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'Amazed at Their Beauty'

February 1, 2007 By:
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A few months back, I initiated a series of articles about Dryad Press, a small, independent venture out of Takoma Park, Md., kept afloat almost singlehandedly by Merrill Leffler, himself a poet and critic of note. The first Dryad title I discussed was 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four, primarily a diary begun by Ephraim F. Sten when he was 13 years old, and the bulk of which deals with his life in hiding during the Holocaust in his native Poland.

The second was called One Who Came Back by Joseph Katz. Though subtitled The Diary of a Jewish Survivor, it is very different in form from Sten's book. Katz, a German, was 23 years old in 1941 when he was deported from his home in Lubeck to a series of ghettos and camps throughout Latvia. Katz's entries are dated, but they don't read much like a diary and that may be because, unlike Sten, he wrote his work in what seems like a white-hot streak of composition shortly after liberation, once he'd returned to Lubeck after withstanding four years of unrelenting horror.

Both volumes are astonishingly effective and moving works.

But as it turns out, this is only a small part of the publishing project at Dryad. Because Leffler is a literary man himself, he has devoted a great deal of his time and effort to the dissemination of poetry, either published as full volumes or in his series of small, delicate chapbooks. At my request, he sent five different works by four different poets, himself included, and each has a distinctive voice and is filled with work of high quality.

Take The Fullness Thereof, poems by Moshe Dor, who is far better known in his native Israel than in the United States. The book is subtitled The Hebrew Bible as Homeland, and that is the ruling theme throughout this brief, intense book of verse. At times, readers may have to check back with the Bible to comprehend all of the references Dor makes to the ancient stories and motifs, but generally, his poetry is transparent in its meaning and implications, while still being rich in allusions and resonance, as in "Josephs," which is prefaced by the line, "And it came to pass that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colors," from Genesis, Chapter 37, Verse 23.

I stand among my brothers, the trees, amazed at their beauty,
Josephs in their coats of many colors, each one a mighty king

and I know that Winter, that Ishmaelite, will arrive with his caravan
of slave traders and will strip the trees of their purple and gold garments.

I also know trees shed their foliage, are subject to ice and the chain saw
and that neither sun nor wind can commute the sentence.

And I stretch out my arms with love and pity toward my big brothers
feeling the sap congeal in their branches like the blood in my veins.

Or consider "By the Rivers of Babylon," which rings changes on biblical phraseology while finding the modern "truth" behind the words.

I want to clasp you to my heart
but my arm doesn't move.

I want to tell you words of love
but my lips don't move.

The love in me
has let my right hand forget

its cunning and my tongue cleave
to the roof of my mouth.

What shall I do?
I'll hold you with my left arm

and keep silent until
you hear me.

Another Dryad (Jewish) poet is Rodger Kamenetz, who is probably best known these days as the author of The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Re-Discovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, which was probably the first shot fired in what's become known as the Bu-Jew phenomenon. But before he met the lotus, Kamenetz published two volumes of poetry with Dryad, the second of which, Nymph-Olepsy, Leffler sent to me. Kamenetz's editor says this book of poetry "could be roughly characterized as a search for mythology grounded in everyday experience."

Many of the poems are marked by wordplay, as in the concise, witty "American Express":

In New Orleans
they stole my tape recorder
my cassettes and my carrying case.

In Tijuana
they stole my car
my books, my diaries.

And in Oaxaca
they stole everything:
my shoes, my wife, my teeth.
It was beautiful -- the thoroughness ...

When editors at publishing houses print their own work -- and then send it on for review -- I often think it's shameless self-promotion and usually ignore it, since generally that's been the case. But Leffler is in a whole other league. Not only is he a find, his work should clearly be far better known everywhere in this country. Here is "Passion" from the chapbook Take Hold.

What I know of Rabbi Weiss of Bilke, though it would not fill a shot glass, is this: to study Talmud into the night, he'd stick his feet in ice water and keep them there, it was said, to ward off sleep from spreading through his body. I have it on no authority, of course, but I would like to think it was his way to not forget his body while his soul set forth into the thick wilderness of God's law.

O! Rabbi Weiss of Bilke, not even a smudge in my memory, not a pinprick in the history of the dead, I can imagine you at Matisse's table, the light holding you in place, dining on the sweet breath of life, old men wringing from each hour the honey that flows like fire in the blood. Rabbi Weiss of Bilke, for godssake, who knows how you might have forsaken your wife for study, or for that matter how you came to her in dark passion, your appetite for wisdom, like Solomon's, so full you met each other with gratitude and love.

O! Rabbi Weiss of Bilke, I drink to the memory of your feet -- may they live in incandescence to light even the darkest way.

"Passion" is fairly representative of Leffler's style -- in the prose poems he includes in Take Hold -- but he also utilizes standard verse forms. Of these, my favorite is "Metaphor," which should not be missed by those who are wise enough to make their way to Take Hold.

Leffler has also had the wisdom as an editor to publish the work of Reed Whittemore, one of the most undervalued poets in all of these Americas. He sent me a sweet little chapbook called Ten From Ten & One More, a lovely sampling from Whittemore's work over the last six decades, as well as The Feel of Rock, subtitled Poems of Three Decades. Here is "Hesiod," which appears in both of these publications.

I dream of Hesiod heaving hay.
I find him a-field, sweating.
I go up to him in the heat and dust, and I say to him,
Hesiod, what is your secret?
Work, he replies firmly, work
Is the whole secret -- and turns to heaving.


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