Quarter century of poems by L.D. Brodsky celebrate Diaspora
by Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
St. Louis Jewish Light, April 23, 2008, Vol. 61 / No. 17
Louis Daniel Brodsky is both a great Jewish poet as well as a great poet who is Jewish. There's a difference. Some Jewish poets remain confined in a Jewish matrix of expression, while other poets who are Jewish seldom or never explore their Jewishness in their work. Over the past 25 years, the exceptionally accomplished and prolific St. Louis poet, Louis Daniel Brodsky, has grappled with both Jewish and general, personal and universal themes with equal skill and sensitivity. Still Wandering in the Wilderness: Poems of the Jewish Diaspora, brings together a quarter of a century of Brodsky's best writing that is specifically focused on Jewish themes.
Correctly described as a "significant contribution to contemporary Jewish American literature," Still Wandering in the Wilderness bravely reflects on all aspects of "what it means to be a Jew living at the beginning of the 21st century." Brodsky divides this latest collection of his poems into six sections, each concentrating on a different aspect of the Jewish experience and Jewish existence. Not only does Brodsky succeed in his goal producing poems "that mirror the grandeur of Jewish history," but also with a mixture of the humorous and the profound or upsetting, provides "portraits of both anti-Semites and Jewish 'shmegegges.'"
Louis Daniel Brodsky was born in 1941. He is a graduate of Yale University with a bachelor of arts magna cum laude; of Washington University in St. Louis with a master's degree in English, and of San Francisco State University with a master's degree in creative writing. By 1989, he had already published twenty-four volumes of poetry and nine volumes of scholarship on the Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner. He published a biography of his favorite author, William Faulkner: Life Glimpses, and he had at one time amassed one of the largest collections of works by and about Faulkner, which he generously donated to Southeast Missouri State University, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. He further celebrated his love and expertise on the Southern novelist in an excellent collection called Mississippi Vistas, one of a trilogy paying tribute and homage to Faulkner.
By now, Brodsky has written 57 volumes of poetry, including the five-volume Shadow War: A Poetic Chronicle of September 11 and Beyond, You Can't Go Back, Exactly. The latter book won the Center for Great Lakes Culture 2004 best book of poetry award, from Michigan State University. He has also authored thirteen volumes of fiction. In 2006, Brodsky published three new poetry books: A Transcendental Almanac: Poems of Nature; Combing Florida's Shores: Poems of Two Lifetimes. and Showdown With a Cactus: Poems Chronicling the Prickly Struggle Between the Forces of Dubya-ness and Enlightenment, 2003-2006. These three volumes reflect Brodsky's broad range of interests and inspirations, including a love of nature, an appreciation of the inherent beauty of the mundane and a keen eye for trenchant political satire. 2007 saw the publication of Once upon a Small-Town Time: Poems of America's Heartland, in addition to Still Wandering in the Wilderness.
Throughout the past 25 years, Brodsky has been increasingly wrestling with his Jewish identity and concerns in his poetry. Still Wandering in the Wilderness: Poems of the Jewish Diaspora (Time Being Books, paper), brings together the best of those efforts, covering every facet of Jewish activity, identity, complexity and challenges with his deft pen, biting wit and deep affection for the Jewish people of which he is proud to be a part.
The volume under review is not Brodsky's first collection of poems dealing with explicitly Jewish themes and concerns. In 1992, he published Gestapo Crows: Holocaust Poems, whose very title evokes the bleakness and desolation of the Shoah. This powerful and evocative collection was followed in 1998 with Toward the Torah, Soaring: Poems of the Renaissance of Faith and The Eleventh Lost Tribe: Poems of the Holocaust. In 2000, Brodsky wrote Rabbi Auschwitz: Poems Touching the Shoah, and in 2001, The Swastika Clock: Endlösung Poems. Interspersed with these profoundly serious poems were volumes dealing with the life of his poetic traveling salesman, Willy Sypher, including Peddler on the Road: Days in the Life of Willy Sypher. Brodsky provides as much life and distinctive personality to his Willy Sypher as did Arthur Miller with his character Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
The power of Brodsky's imagery is apparent from the very first poem in Still Wandering in the Wilderness, the Prologue offering:
"The Apples of His Eye," inspired by David's Psalm 17:8, includes the lines:
Tonight, the autumn sky caught me, in its eye.
The full moon became the pupil
That David alluded to, in Psalms,
When, having just been chosen to annihilate Goliath,
He begged God to defend him from persecutors,
Let him survive to become King of the Israelites,
Implored Him to "Keep me as the apple of thy eye" —
That metaphor, common in ancient times,
Signifying that the fragile, apple-shaped aperture
Responsible for our sight
Needed protection against being blinded.
In the above and in many other poems included in this superb collection, it is obvious that Brodsky has engaged in serious study of the Hebrew Bible, both Torah and the entire Tanakh. Without question, the Psalms of David are among the most beautifully expressed works of poetry in the history of human discourse, and Brodsky shows full respect for their inherent power when he builds off of them to express his own poetic concepts and he fleshes out those of David the Psalmist.
Brodsky also brings his considerable expressive power to bear in "Avram's Call," in which he explores the innermost thoughts of the founder of the Jewish people after he heeded the call of God to leave his homeland to a land which God said, "I will show thee." Avram's questioning, Jewish mind ponders the significance of his calling and where it will lead for him and his descendants:
Where do I go,
When the only home I have to return to is loneliness,
When the only people there to greet me
Are worshipers of false gods,
Unknown soldiers from foreign wars,
And lost generations
From lost civilizations, terrae incognitae?
And how will I know when my time is spent,
My fires have been banked to embers,
My juices have dried to a cracked riverbed,
My mind, my hormones, my genes
Have forgotten my Semitic mother tongue,
Have quit speaking the language of the Sumerians,
Have refused to talk to each other?
In those few above lines, Brodsky introduces us not only to the Avram who becomes Avraham, the father of a great nation, but pre-figures both the brief past and the eternal future of the Covenant People of which he has been selected as Patriarch and founder. Like Moses, Abraham is reluctant to take on his mission, but like Moses realizes that he has no choice. But he does not blindly follow God's instructions without asking normal questions that might occur to anyone who might be so selected. Like his grandson Jacob, Abraham is simultaneously an individual, a husband to Sarah and later father to Isaac. He is told that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky or grains of sand on the beaches. Thanks to L. D. Brodsky, we have the translated words which seem credible for Abraham to have pondered as he started out on his lonely mission to a far-off land. Abraham, the first Jew, became Abraham the first Diaspora Jew, just as Joseph and Moses would later become.
Brodsky's irrepressible humor and gift for satire comes into play in his poem about the Maccabees, "How the Jews Blew It," which contains the lines:
Excuse me, but the Jews blew it real good,
Blew it all to smithereens.
Granted, that was way, way back,
During the time of Antiochus Epiphanes
And the Hasmonean dynasty of the Maccabees,
Way back when the Greeks set up their main man,
The head honcho god of gods, Zeus
(Alias Baal, in Asia Minor,
Whose pseudonym the Athenians didn't mind at all).
On the altar of the temple in Jerusalem...,
Brodsky goes on to discuss, in biting, humorous language, the choices the Jews were making at the time of the Maccabees, around 167 BCE: Hellenism, the ways of the Essenes, a generalized flirtation with pagan gods and practices, the challenges presented by Jesus and his followers, adding, "And that, in a nutshell, is how the Jews blew it..."
Also of note is "Superjew," which places Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent in their proper Jewish context; after all, they were created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two Jewish boys in Cleveland during the Great Depression — a work which is ribald and fully on target about how the Superhero myth taps into Jewish longing to fit into the Diaspora culture.
With Still Wandering in the Wilderness, Louis Daniel Brodsky confirms his place in the first rank of American poets who are Jewish, and among the great American Jewish poets. This volume is a collection to be savored, read and re-read in order to fully glimpse the many verbal gems that sparkle among its couplets.