MARCH 10, 2020
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
— Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”
I picked up the pen not knowing what the first word would be, and I see them now as my hand moves across the same page forming these letters. I was right about little things — you see — they worked at once for me. There were no false tricks. It was the real magician — of being whole with what is near.
— Samuel Menashe, “Today Was the 11th of December”
AFTER CHRISTOPHER RICKS’S expert selection of Samuel Menashe’s poems for a Library of America volume in 2005, the prospect of issuing his complete works might have seemed superfluous, perhaps a little risky, even to the fiercest admirers of this famously pithy poet. There was always the possibility of dilution, of obscuring what Derek Mahon had called the “concentration and crystallization” of Menashe’s achievement. Appearing six years before the poet’s death, the Ricks edition had the ideal characteristics of an embalming. Though Ricks was sprightly and vivid in his introduction, which quoted magnanimously from other writers, the sheer finish of Menashe’s chiseled verse — one to three stanzas per poem per page for fewer than 200 pages — resembled a row of headstones. There was also a valedictory prose piece from Menashe himself, by turns incredulous (“I never expected to meet a poet, let alone become one”), grateful (“My good fortune in England and Ireland seems miraculous to me”), and understatedly defiant (“The only award or grant ever given to me was for a war story I wrote when I was thirty”). Above all, there was the unwitting condescension of the honorific that graced the book’s cover: “Winner of the Neglected Masters Award.”
Still, it was a spectacular send-off. The book alerted poetry readers to a lyricism that reveled in making do with little. In compact verse, Menashe hymned the contingencies of life — not only the fluid and precarious nature of it, but also the ways in which meaning can be modulated by a turn of phrase or metaphor, and by a near-sacramental regard for assonance, alliteration, and rhyme. Each poem, be it ever so brief, is an expansive gesture. It startles the reader into a new relationship with the mundane.
Upon a pole
Once we’ve sustained the small shock of realizing this is the poem, the whole poem, and nothing but, we may slow down to appreciate the machinery. “To Open” ends on parasol, which for this reader has the incidental effect of conjuring parable. And this the poem may well be. Consider: The title leaves “[o]pen” the suggestion that what follows is an instruction manual. But any guidance here is opaque. Though “Spokes slide” suggests wheels in motion, the movement is confined to “a pole” that itself is “[i]nside” (occupying the whole line, the word dramatizes this dependency) the “parasol.” The opening action occurs behind a screen. It admits no sun.
At the same time, the poem enacts a circularity, one reinforced by aesthetic choices. The final syllable, “sol,” may recall the sun and its rays or “[s]pokes” — in which case we’re back at the start of the poem. (A parasol, like a wheel, is round.) Only the first and final words contain both “p” and “s.” The remaining words of the poem, with the exception of two articles, have one or the other of these consonants. The long “o” of “Spokes” has its fellow in “pole,” just as a long “i” commands the “slide/inside” rhyme. But it turns out that the short vowels in “parasol” have their counterparts, too: in “the,” “a,” and “upon.” As for the poem’s final consonant, it echoes the “l”s in the end words of the first two lines. With Menashe, nothing is wasted.
The economy of a poem such as “To Open” stands as a rebuke to this type of prose exegesis. (One is reminded of an anonymous quote to the effect that applying literary criticism to P. G. Wodehouse is like taking a spade to a soufflé.) Yet can a reader of Menashe be blamed for an overzealous act of interpretation? The poet’s tiny symphonies reverberate. They insist we attend to notes and rests alike. In this connection, Bhisham Bherwani’s preface to The Shrine Whose Shape I Am: The Collected Poetry of Samuel Menashe, which he has coedited with Nicholas Birns, carries a previously unpublished statement by the poet: “I do not try to prove myself by inventiveness. What is does not need to furnish proofs. Nor will I demonstrate my modern involvement by howling or expressing the complexity of my thought. I will not increase the noise.”
Out of context, the credo is unpromising. It is as if Menashe were contending that his raw materials were eloquent enough, that to enliven them through conscious art would be to “increase the noise.” In the long arc of his career, however, it is possible to see Menashe’s dismissal of “inventiveness” (in the sense of novelty) as a reclaiming of the rhetorical term invention, as used by the Elizabethans, with its Latin meaning of discovery. Menashe is at root an empiricist. He selects and arranges his words with the detachment of “[t]he sandpiper” he evokes in a poem of that title.
Scampers over sand
As breakers disband
Each wave undergoes
The bead of his eye
He pecks what it tows
Keeps himself dry
How different from the shorebird of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sandpiper,” whose quest for detail is more self-conscious, more dazzled by multiplicity, but who — like Menashe — finds himself drawn to a world, in Bishop’s words, “minute and vast and clear.”
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
In Menashe’s siftings, there is less variegation than we find in Bishop, fewer particularities of observed detail. This is because Menashe relies more heavily on rhetorical figures and the connotative value of their component words. His lyrics achieve profound gravity — or, at the other end, sublime ethereality — by exploiting the absences that a frugal diction has engendered. In the quatrain “Wind,” the second half (“unraveling silk / from saplings”) sparkles in a drab setting. A similar effect is found in the quatrain “Autumn,” which reports a night walk the speaker takes “[a]s armed trees frisk a windfall / Down paths which lampposts light.” Amid the spare scenery of both poems, these descriptions are downright lush.
Even before they had the evidence of his total output to consider, admirers of Menashe had reason to equate this lexical parsimony with a monastic lifestyle. Here is perhaps the place to mention that Menashe was an infantryman in World War II. As his New York Times obituary states: “In a single day during the Battle of the Bulge, all but 29 members of his company of 190 men were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner.” Stephanie Burt, in an otherwise trenchant introduction to The Shrine Whose Shape I Am, rates Menashe with George Oppen as “the only significant poets who saw ground combat as members of the infantry.” (What about Richard Wilbur? Anthony Hecht?) After the war, and following a stint at the Sorbonne, where he earned a doctorate, Menashe returned to New York, living in a cold-water flat in Greenwich Village for more than 50 years. He eventually reached out to Kathleen Raine in England (like Bishop’s sandpiper, she was a “student of Blake”; so, of course, was he), where he published his first book in 1961.
Now, with the advantage of reviewing his poems across seven volumes, including previously uncollected lyrics, we can appreciate how consistently Menashe played with the notion of personal identity as what happens when a mold or cast wears away. Three of his best-known poems — “The Niche,” “Cargo,” and “At a Standstill” — depict this grinding down of surfaces, as if to reveal the statue in a block of stone. This figure partly operates in “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am,” which Dana Gioia, in a closing essay that already seems canonical, calls “one of the finest poems on Jewish identity ever written in English.” Part of the pleasure of reading Menashe in bulk (a ludicrous proposition before this book arrived) is to watch, through successive volumes, brevity win over. A paring back results in the title poem (originally called “There Is No Jerusalem But This”) and in the psalm-like “April,” which sheds four lines to become:
It is the sun that makes us smile
It is the sun and spring has come
Soon it will reach Norway
Her wooden villages wet
Laughter in each rivulet
(A mini-variorum, in the form of an appendix, helps the reader to find many such instances.) Another pleasure is to note how much Ricks got right the first time around. It’s hard to identify truly exceptional poems that did not make the 2005 cut. Still, Bherwani and Burns triumph by showing how often Menashe reapproached the same poem over many years, as if compelled to consecrate a trope or image. In Menashe’s one published story, “Today Was the 11th of December,” subtitled “A veteran of the Ardennes remembers the death of a comrade,” his narrator fends off survivor’s guilt by clinging to “little things that are remarkably potent.” In his words, “details determine.” They bear the imprint of past generations, and are to be visited again and again, as by one on a relentless pilgrimage.
These stone steps
bevelled by feet
endear the dead
to me as I climb
them every night