Joyce's essay Arbiter of Neither Comfort nor Style

Joyce's essay My Chickens

Joyce's Sept. 11th column

To read Joyce's visit to the West Chester Writers' Conference

To read Joyce's review of Nadya Aisenberg.

To read Joyce's column on a critic's poetry collection.

To read Joyce's column on Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf in the PSA Panel on Criticism.

To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce’s OBSERVATIONS

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A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000

Poetry

A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion

A Review by Joyce Wilson


A Review of I Think of Our Lives, New and Selected Poems by Richard Fein


I Think of Our Lives, New and Selected Poems by Richard Fein. Berkeley, California: Creative Arts Book Company, 2002. ISBN 0 88739 405 1 (paper).

      Richard Fein's book, I Think of Our Lives, New and Selected Poems, presents an overview of his career and the struggles exerted by its major influences, the English poets, whom he had come to love as a young student of English literature, and the Yiddish poets, whom he translated later in life. His poems are grouped in five sections, four from previously published books of poetry and one from a group of new poems. He addresses the responsibility of the artist, the pull of family and culture, and the lives of literary figures and figures from the Old Testament. Throughout, Fein confronts choices he made over the course of his life, the central ones being his efforts to learn the Yiddish language and to write poetry in English. He writes about these matters with deceptive simplicity, in which he seems to be addressing his subjects in a straightforward approach yet never fails to surprise.
      Fein describes visiting a former teacher in her apartment in Berkeley, California, who removes the chain and turns the lock to admit him and asks if he would like a cup of tea. The scene might take place in Manhattan or Dublin or Cracow; indeed, the general sense of the setting informs its irony, as if to underscore the ease of having no particular origin. The student arrives and practices his Yiddish for his teacher, who corrects him patiently and then asks him what he is thinking. He replies that he is thinking how much she reminds him of Maude Gonne, a comparison she waves away, remarking that he is on two tracks, English and Yiddish, and that he has no choice but to do his work. He leaves promising to write to her. She dies soon after this meeting (“In Berkeley,” 32).
      This poem defines the tension of Fein's career, to write what he means, and communicate what he means, in the language that will serve to make his meaning the most clear. While place is important to autobiography, this artist is haunted more by the pull of history. His choice between English and Yiddish complicates his art; the poems that show his attempts to learn the Yiddish language are fraught with unease and discomfort. It is important to note that Fein delights in discomfort.
      The poems that address Fein's relationship with the Yiddish language chart a development from infancy into adulthood, in which he begins with single words in “Making Vocabulary Lists while Learning Yiddish,” moves onto phrases in “Prokofiev's 'Overture on Hebrew Themes,'” and becomes aware of the pull of community in “Yiddish Poets Speak to Me from the Grave” and “Yankev Glatshteyn Visits Me in the Coffee Shop.” We learn that the author turned to writing late, when Glatshteyn, a poet he has translated from Yiddish into English, returns from the dead and admonishes him with warmth and humor:
                       But you,
you have to translate yourself
into English. Stop fretting
about starting late. Be like Yiddish
literature—-grow into your gift.
Don't brood over your unmetrical ear.
Listening to the truth-rattles in you,
your ear will catch on. By the way,
I never mourn Yiddish anymore
(“Yankev Glatshteyn Visits Me in the Coffee Shop,” 26)

     Glatshteyn emphasizes the importance of writing poetry to communicate the artist's interior landscape. He describes the afterlife as an equalizing environment, where poets of all backgrounds enter into conversation easily. Because he enjoys the eternity of being in Yiddish for all time, he is secure in his identity, a trait he wants to pass on to the narrator. Yet he says, “I deliberately speak to you/ in English because I want you/ to understand me perfectly” (26). Understanding is the key to these messages from Glatshteyn and the teacher in Berkeley. When Fein writes about the Yiddish language, he uses images of pain and isolation at first—a biting child, a sharp saw of a clumsy magician, refuse on the stage of an abandoned theater—and then shows how the relationship transforms: “You reach for me like a lover wanting/ one more kiss./ How long it's taken for us to embrace,/ for our tongues to find each other” (“Yiddish,” 42). He maneuvers a cliché playfully when he writes: “It's good to know/ you're good for nothing now,/ except for the love I show you” (“Yiddish,” 42). Once beset with feelings of inadequacy and responsibility, wishing he had studied Yiddish in his youth, Fein finally triumphs in his efforts.
     Although Fein never writes in strict meter or rhyme, his poems show that he has studied the English forms very carefully. His poems are free verse, and many are narrative, such as “Going to the Store,” which presents the community of a pickle barrel, where customers thrust hands into the brine to retrieve the pickles as one would catch fish with bare hands. The pickles are described according to their bodies: firm, ripe, glistening, dripping, some good catches, some rejected, some ripe, many indolent, “loafing into flavor.” This poem consists of a single stanza of short lines, where its long narrow shape suits its subject very well, as it follows the narrator from the store to his home and tells a story with beginning, middle, and end.
     Other poems, while still free verse by definition, depend less on narrative elements and take on more formal patterns. For example, “Broken Pieces” employs four stanzas of quatrains, where a balance of image and theme carry the subjects and make formal inquiries into the nature of heart and soul. Comparing the heart to a mirror that has shattered on stone, the first stanza is followed by an investigation of the glass splinters. The second stanza asks,
Don't press me—you Old Ideals—don't judge me
till I've recovered every sliver from the breakage.
          (“Broken Pieces,” 34)

     The third stanza addresses the difficulty of mending the pieces of the poets' heart, or the fragmented self. The fourth stanza finds a solution in the image of the artist's shadow behind the mirror, which creates a refreshing vocabulary for the artistic vocation: slivers, shadow, solution, soul. Thus, incorporating the English stanzaic structure, this poem assembles parts to constitute a whole in a way much different from the narrative movement of the poem.
     The poem “I thought of the powers…” looks like a sonnet upon first inspection. It has fourteen lines, three quatrains, and a rhyming couplet. Although Fein nods to the sonnet form, he does not embrace it. The poem is about a man writing sonnets, and while Fein does not write in a strict sonnet pattern, he uses the form loosely here to address the life and work of the man who did.
     Much of Fein's work parallels the concerns of Yeats's poetry, in poems that address the responsibility of the artist to be true to his vocation and to keeping old languages and folklore alive. Unlike Yeats, however, Fein does not address the subject of politics. No where has Fein written about rebellious efforts, political figures, or war, preferring literary figures in their stead. Or so it seems. He does consistently write about the theme of engagement with history when he revisits stories from the Old Testament. Like the poems about studying Yiddish, these poems span the length of his career.
     An early poem, “Reading Genesis at Twelve” connects the young boy with his place in his heritage, which differentiates him from that of his neighbors, the Irish or Italian kids who were “were read out of the story” (3). Later, Fein rewrites the story of Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi who went back to her pagan family, unlike her famous cousin Ruth who stayed and played her part in the geneology of David and Solomon. Fein captures a vivid portrait of a woman who has returned to the lesser life:
It's simpler now, no messengers suddenly showing up
for dinner, and you rush around serving them until
they reveal something you have to do, somewhere
you have to go, some future that will be yours, some land,
some cave, some hill, some wall, some stream, some stone.
          (“Orpah,” 63)

     The repetition of the adjective “some” conveys the narrator's disenchantment with the role she might have played in the history of her late husband's people. While this poem might be used to instruct about all that the woman has lost, the first person monologue emphasizes the choice that the woman made as a choice made freely, to be considered in its own right.
     Fein's retelling of the story of Isaac dramatizes a conversation the father might have had with his son Esau, who lost his birthright to his brother Jacob and who was also tricked out of receiving his father's blessing. Here Fein imagines the father in sympathy with the bereft son, giving the blessing that was misdirected in the past, saying,
                                                     Come
to me and I will tell you how my hurt churned
in me, a hidden current, even as I raised sheep,
surveyed lands, entertained kings. And as you listen
you will see how you, like me, played your part.
          (“Isaac,” 65)
     Through this monologue, Fein allows Isaac to imagine Essau's strength in finding freedom in his own destiny, breaking the hold of his brother, and opening his heart to him. His tale is not straightforward though, for he ends admitting that this scenario between brothers who get along is only one that he imagines for them, before he must descend into his “own Egypt,” his own imprisonment, from which only he can negotiate the terms of return. The poem “Isaiah and Homer” addresses the work of the poet Leyeles, who writes about Homer in terms of Isaiah, a combination that disappoints the narrator because it implies a child-like nobility in the Greek poet that does not allow for the truths he presented. The narrator asks,
                                   I wish you had
sneaked off by yourself, sulking, stripping yourself
of the armor of your loyalties. Break down your forms,
Leyeles, or let them carry you to your contradictions.
          (“Home and Isaiah,” 101)
     If only Leyeles had not shackled the reader to a preconceived point of view, the narrator explains, his poem would be so much stronger. Here Fein established the prerequisite of a good poem, that of embracing contradictions, which needs to be carried into being by the most suitable form.
     Fein dramatizes the importance of working through contradictions in his final poem, “To Walt Whitman.” The narrator asks if he has missed an opportunity by not following the figure of Whitman earlier in his career. He might have lived the poet's life rather than remain a student and teacher of poetry. Yet by the poem's end, it turns out that Whitman, the poet he so admires, has been accompanying the author all along. In a series of phrases and dashes, Fein pours out his heart to Whitman, who has been with him as a book of poems carried in his hip pocket when he was young, as an old man passing in the street in his middle age, as a poet who dared to put his verse aside and describe his experiences in Civil War hospitals in prose. Fein writes, “I think of our lives&—Walt—and they work something like this” (“To Walt Whitman,” 112), From the Battery to Coney Island, they often walked the same streets. He thinks of their lives in parallel, uniting disparate traditions, writing in free verse, allowing poetic structures carry their contradictions into being.