Sima Rabinowitz, The Jewish Fake Book, Elixir Press, 2004

[Review Guidelines]

"...To 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 of language.
      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, lover)."
     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.