Three Are the Fathers

Eric Murphy Selinger

Vol. 33, 2011

 

From grand mythological narration, [Harvey Shapiro’s “A Tel Aviv Notebook”] shifts to a wry, parenthetical aside, then repeats the two-step:

 

In the days of Alexander,

when the Torah was translated

into Greek, on the island of Pharos,

as a light to the world

(or at least to the Hellenized Jews

who could no longer read Hebrew),

the world was plunged into darkness

according to the Rabbis,

who knew what followed:

the fall of Rome,

you, me and Irving Berlin.

 

Just as the “world” to be illuminated turns out to be populated mostly by “Jews / who could no longer read Hebrew,” the sacred myth that tells the tale (“the world was plunged into darkness”) gets immediately debunked (the Rabbis “knew what followed,” and projected a warning back into the past). This poem, like “Pharos,” ends by hurtling forward from the fall of Rome to the present, but here Shapiro’s sympathies have shifted, attaching him both to the melancholy rabbis and to the mongrel culture they mourned. Translation, you see, leads to mixed dancing—and if the Shapiro of Mountain, Fire, Thornbush chafed at his debt to the “language and patterns of thought” of Christian culture, this Shapiro refuses to disown the “Hellenized” Jewish American world of Tin Pan Alley, home address of Berlin’s “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.”

The lyricist of these chestnuts, of course, was also the composer of love songs: “How Deep is the Ocean,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and more. Shapiro, too, has written at least as much about “Eros, bringer of delight” (thus “The Eye, The Pulse,” from The Eye) and “Eros, destroyer / of meaning and creator of song” (thus “His Age,” some forty years later) as he has about God or the Bible or Jews, often with love as the opportunity for a delicious, liberating encounter between the Jewish and non-Jewish, sacred and secular worlds. “‘If Aphrodite could take Moses / From the ark in the Nile / In the synagogue at Dura,’” Shapiro muses in “Lines for Erwin R. Goodenough” (he’s quoting the historian’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period), how much more might she rescue and inspire the Jewish poet who trails his fingers over her statue at the museum (“[I] heard her say, kiss my ass,” he recalls in “Glory”). In the elegiac “What It Feels Like,” late in the collected, Shapiro brings a Jewish range of reference to bear on his own erotic faith, using the imaginative strain between the two to heighten the poem’s pathos:

 

The first night out of Eden

or rather the first morning

after the first night out is

what it always feels like.

I can have a bagel and coffee

but only after I arrive at work.

Until then the despair is too great.

It was different when I woke with you

and prayed to the white curve of your back

and cradled it like the ark of the covenant.

 

 

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