Posing Questions to the Universe
New and Selected Poems
In his redoubtable essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” I wonder how Eliot might have assessed the work of David Lehman, a poet whose recently published New and Selected Poems demonstrates time and again that one’s ongoing engagement with poets dead or alive need not mask personality or stifle innovation. Whether writing an intimate Haiku sequence to mentor David Shapiro (“L’Shana Tova”), echoing by turns John Donne (“Any Place I Hang My Hat”) and Philip Larkin (“This Be the Bread”), or channeling Kenneth Koch via that poet’s Art of Love phase (“Story of My Life”), the poet draws on an encyclopedic range of sources and influences without ever sacrificing his own distinct voice.
Urbane, candid, and sometimes vulnerable, that voice sounds clear as a foghorn no matter what form or tone it assumes. In fact, Lehman’s most celebrated quality may be his unapologetic eclecticism. As the author himself admitted in an interview with the Cortland Review: “I write in a lot of different styles and forms on the theory that the poems all sound like me in the end, so why not make them as different from one another as possible, at least in outward appearance?” This might seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Lehman understands that voice is the persistent thru-line of any writer’s work, despite ruptures and convolutions in style or approach. What is more, many of Lehman’s earliest poems—like the title sestina from Operation Memory (1990) and “The Master of Ceremonies” from An Alternative to Speech (1986)—evince the same confidence and maturity one finds in his most recent work, thus providing the ostensibly varied and various New and Selected Poems with a consistency that is worth savoring.
Perhaps most widely known as brainchild and series editor of the annual Best American Poetry anthologies, Lehman has authored six non-fiction titles—including A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (2009) and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991)—and seven well-received books of poetry. Regarding the latter, he earned wide attention for writing a poem each day for five years, a commitment that culminated in the publication of two engaging volumes of “dailies” called The Daily Mirror (2000) and The Evening Sun (2002), both of which stand head and shoulders above books borne out of similar projects. Many of the resultant poems are spontaneous, effervescent musings that recall the linguistic verve of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems:
In Rotterdam, I’m
going to speak about
the state of poetry
on a panel with a Pole
and a Turk. It’s worth
being alive to utter
that sentence…(“May 26”)
Others expose the giddy absurdities of our vernacular:
They’re calling old people seniors
short for senior citizens but it’s as though
they’re still in college and can look forward
to graduate school at Purgatory State
or the University of the Damned…(“August 16”)
Still others achieve moments of grace through accessible diction in the most basic of forms:
sure which. (“November 22”)
Given their range and sheer inventiveness, it is not surprising that New and Selected Poems offers nearly 60 such poems.
Still, as good as the “dailies” are, Lehman’s best work emerges from projects more subtly patterned and forcefully planned. The titular 12-part poem from Yeshiva Boys (2009) is a stunning amalgamation of various sources connected to history and literature. In these poems, Lehman’s powers of synthesis achieve remarkable effects. Consider, for example, “After Auschwitz,” the fourth poem in the sequence:
In the yeshiva playground they were marching
chanting marching around in circles bearing pickets
bearing scrolls saying “No poems after Auschwitz! No poems
about Auschwitz!” while in the back row
the poet sat dreamily and stared out the window, hungry.
Could there be lunch after Auschwitz?
His mother did everything she could have done
but there wasn’t money enough for the necessary bribes
and her parents were deported to Riga and shot.
A woman he met at a writer’s conference
told him she was working on The Holocaust and Memory
at Yale. The question she had was this:
Are American Jews making a fetish out of the Holocaust?
Has the Holocaust become the whole of Jewish experience?
“You go to shul on Yom Kippur or Passover
and everything is the Holocaust.” I shut my eyes and hear
the old prayers made new: “Shame is real,” said Ida Noise.
Hear, O Israel. The Lord is One. I, an American, naturally preferred
a temple carved out of water and stone: the rage of a waterfall,
the melody of a brook. But back-to-nature as a strategy failed
when the phones started ringing in the woods,
and only a child would think of collecting dead leaves
and trying to paste them back on the trees. So I returned
to the city, married, settled down, had a child of my own,
pretended that I was just like everybody else.
Yet I feel as if my real life is somewhere else, I left it
back in 1938, it happened already and yet it’s still going on,
only it’s going on without me, I’m merely an observer
in a trench coat, and if there were some way I could enter
the newsreel of rain that is Europe, some way I could return
to the year where I left my life behind,
it would be dear enough to me, danger and all. To him,
an emissary of a foreign war, London was unreal. He wondered
which of his fellow passengers would make the attempt.
He knew now that they would try to kill him,
tomorrow, if not today. How could he have been such a fool?
Herr Endlich said: “We have our ways of making a man talk.
In the last forty-eight hours he had learned two things:
That you couldn’t escape the danger, it was all around you,
and that the person who betrays you is the one you trusted most.
The strategists in Washington couldn’t figure it out. Why in hell
were the Germans wasting fuel on trains to camps in Poland?
As with many of Lehman’s poems, the consistent formal strategy—in this case, long-lined, unrhymed tercets of precise, elegant prose—accommodates several shifts in tone and voice, and allows passages to move seamlessly from moments of dark comedy to harrowing pathos, biting satire to self-critical confession. The ironic shtick in line six, for instance, deflates the very real aesthetic concern identified in the poem’s first four lines. What ensues in lines seven through nine is a sobering anecdote made more terrifying by the stark and distant narration. Line 10 introduces an historian from a writer’s conference who articulates one of the poem’s many jarring juxtapositions between personal suffering and intellectual inquiry, a juxtaposition that is further complicated by the emergence of an unidentified first-person voice only a few lines later. Is this first-person voice the narrator of the poem, or an extension of the “he” or “she” from the first several stanzas? Lehman leaves the question open: readers who embrace ambiguity may decide it is both.
In just 42 lines, then, oblique biography collides with an imaginative presentation of historical facts. As a result, one reference flows into another like wave against wave in an Ovidian current of ongoing transformation, with no one person, place, or moment ever escaping the horrible question implied in the poem’s title: What is possible after the previously unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz?
For Lehman it would seem the answer is everything and nothing. “I shut my eyes and hear / the old prayers made new,” a voice confesses; but for many, the old prayers no longer suffice: “I, an American, naturally preferred a temple carved out of water and stone: the rage of a waterfall, / the melody of a brook.” Like many Americans—Jewish or otherwise—the “back-to-nature strategy” referred to in the following lines fails not only because we have conquered our wilderness (“phones started ringing in the woods”) but because escapism in all its forms is an unsustainable reaction to suffering. As Lehman admits, “[O]nly a child would think of collecting dead leaves / and trying to paste them back on the trees.” I would trade the bulk of contemporary American poetry for the heartbreaking wisdom of those lines. But if Walden-inspired retreats into the authentic wilderness do not correct or resolve the horrors from which one flees, one’s return to the city offers an equally unsatisfying alternative: “[M]y real life is somewhere else, I left it / back in 1938, it happened already and yet it’s still going on, / only it’s going on without me, I’m merely an observer.” His wish to “enter / the newsreel of rain that is Europe” is as sentimental and wrongheaded as the idealization of nature—and fraught with peril: “you couldn’t escape the danger, it was all around you,” another voice intrudes, because “the person who betrays you is the one you trusted most.” Lessons learned at the Yeshiva institute clearly pertain to the world at large.
If the Jewish themes explored in Yeshiva Boys and elsewhere are partly metaphors for the human condition, the poet’s great subject is memory, particularly how culture-wide conditions for historical memory are either aligned or at odds with the lives of individuals. “There was a sense of being part of a collective destiny,” Lehman claims in a section of “Pascal’s Wager,” “Hurt by our enemies into history.” In “The Survivors,” a three-part poem that once again mines the inexhaustible subject of the Holocaust, Lehman writes of what appears to be court proceedings in which a collaborative witness has been given truth serum:
…we who had always meant
To believe in the will stood helplessly by
Like relatives of the deceased, listening to lawyers deny
Our right to contest the old man’s testament.
Although the ensuing testimony is, in a sense, coerced through medicine, the clarity of the witness’s testimony—he refused to help a Jew fleeing from captivity—precipitates larger moral questions:
So it was decided: history had already happened,
And all we could do was watch a batch of old film clips
Chronicling the catastrophe: armistice signings
In railway cars, barbed-wire borders,
The stunned faces of the American soldiers
And the grinning skeletons that greeted them where
They had dug their own graves…
Is observation, as Lehman asks earlier in the same poem, a form of action? If so, how does one witness account become absorbed into mass consciousness? And what does one do with the information?
Of course Lehman’s interests aren’t solely Holocaust-driven. He is as much concerned with the ways memory affects personal relationships. Several sonnet sequences and love poems in New and Selected Poems attest that intimacy and estrangement inform relations between men and women—and often coexist in uneasy harmony. The “he” and “she” of a new sonnet sequence called “Lost Weekend” are at once strange and familiar: “She was prepared to impersonate his wife / Even if that meant she would have to marry him.” Later in the same poem, the passionate contours of their marriage mirror and are mirrored by larger political concerns: “They had fun playing house / Until war broke out in September.” Said war is both public and private, and its aftermath devastates both: (“In her dream he was everyone”); (“He thought he could see her, but then she was gone”).
Most of Lehman’s love poems are narrated in the third person and peopled by nameless characters that vaguely resemble ourselves. This decision lends his poems an eerie, often humorous detachment. It is a particularly effective strategy for exploiting the ways in which even the most heightened moments of intimacy leave us anonymous and interchangeable. In “The Secret Life,” another sonnet sequence from Valentine Place (1996), episodes from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window blur into a neurotic couple’s love story. Even their complaints and recriminations—“He brought up the baby” and “She was scared of him and basked in the fear”— seem like plots borrowed from various genre fictions. But in such cases, Lehman rescues the language from cliché with poetry itself. Sometimes a stunning simile (“As phone sex is to sex, so was their strained dialogue / To the quarrel they should have had”) at other times a telling juxtaposition (“He brought up the baby / All she could think of was the casserole in the oven”) will reveal a keen, unerring eye for reframing the most common source materials into a spectacle of high drama.
In all, Lehman’s New and Selected Poems is an excellent summation of a life’s work in poetry. Like any such summation, certain ideas and formal obsessions assert themselves throughout the years, including some magnificent serial sequences, centos, sestinas, individual nonce sonnets of varying tone and subject, and even a pair of free-verse poems—“Who He Was” and “Who She Was”—whose mirroring language and modes of development call to one another across the gulf of eight years. If Lehman is an admitted eclectic whose clever exploitation of traditional procedures involves a certain degree of repetition, such repetitions are never redundant. Instead, they provide ideal springboards for a boundless imagination, one that understands, above all, that poetry is the expression of something at once personal and historical, individual and sacred:
The repetition of words: there was the poetry of scripture,
The same stories with added emphasis every year:
The story of Joseph, my father’s name, the story of my own, David.
Lehman travels the greatest distance to tell us one of the most essential truths: the history of people is the history of people repeating themselves. Such repetitions honor the indelible past, a past, Lehman’s poems remind us, informed and reformed by the force of our attentions.