes/ Beautiful/ I know exile/ Is always/ Green with hope — / The river/ We cannot cross/ Flows on forever”. The twist the DVD reveals is that Menashe first speaks the poem as it appears here and then intensifies the pathos by sequentially repeating the lines as far as the dash to the river. Thus: “At the edge/ At the edge of a world/ At the edge of a world beyond my eyes . . . “ and so on.

The reader who tries this experiment – in my experience poignancy is guaranteed – will realise that slow reading is the only sure way to go with the flow.

To create a miniature poetry that looms large and lasts a long time in the mind is primarily a spiritual endeavour, a creation of character – one feels the end result is the product of a natural tendency to concision in the original man.

Secondarily, or rather as part of the progress, Menashe has developed an exquisitely sensitive ear to the musical relations between words, and within them too. Sense and sound excite each other mutually – for instance, if one listens closely to, “Leah bribed Jacob/ With mandrake roots/ To make him/ Lie with her// Take my poems”, one realises that the poem depends for its erotic effect, in part, on an unwritten but repeatedly heard echo: there are four “aches” in it.

My own direct involvement with Menashe relates to a poem called Warrior Wisdom. This is it: “Do not scrutinise/ A secret wound – / Avert your eyes — / Nothing’s to be done/ Where darkness lies/ No light can come”. We learn from the DVD that the poem was inspired when Menashe caught the eye of a fellow soldier during a terrific artillery bombardment and turned away because he knew to a certainty he was looking at a man who was about to be killed – as he soon was.

In 1997, I asked the poet for permission to use Where Darkness Liesas the title of a film for which I had written the script and which the outstanding director Cathal Black was then shooting on Achill Island. Unfortunately, the producers decided it wasn’t sufficiently commercial and in the event the film was called Love and Rage. But Menashe understands missed opportunities as much as he does success in art and life: they have made of him an unmissably truthful poet. He is one of the rare ones who see the lie of the land is dark and respond to it by obeying the instruction of Isaiah: “Arise, become light”.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, poet and screenwriter. His publishing venture, the Duras Press, has just brought out its second book, The Nicotine Cat and Other People, by Augustus Young