May 10, 2010

Review by Zara RaabEzekiel's Wheels by Shirley Kaufman

EZEKIEL’S WHEELS
by Shirley Kaufman

Copper Canyon Press
PO Box 271
Port Townsend WA 98368
ISBN 978-1-55659-307
2009, 108 pp., $14.00
www.amazon.com

There is a scene in the 1981 movie Pennies from Heaven, set in depression era Chicago, in which a blind girl, played by Eliska Krupka, wanders into the shadowy, earth-packed space beneath a low bridge. She is murdered there by a tramp, but as much as the assault, it is her blind, lone wandering that disturbs us. Blindness, of both the figurative and literal kind, and accompanying states of disorientation and uncertainty, are themes for Shirley Kaufman’s since her first published poem, “Beetle on the Shasta Daylight,” in The New Yorker, April 2, 1966. In that early poem, it is a beetle that wanders blind to consequence across the floor of the swaying train. Forty years later, in the desert landscape of Israel, it is the poet herself.

In the long title poem of Kaufman’s new collection Ezekiel’s Wheels, the poet tells us about “the cloud/that covers my eye,” “my room. . . filled/with clouds/and the window//full of brightness//and the wheel . . . full of eyes/that spin in every/direction,” like the flashes of fire ascending and descending beside a chariot with wheels within wheels in the prophet Ezekiel’s visions of seraphim (literally, “burning angels”). A 6th Century B.C. prophet, Ezekiel was exiled along with other Israelites to Babylon, to the banks of the Chebar River in current day Iraq. In addition to the biblical references to Ezekiel and Samson and Delilah (including Milton’s Samson Agonistes eyeless in Gaza), the poem alludes to Monet’s water lilies as “blindness/seeps into/variables of light/changed by the hour”; Homer “blind as a bat”; Borges descending into blindness; James Weldon Johnson, lyricist of “E-ze-kiel cred, Dem Dry Bones” (“the leg bone connected to the knee bone. . ”.); and finally to Glousester in King Lear:

I remember thine eyes well

said the blind king

Artists both ancient and modern––including sci-fi fantasists––have rendered Ezekiel’s wheels, but for the book’s cover Kaufman has chosen, instead, a reproduction of the 19th Century French fabulist Odilon Redon’s “The Eye like a Strange Balloon Mounts toward Infinity,” an image Kaufman describes as an “eyeball travel[ing] up/ in a basket.” “The monster eye,” she writes, “won’t/leave me alone.”

Like Redon, expressing the terrors of fever-ridden dreams a century or more ago, Kaufman explores the internal feelings of her physical and mental decline with startling and brave honesty. Like Redon, Kaufman is representing the ghosts of her own mind. Prophets have a special kind of sight into the future and possibly life after death, but for Kaufman as she approaches her ninth decade, there’s mostly fear and uncertainty of the future, even in the certainty of death. Blind to the future, we cannot know what will happen, how it will happen, or when. Kaufman echoes her longing for prophets from her earlier Rivers of Salt (1993): “Let them/tell us what will come after.”

Whatever is coming “after” seems already to be approaching, slouching toward the poet like a ghost before one feverish and half-dreaming. The prologue, “Where Am I?” seems to disintegrate on the page:

I’m not sure

I don’t know where

I’m going anymore

Heading into the footlights

I had meant to say “front lights”

No I had not meant cars

But spots I mean

. . . . .

Speaking your lines

. . . . .

In the dark in the absence

Of what you’ve forgotten.

A poet of younger generation, say Jacqueline Berger, might not stand for this, might insist on enrolling in Circus School, for example, as the poet in Berger’s book does: “Make the body/climb a rope, and it finds a way./The body’s mind concerned with how,/not why” (The Gift That Arrives Broken, “Circus School”). Kaufman’s of a different age. And though she has lived in Jerusalem almost 40 years, carrying on a lively social and political dialogue, here the landscape is interior. Even less porous poems give lyrical expression to feeling of loss and fears of dying and death: “Now the space between sea/and memory grows wider./We’re part of the distance” (“Return from the Dead Sea”).

In “Unwinding,” she asks, “What is it that scares me?” as, in a dream, she dizzily rides a painted horse around a carousal, about to fall off, her grip uncertain. In “Piece by piece,” she wants “old scraps/to fasten my life down/like tent pins/to keep it/from blowing away.” Her disorientation regains its biblical proportions in “Gaps”: “What does anything matter/when I can’t keep up with the others//and don’t know where I’m headed anyway.”

Kaufman studied at San Francisco State with Kay Boyle, John Logan, Robert Duncan, and others in the Sixties Golden Age of West Coast poetry. Her contemporary, the poet Denise Levertov, selected Kaufman’s manuscript The Floor Keeps Turning (1970) for a First Book Award from the University of Pittsburgh. Of the many influences on Kaufman’s work, including the Israeli iconic figure Yehuda Amichai (whose work Kaufman has translated), echoes of Levertov remain. Kaufman’s “The word is/ too much not with me. . ” (“Bench”) echoes Levertov’s “O Taste and See”––“The world is/not with us enough./O taste and see”––as well as Wordsworth’s “the world is too much with us late and soon.” For Kaufman, now in her late eighties, Levertov’s call for sleepers to awaken to life comes too late.

In a poem of that title (“Too Late”), Kaufman returns with a kind of despair to a subject she explored in “Milk” in Rivers of Salt––her relationship with her daughter. As she did most famously in the anthologized poem “Mothers, Daughters,” here in this latest poem, she writes of visiting her daughter, where the poet is “[e]ach year more alien more peripheral/It’s always too late/pears rot wherever they drop and staked/in the garden tomatoes already too soft.” Kaufman has been heralded for her skill in depicting family relationships. Here, in “Letting It Out,” she catches just right the wife’s exasperation, as illness exacerbates what Levertov called “the ache of marriage”:

I don’t want you to stand

with your smile on and stare

at the lip of my wound.

The infection starts deeper.

. . . . .

I hide poems under my pillow

I don’t want you to tell me

to look for grammatical errors

and what about dinner.

Whether the poet is literally going blind or is blinded by the disorientation of failing health or fear of death, for Kaufman “Perhaps/the way out is always like this:/pressed through one’s blindness//into the terrible dawn of light” (“Circle”). Fortunately for her readers, this poet retains a vision marvelously expressed in Ezekiel’s Wheels. And perhaps she answers her own question about what’s next: “What do we have to/prepare ourselves/to survive./As if birth/itself were not/something we managed/bloody and screaming/but alive” (“Your Place”).

____________

Zara Raab’s poems and literary journalism have appeared in Poetry Flash, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her Book of Gretel was published in spring 2010, and her first full-length collection, Swimming the Eel, will come out next year. She lives and writes in San Francisco. She can be found at www.zararaab.com and http://www.californiapoems.blogspot.com.