be a Jew they hand you the whole world (die ganze veld) in a
book." So says the title poem of Rabinowitz's debut. This book, however,
doesn't tell us how to be a Jew. Instead, through a variety of forms and
styles (a whole world of poetry, as it were), it gives us one woman's
world of being a Jew: a sometimes straightforward world but often
a surprising, engaging world of prayer and contradictions and the mysteries
It is this exploration of language as it
relates to Judaism that produces the most interesting poems—and
this isn't the tragic, murderous language Paul Celan was stuck with. This
is the language of the unknown, "where there are numbers / but no
counting / where there are letters / but no words." And rather than
trying to escape the grasp of language, as was Celan's struggle, Rabinowitz
turns to language, not her tongue but the sacred tongue, for answers:
"I'd sacrifice this warm skin, this animal heart, / for one night
of dreaming backwards, / the letters of the secret books / unraveling."
This unraveling she turns to again and
again, as in the poem "Other Egypts" where the narrator was
"compelled by analogies, / cross references, allegory" and "later
still by the way the words meant / everything or nothing, / how I could
make them mean anything I wanted / simply by inverting the symbols."
Even though this is a more traditional, narrative poem, it leans toward
the lyrical and later produces the lines "the riddle of myself left
undiscovered: / I was not the text in question" that show her interest
in the more elliptical elements of language.
While Rabinowitz's narrative poems show
an attention to the line, to the lyrical, in ways that make them a pleasure
to read, other poems in the book show her interest in (and skill at) experimenting
with form. Again, a pleasure to read. The poem "On The Second Page,"
mirrored on the cover (and how great to have a poem be the image that
sells the book), has a text box invading the center of the page with paragraphs
bordering it and definitions surrounding the outermost edge. It is a refreshing
moment in the book, a moment that asks us to pause, to look more closely
at the text, to reflect.
Two poems later we get "One Hundred
And Forty-Seven Negative Confessions," the riskiest poem in the book,
and perhaps the most gratifying. It is exactly that, negative confessions,
often dealing with the relationship between Judaism and Africa, a relationship
that encourages contradictions: "This is not a poem about Africa.
/ I decided not to confess (about Africa) / I do (not) understand what
Africa has to do with these confessions. / I am not ashamed to say I am
afraid of Africa." A page later the narrator confesses, "I am
not afraid of Africa" and later still, "I have held Africa in
my arms and comforted her. / I have loved Africa like a sister (daughter,
The poem, much like the book itself, is
both a prayer and a contradiction, an experiment in form and a social
statement. We can only hope that "I have (not) finished confessing,"
the last line of the poem, is still true by the end of the book and there
will be more lyric experiments, more elliptical confessions to come.