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Leonard Schwartz
Ear and Ethos
reviewed by Christine Pagnoulle
82pp. Talisman House, 2005, USD$13.95. 1 58498 043 5

This review is about 6 printed pages long. It is copyright © Christine Pagnoulle and Jacket magazine 2008.

Lament in a new language


Memory passes into formal knowledge; knowledge begets
capacity and power; power permits forgetfulness.

Such is the symmetry of the two-way bridge
between oppressor and oppressed.


There is a great temptation, when reviewing a collection you love, to just list quotations and let readers try and figure out how they fit together, or rather hope readers will be tantalized into buying the referenced book in order to find out. But I know it doesn’t quite work like this.

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Leonard Schwartz’s latest collection of poems, still published by the excellent small press Talisman House, includes a great diversity of tone and diction. Some poems are written in the terse and recondite mode that is typical of early collections, as in ‘Summer Vacation’:


The leash leaps.
But the epicenter is already crammed.


or in ‘Al Fresco’, with obscure clauses such as ‘drinking until the autumn freeze necessitates definition’ (55).


Others offer a more straightforward expression of indignation and bitterness, as in the acrid and desperate ‘Six Ways Two Places At Once’:


6) Violence will not be put to rest by violence.
7) Only after acts of creation can come a day of rest.
7) Violence will not be put to rest by violence.
7) There is no Sabbath during occupation.(31)


where the repetition of ‘7)’ is the indication of something gone badly wrong, of the impossibility of rounding the week in the violence of occupied territories (more, and longer, lines numbered 7 are to come). Here the mood if not the form is closer to the previous collection The Tower of Diverse Shores (2003) written shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent launching of the ‘war on terror.’


The present collection contains a sequence of (mock) sonnets, and a long last poem ‘The Library of Seven Readings,’ which titillates the tragic humor of everyday life. But more on this later. Let us note here though that the absence of margins and the resulting sense of choking on words is not intended by the poet but a collateral damage of the publisher’s layout.


A cue to the collection’s underlying unity is provided in the four prose pages ‘By way of Preface,’ and is possibly already condensed in its title ‘Transcendental Tabby: The Translation,’ where each word has several relevant meanings. Indeed the collection enacts the paradox of the ‘particular transcendental,’ showing as it does the concrete rootedness of the universal, and conversely the ‘transcendental’ quality of what might be felt to be singular (‘For no emotion is ever local,’ 11).


On the fourth page of the Preface we read about the word ‘tabby,’ how the Arabic word from which it is derived first referred to ‘a neighborhood in Baghdad where a certain kind of patterned tapestry was made,’ then was used in English for ‘a kind of cat that bore a similar pattern on its fur.’ (xii) Each of these layers is both highly concrete and spectral: few English speakers will be aware of the word’s etymology, and the tabby cat that walks into the poet’s room is ‘the ghost of [his] former pet.’ But writing turns what was ghostly into something real, and this is another comment on the ‘particular transcendal’ that runs through the collection, just as it gives the works that are echoed a new substantial life.[1]


This takes us to the third word in the title, namely ‘translation.’ In its religious sense it refers to the actual transportation of the body of some holy figure. Schwartz has nothing to do with Saints or the Virgin Mary, but he does stir our capacity to move about in imagination and takes us to other literal or metaphorical places. The other more current sense of ‘translation’ is to be related to poetry as ‘a question of familiarizing language as a natural condition, of allowing poetry, a language within a language, to open like a sluice, of changing the language from the inside, of being aware of the silence within words that allows for such liberating motion, of arriving at a new language by way of an exploration of the old.’ (p.xi, my italics). In some of his poems the creative reshaping of words that occur anyway is combined with a very literal device, namely the self-conscious insertion of words derived from Arabic, particularly in his pastiche of Shakespeare’s sonnets.


The poem that most fully expresses (translates) the tenor of this introduction is ‘The Library of Seven Readings.’ While the way it plays with words, repeating lines with variations[2] and collocating the most abstract and the most concrete and everyday, is full of complicit humour and opens on a sly questioning of apparently obvious notions or values such as ‘the freedom of the subject’ it points to the creative power in all of us to release the breath, the soul, the ‘transcendental’ that lies in everything we do, from cutting up meat for a child or adjusting a piano stool to music or juggling with words, provided we do not allow ‘the world . . . to fix us as bodies, objects, commodities’ (81).


An overriding concern in the collection is a sense of human-bred diseases that eat away at our world, global warming, US strikes, and most hauntingly the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Humour, however, is everywhere laced with tragedy. Even in the very bleak ‘Sheep’s Head’ we read


Full breasts in the other painting —
that might help
but it’s only a painting. (68)


The title of the poem ‘Occupational Hazards’ is a sinister pun on the risks entailed by Israeli occupation. At the end of the section that tells how a family was killed by a wall bulldozed by Tsahal, Schwartz includes an ad on the webpage where he presumably found the information ‘Click Here to Receive 50% Off Home Delivery of the New York Times.’ (42), which I suppose is less of a funny note than of a grim comment on the framing distance media impose on our perception of the world. Similarly in ‘Six Ways Two Places At Once’ the quatrain


and now if your ears are nimble,
you can hear July 4th frogs
proposing to July 4th frogs
in the gully of July 5th (26)


has dark overtones given the lines occurring earlier


The Pentagon rises like a Phoenix,
even larger than before.
Groaning under an Administration
steeped in oil, lighting fires as it steeps.


Another instance of comic relief in what is otherwise a crushing indictment on the destruction of people through the uprooting or fencing off of olive groves is to be found in the twist at the end of the verse: ‘To show how and why a non-violent person, like myself, becomes violent. Not that I have become violent.’ (40)


The most obvious illustration of humour occurs in the ‘Apple Anyone’ sonnets,[3] with their cheeky pastiches of Shakespearean texts: echoes of Sonnet 18 ‘Shall I portray thee as a summer day?,’ the recurring references to the long-lastingness of art, the constrasting constructions, updated echoes of Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’)[4] and to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy (61). What we come upon here are the subtle mechanisms of rewriting. While the poet does make fun of Shakespeare as icon of the dominant culture (‘the name ‘Shakespeare’ conjuring up the conservative pride and core of ‘English,’ pp. x–xi) he also uses Shakespearean devices, such as combining puns (‘all good from goods must fail,’ 57) with unobtrusive but all the more effective alliterations (‘boasts bested by bullying clouds’), so that this parody is inevitably also a homage.


There are other dimensions in this sequence. The lists of words derived from Arabic to be found at the end of each poem may recall those primary school exercises devised by imaginative teachers, where pupils have to imagine a text including all the words mentioned. As suggested above and in the author’s Preface, bringing Arabic and an arch-representative of the English tradition together is in itself a challenging move.


I read the succession of poems in this short sequence as tracing a development from destruction engineered by man to a lovely suspended moment with a sleeping beloved one (his daughter ? ‘Now, while you dream of ponies, petals gush from your eyes,’ ‘Yet all quietude fills the carafe of hours, orange fills that quietude’) though ending on an ominous last line ‘there is nothing yet to mourn: you are here, it is all still here’ (62, my italics).


The first poem is caught in a whirlwind of violence, possibly the hurricanes unleashed more and more frequently in our time of global warming, more likely still, actual war, suggested in the climate metaphor of the typhoon. The final couplet combines different echoes. The opening words are almost the same as in Sonnet 18 ‘So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see.’ The pattern ‘an X for an X and a Y for a Y’ (‘a carob for a carob’) recalls ‘a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye,’ the Law of Talion that has been a major source of violence in human history, and is still advocated today in international affairs. There is no literal sense to be made of the carobs (a fruit whose edible pulp is used in cooking or as a substitute for chocolate) next to copts (or members of the Coptic church in Egypt), but the suggested meaning may be, as long as we insist on punishment and reprisal, we will be prisoners of the intoxication of war.


On the other hand the overwhelming sense of calamity, the acuteness of distress lead at times to a dislocation of language, a breakdown of syntax. So the end of the fifth section of ‘Six Ways Two Places At Once’ consists of fragments of broken off quotations, calling up the readers’ knowledge to make them whole (‘next year in [Jerusalem],’ as in the phrase used the world over in the Passover sedar (or part of the Torah) and often jokingly used to refer to something that will never come to pass; ‘cry indeed unto [Thee]’ as in Psalm 130 ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee,’ 32). In ‘Invitation’ place names in Palestine keep interfering with the syntax of the narrative, each introduced by ‘Or,’ and each recalling some Israeli exaction (35–9). In ‘Occupational Hazards’ the repeated isolated phrase ‘Redemption and its blasted clockwork’ echoes in more than one way. Redemption is blasted, and it is blasted by time bombs, by the two-sided terrorism. Two of the sections in this poem take us to Homer’s ancient epic, ‘Penelope’ and ‘Odysseus’, and while Odysseus ‘stripped off his rags’ Penelope, patient long-suffering Penelope, who ‘[weaves] the future,’ does not just unravel her day weaving by night she ‘[tears her] work to shreds’ (46 and 45).


Beyond such pervasive violence however there are great waves of tenderness and sensuous fusion with the world:


As if I no longer possessed a luminous nature.
But I do. Or at least an anxious desire to join liquid and frozen into a single
twisting trail as when emotion and knowledge have both become adventure,
a something that circulates in the reckless mystery of what has not yet happened. (72–3)


[1] He mentions a number of foreign writers – Jabès, Celan, Weil, Darwish, Dante and Ibn 'Arabi, he could have added Kafka ('Schloss Paradise' and 'the Law of the Tree of Porridge,' 70) and many English writers, notably T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and Joyce (with several half quotes from the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter in Finnegans Wake, see page 35 'And for each crutch sat seven without limb,' 'Didn't the river need seven dams to block its waves?', and further down 'steak for me and steel for you, / doctors without borders for all those devils' – with a further allusion to 'Médecins sans frontières', or the mention of Anna Livia banished from Paradise on page 70).

[2] For instance, 'the material substratum' which 'remains' or 'remained' 'transcendental' or 'liberty' or (further)... 'substandard,' 'these linguistic tangents function / as transducers,' 'I set out in the morning and am back by night,' not to mention the rescuing device that does not always work.

[3] These poems, which do not all have fourteen lines, are only approximations of sonnets, but the movement of the genre is clearly perceptible. The title of the sequence can be read in several ways. It can be a most common invitation (anyone wants an apple ?), but it can also refer to a recurring question on a forum for users of Mac computers.

[4] 'a kiss is not a kiss / which scuffs if it finds some scuffing,' 'a star for all those sailors / of unknown worth . . . Constancy is no clock's fool,' and the concluding couplet 'If you can cinch that I'm wrong, I'll shut up, / drop all my claims concerning the human carat.' (59)

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