Ponder Each Furrow: On Samuel Menashe’s Collected Poems

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The Shrine Whose Shape I Am: The Collected Poetry of Samuel Menashe
Edited by Bhisham Bherwani and Nicholas Birns
(Audubon Terrace Press, 2019, 387 pp., $25).

“The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream,” says Stevens, and I have understood his poem to be an oracle of the epicurean abundance in the nature of things, a revelry that rubs its shoulders with death. I hear a less epicurean but likewise oracular voice when Samuel Menashe writes,

There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the Prophets
And like David I bless myself
With all my might

I know many hills were holy once
But now in the level lands to live
Zion ground down must become marrow
Thus in my bones I’m the king’s son
And through death’s terrain I go
Making my own procession

Is this the heretic, worshipping himself? Is this the pious soul, resisting oppression with joy? Is this the cynic requiring a replacement for religion and falling back on tradition and literary echo? Or is this the pure unbridled joy of the poet who embraces his song as his own? I’d say whatever vanity lurks in Menashe’s ecstatic expression is far outweighed by acceptance and exultation. He is pressed in on all sides by a spiritual universe, and he’s not too proud to call what shapes him “shameless love.”

This self-confidence and sense of divine cleverness marks every page of The Shrine Whose Shape I Am. I am new to the work of Samuel Menashe, but I’ve fallen for it. These poems are entirely their own ilk. They make a slight impact on the page, many of them dimeter variations of between four and eight lines with fairly methodical rhymes tucking in the form. And yet they are not like nursery songs. Sophisticated, brief, lilting, numinous and rueful, each poem belies its studied simplicity in depth and breadth of subtext and handling of motion. I think of the Latin adjective altus: “deep,” as in the sea or the sky, as in a tree root, or a tradition, or a mind.

Here is “Landscape:”

Boughs berserk
Spin one hill
Into space
Standing still
Olive trees race
On the field below
Moulded white oxen
Ponder each furrow
A man behind them
Cries Via, Via

The poem itself appears contained, each line heavy and end-stopped, a decisive, mostly un-punctuated series of brushstrokes. The poem stands still, ponderous and muscular as the oxen. And yet paradoxically motion abounds: boughs are spinning, trees racing, and a man making an utterance.

If we rewrite this into four-beat lines, the influence of Strong Stress verse comes to the fore:

Boughs berserk…… spin one hill
Into space…… standing still
Olive trees race…… on the field below
Moulded white oxen…… ponder each furrow
A man behind them…… cries Via, Via

Though more dependent on rhyme and stress than alliteration, there’s enough of the latter here to suggest early forms of alliterative verse. We can also, of course, see the influence of imagism in the composition: the stillness, the high/low pairing of hill and field, the living triptych of man, beast, and tree.  And yet the poem is far from “hard” or “dry.” Polished it may be, but it grows and evokes. And as a reader I feel more a part of the landscape than an observer: I find myself thinking of my affinity to the trees, spinning their berserk boughs into space, and to the oxen, both needing and hating the man who comes along to cry “via” and make the field grow.

This version of “Landscape” above appears in To Open (1974), but an earlier version appears in The Many Names Beloved (1961):

By boughs berserk
Olive trees fly
From still lines
Upon one hill
Through Space

In the field below
Moulded white oxen
Ponder each furrow. . .
A man behind them
Crying, Via, Via

One wouldn’t think there’d be much to remove in such a short poem, and yet in the ’74 version the poet has eliminated prepositions, an ellipsis, a capitalized letter, and a dependent clause—all notable, given the brevity of the piece.

Because of the nature of Menashe’s career (he won a Neglected Masters Award in 2004), many readers will, like me, be reading Menashe for the first time in his Collected Poems. It’s worth noting that this Audubon Terrace Press edition is beautifully put together: the book features a minimalist painting of Menashe’s, and, at a fat 7×5”, is the proper size to hold in the hand. But of greater note is the opportunity the volume offers for tracking the way the same poem develops and reappears from collection to collection.

The poem which contains the phrase “the shrine whose shape I am”—and which I’ve quoted from above—appears in several iterations throughout Menashe’s oeuvre. From it he derives the title of his second collection (No Jerusalem But This), and then his third (Fringe of Fire); clearly it’s a concept that enamors him. Likewise we might see a poem such as “Tenement Spring” alter itself between a 1961, a 1971, and a 2000 version. But while the poems become more rueful over the course of Menashe’s career, they don’t significantly alter their technique—if anything they perfect it. For me, the continuity between the poems of 1961 and the poems of 2000 has a peculiarly comforting effect.1 The poems seem to rhyme (inexactly) with themselves, so I receive the consolation of echo not just from line to line but from book to book.

Two things stand out to me as significant to Menashe’s poetics, as I seek to understand his proclivity for the short form. One is that, where another poet might emphasize terror or loss, Menashe emphasizes expectation and presence. I’m moved by the sense of trust in this untitled poem, found in No Jerusalem But This:

Reeds rise from water

rippling under my eyes
Bulrushes tuft the shore

At every instant I expect
what is hidden everywhere

The reed-and-water scene succinctly recreates the poet’s state of heightened expectation. The trimeter beats convey certainty, yet a subtly expanding syllable count ripples out the edges of the poem.2 Formally it’s got the tensions, parallelisms, and asymmetry that elevates a handful of words to a well-crafted poem.  But as with so many of these poems, there’s a larger history evoked too; most particularly the story of Moses, floating innocent and unaware that his life is sought. Perhaps there’s an undertone of terror after all: what’s expected could be Pharaoh’s soldiers. Yet the speaker seems to trust himself to the water, come what may.

I’d contrast Menashe’s sense of the divine with that of a poet like Hopkins. Where Hopkins experiences in-breaking—the flash of the divine Other who “fathers-forth”—and manifests that disruptive experience in the sprung line, Menashe seems encounter G-d as something like a series of formative, recurring memories. I’m a Christian writing about a Jewish poet, so I’m likely to make some naïve blunders. Nonetheless, it seems to me that his piety is tied to an awareness of the history of people and places carried within a particular human soul. He has a continuous sense that the past is carried forward into the present, as in “Cargo:”

Old wounds leave good hollows
Where one who goes can hold
Himself in ghostly embraces
Of former powers and graces
Whose domain no strife mars—
I am made whole by my scars
For whatever now displaces
Follows all that once was
And without loss stows
Me into my own spaces

I wouldn’t argue that this is one of Menashe’s most technically careful poems, but the notion of moving forward without loss seems deeply important. Former experiences are cycled back into the present creative moment of the poet. The fifth and sixth lines are jangly, to my mind, but I like the uncharacteristic enjambment in the last two lines. The “me” falls awkwardly, but somehow appropriately. It illuminates that while “old wounds” might be collective, as the result of historic oppression, the poet as an individual experiences healing through suffering—his own, and his ancestors’. And the longer I dwell with the poem, the more I’m compelled by the image of the poet’s self “stowed” in the “hollows” of his scars by “whatever now displaces.”

Grasping this insight has been, for me, perhaps the most important aspect of the experience of reading Menashe. I’ve always valued memory and its place in a poem. But this kind of memory is not recalled so much as just, well, there.  Maybe “embodied” is the word for it (though to be honest, I never quite know what that term means). Maybe “stowed” is a better one. Regardless, I wonder how thinking of myself as without loss might alter the way I move through the world and write about it.

Perhaps Menashe says it better in “Voyage”:

Water opens without end
At the prow of the ship
Rising to descend
Away from it

Days become one
I am who I was

This might be a statement of resignation, were it not that we are on a moving ship. I observe the narrowing of the lines as the poem becomes more interior, and in just five lines we arrive at the timeless state many poets can achieve only after stanzas of rhythmic play. Its brevity is part of the poem’s staggering grace; any longer and that insight and image might be overrun. Instead of resignation, then, I read exultant acceptance in the delicate, evocative, holy sentence that, unlike G-d, says, I am who I was.3

I have not said much about Menashe’s humor, which is profound. So, I’ll leave you with this:

Leah bribed Jacob
With mandrake roots
To make him
Lie with her

You take my poems.


1 This isn’t to say there isn’t development in the work; Stephanie Burt does a good job of describing how Menashe’s work advances in her interesting introduction to the volume.
2 The poem moves from five syllables in the first line, to six in the next two lines, to eight in the final stanza. Actually, the final line has seven syllables, not eight, but I read a caesura before “everywhere” that more or less substitutes for a sound. Also, the first three lines establish a stress on the opening syllable, but the third stanza works against this expectation. Such delicate attentions are typical of Menashe’s work in all of these poems.
3 G-d said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)