“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
When I teach the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya (Likutei Amarim) I display a bumper sticker with the above quote attributed to Chardin to illustrate how we live in two worlds, a material and Godly. But what does that mean? The Orthodox, Chabad influenced, singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman in his song Impermanent Things treats the world as transitory and weighing us down from our spiritual soaring. “All these impermanent things Oh how they fool me dominate and rule me They keep me waiting here forever”. In contrast to that dualism, the recent volume Two Worlds Exist by the local Teaneck Chabad poet Yehoshua November elicits the tension of our living rich emotional and sensory lives and at the same time knowing that we are called to a higher understanding of reality. For November, the human experience deserves a poetic snapshot of the depth of human experience, while letting the light of the spiritual shine in through the cracks.
Yehoshua November’s poetry has been celebrated in many newspaper interviews and excerpts in poetry journals, even garnering the success of having his poems published in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, The Sun, Virginia Quarterly Review, and on National Public Radio. November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College. His first poetry collection, God’s Optimism, won the MSR Poetry Book Award and was named a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. November’s recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, (Orison Books, 2016) is a gem of religious poetry.
The Soul In A Body
is like an old Russian immigrant
looking out his apartment’s only window.
Yes, yes, he says.
The landlord printed my name in block letters
on the lobby directory
has been forwarded to this address.
But I am not from here. I am not
from here at all.
Most of this publicity concerned his poetics or the exceptionality of an Orthodox Jewish poet. This interview focuses on theological matters. The title of the recent second book of poems, Two Worlds Exist, points to his Chabad vision of living in the material world and at the same time acknowledging the higher divine world. Influenced by the Lubavitvcher Rebbe concept of the highest essence of divinity is found in this world, November mediates between the messiness of real life with its losses, loves, and mundane events with a real presence of the higher life of the divine. “I think it’s important to explore how most people, even if they look as if everything is in order, are facing challenges. Art that doesn’t express conflict always falls flat because it’s not true to human experience.”
To contextualize this in Chabad thought, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab presented a theology of religious experience and personal revelation. In contrast, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught a paradoxical theology of the everyday, in which the lowest is really the highest, finding the divine essence in our meaningful existences. November follows the Rebbe.
What is noticeable in November’s poems, and also in his own self-understanding, is that we are not seeking divinity as a revelation, peak experience, or moment of transcendence to burst forth in life, as does Rainer Maria Rilke. Rather, the other world of the divine shines in our understanding of our complex lives.
When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?
On the other hand, November does not follow Gerard Manley Hopkins in seeking a mystical immanence, in transfigured ordinary life. Hopkins experienced what he called “inscape” beyond the surface of things, seeing God even in the most troubled events of our life. November lives his untransformed material life, yet his personal experience of it is transformed by acknowledging a higher realm. November also avoids the existential subjectivism and memory of Yehudah Amichai.
November credits his early influence to Leonard Cohen’s poetry. Yet he avoids Cohen’s dark Sabbatian theology of human desire, rebellion, and standing as a sinner before God, but as noted above he also generally avoids Cohen’s quest for revelatory moments.
Several interviews noted the paucity of poetic imagination and creativity in the Orthodox Jewish world, attributing it to a cultural shunning of poetics to which November responded that the real issue is a lack of emotional range and connecting the heart to Jewish texts.
The lack of poetry in the Orthodox community is not necessarily a poetry issue per se, but an issue of creativity or inspiration. The true Jewish way is to be in full command of the mind and the heart and to use both in the service of God. Overall, Orthodox Jews could improve in the area of the heart, which may be connected to the dearth of poetry. And if there is sometimes a disconnect between what we read in the texts and our real lives, poetry is a good place to explore that, a place to bridge the gap and figure things out.
November embraces a religious faith can be compatible with a poetry of deep feeling of religious doubt and uncertainty as real options.
A Jew is supposed to trust in God, but this too comes against the backdrop, against the possibility, of doing otherwise. This is what makes faith meaningful. Secular audiences are skeptical about religious poetry because they are skeptical about religious life in general, believing it’s less thoughtful or too simplistic, a kind of mindless surrender that wipes away life’s problems, at least on an intellectual level. If a religious poet is honest, however, if he or she can represent the challenges and humanity of religious life, a secular audience should be able to relate, as long as that audience is open to reading it in the first place.
The Purpose of this World (From his first volume God’s Optimism)
When some Jews cannot explain the sorrow of their lives
they take a vow of atheism.
Then everywhere they go,
they curse the God they don’t believe exists.
But why, why don’t they grab Him by the lapels,
pull His formless body down into this lowly world,
and make Him explain.
After all, this is the purpose of creation–
to make this coarse realm a dwelling place
for His presence.
His second volume presents more complex religious imagery, such as his long poem “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah” which depicts the self-consciousness and shame of the men who became Orthodox, but now have to live with their tattoos “It may be easy to want to suppress or stigmatize the whole scene because tattoos are forbidden according to Jewish law, but in the poem I try to take the opposite angle and shine a light on this particular moment as one of great sacrifice and courage. For November, “It’s the human embarrassment that makes their sacrifice so meaningful. And thinking about how God must appreciate their efforts makes Judaism, as a whole, more real and touching for me.”
Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah
Sometimes you see them in the dressing area of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers, until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos of their past life:
a ring of fire climbing up a leg, an eagle whose feathery wing span spreads the width of the chest,
or worse, the scripted name of a woman other than one’s wife.
Then, holding only a towel, they begin, once more, the walk past the others in the dressing room:
the rabbi they will soon sit before in Talmud class,
men with the last names of the first chasidic families
almost everyone, devout since birth.
And with each step, they curse the poverty
that keeps the dark ink etched in their skin,
until, finally, they descend the stairs of the purifying water,
and, beneath the translucent liquid,
appear, once again, like the next man,
who, in all this days, has probably never made a sacrifice as endearing to God.
I also strongly recommend his poem “At the Request of the Organization for Jewish Prisoners” depicting a visit of Chabad rabbinical students to a prison, depicting the tension between their lofty aspirations and the visit of a women in a “tight dress” arriving for a conjugal visit with a prisoner.
Another poem from his second volume captures the tension and sadness of the religious life rather than certainty and even when one is asking for certainty.
Before the Silent Prayer,
some slip the hood of their prayer shawls
over their heads,
so that even among many worshipers
they are alone with God.
Primo Levi wrote about the sadness of
“a cart horse, shut between two shafts
and unable even to look sideways … ”
Let me be like those pious ones
or that horse,
so that, even amidst a crowd,
no other crosses the threshold
of my dreaming.
Watching him read his own poem here and for more about Yehoshua November, I recommend the following three interviews at the Forward,The Jewish Standard and surprisingly Jewish Action had an Hasidic MFA interview him.
1) Which poets influenced you?
When I was younger, in college and high school, I was drawn to the work of Leonard Cohen and other lyrical poets such Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda. For a time, I read Cohen almost exclusively. I loved his lyricism and authoritative, almost prophetic voice. His tropes and sense of consequence are Biblical, but often, the subject matter is secular. I suppose I identified with this duality, having grown up in a traditional home that also prized literature, art, and popular culture. G-d was against the backdrop of everything—a booming voice heard from a distance (and from up close in synagogue and in Torah classes at school), but daily life was lived out playing baseball, watching T.V., and listening to secular music.
Above all, when I was single, I was drawn to Cohen’s poems about love and relationships. In these poems, confounding factors render the relationships impossible, but Cohen often implies a kind of mystical chord continues to connect the two parties despite their parting. After some tough breakups, I suppose these poems spoke to me; they also implied—though it never actually seems to happen in Cohen’s work–a long-term fated love would emerge.
When I married just after college and settled into life’s daily rhythms, Cohen’s complicated love poems and tendency toward chaos did not seem to speak as directly to my predicament. I felt like his poems—and maybe I superimposed this on them—were not about finding meaning in or celebrating ordinary life but were always gesturing toward a kind of modern romanticism—waiting for the next transcendent moment (whether it be spiritual or erotic) or exalting the current one. Ultimately, though his darker or graphic impulses probably go unrepresented in my poems, I’m sure his sense of spiritual longing and insistence on meaning has left a mark on my work.
Also, I read and continue to read my teachers from college and grad school. Often, they attempted to ground me in narrative work and poems that took contemporary details and family history as their props or centerpieces. For instance, when I was an undergrad at SUNY Binghamton, Maria Gillan, the daughter of Italian immigrants, pushed me to write about my family upbringing and culture. In graduate school, Tony Hoagland, a poet whom I was studying under, would tell me I needed to insert a microwave into my poems. Like many young poets, I wanted to be a kind of Universalist, to write poems that would be read throughout the ages and sail beyond the edges of what could be articulated or known. To accomplish this, I believed I needed to avoid the particulars of my specific time period or tradition. Though my work from that era did include Jewish references, they were the sort of allusions that situated the speaker of the poems—figuratively, and sometimes literally—as a figure afloat in Chagall’s village sky—a time and place so distant and lovely it seemed never to have existed at all.
In graduate school, one of my teachers introduced me to the work of the Pulitzer Prize- winning poet Louis Simpson, who was born in the early 1920s, to a Russian Jewish mother and Scottish father. Some of Simpson’s poetry focuses on his Russian ancestry, painting vivid pictures of mundane life in Volhynia and elsewhere. The voice, too, is often conversational. I think reading these Simpson poems helped shift my focus from lyrical poetry to work that tells a story and isn’t necessarily trying to dazzle the reader via language.
In recent years, I’ve been reading Sharon Olds, a well-known American poet, whose most recent book, Stag’s Leap, heartbreakingly chronicles the end of her 30 year marriage. Her narrative, confessional slant makes her work accessible and compelling to my students in Intro to Creative Writing, many of whom take the class to fulfill a requirement.
2) Are there non-Jewish spiritual poets that influence you?
For a long time now, I’ve been reading the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, (born Lvov, Poland, 1945), and became an important member of “The New Wave’” of Polish poets in the late 1960s. His work is often more abstract than mine, but I am drawn to how he combines the mysterious with the particulars of history, philosophy, and European culture. And his most recent book often touches on his childhood and his parents.
I’d have to consider Zagajewski the poet I return to most often. I first heard him read in Pittsburgh, when I was in grad school. A few years ago, he came to Rutgers for a reading, and I met him and gave him my first book. He’s a very humble and generous man, despite being one of the giants of contemporary poetry. I often share his work with my students, and, through email, he’s answered questions I’ve had about his poems.
I also like the poetry of Marie Howe, former Poet Laureate of New York State. Her work blends the mundane and spiritual in surprising ways, and her language is precise and elegant but also plain-spoken, especially in her collection What the Living Do. Though I don’t think she considers herself a believer, she grew up in a very large Catholic family, and New Testament allusions are present in much of her work. I’d say Zagajewski and Howe are spiritual poets. I also admire the work of Li-Young Lee, a poet born in Indonesia, in 1957, to Chinese political exiles. Though initially a physician, Lee’s father later became a Presbyterian minister when he relocated his family to America. Much of Lee’s work describes his childhood and his father’s influence on his life.
And I’m in touch with two other Orthodox Jewish poets, David Caplan and Eve Grubin, whose poetry I read often. David Caplan, who’s also a poetry scholar, was instrumental in helping me shape Two Worlds Exist. As a poet familiar with Chassidic thought, he has been an amazing resource for me, providing suggestions both in terms of craft and content, especially when questions concerning incorporation of difficult Chassidic concepts came up in the book.
3) How are you/we living in two worlds? How does that influence your poetry?
Chabad speaks of two simultaneous realities, referred to as the Hidden World (Alma Daiskasya) and the Revealed World (Alma Daisgalya). In a sense, the Hidden World corresponds to the spiritual realities which I discuss at greater length below. Chassidic thought compares the Hidden World to the life forms that exist in the sea, covered over by water. Sea life is, generally, so dependent on its life source—water—it could be said to have no separate sense of selfhood. So too, the spiritual realities remain bathed in so much Divine light—their source—that they do not experience themselves as Other, as separate from G-d.
In contrast, the Revealed world is the reality we see, physical life as we experience it. Here, we stand out as independent from our source; we perceive ourselves as separate from G-d. Not covered over by or swallowed in Divine light, we are revealed. However, the Jewish mystical tradition posits that this perception is inaccurate: it argues that, at each moment, G-d re-speaks all of creation, including our physical world, back into existence. Just as He did at the beginning of time. Divine speech is embedded in and constantly revivifies the Revealed World, which mistakenly takes its tentative existence as autonomous.
It is, of course, one thing to be familiar with the idea that the Divine resides beneath the physical curtain of the world. It is another to remember this as one goes through daily life. And it’s especially difficult to believe in when one suffers or feels he or she is trying to do what’s right but failing. You might say much of the poetry in my new collection moves back and forth in motion with the tug-of-war between the mystical claim of Divine unity underlying our days and the world’s surface appearance of randomness.
In a less spiritual sense, teaching in university and trying to live as a Chassid obviously entails a life in two worlds as well. Before I left yeshiva and returned to academia, I happened to meet Professor Yitzchok Bloch, a Chabad Chassid and philosophy professor. At one point, much to the approval of the yeshiva faculty and his Lubavitch peers, Bloch attempted to abandon his graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard to learn in yeshiva in Crown Heights. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent him back to Harvard. Looking back on his career, Bloch said, in a sense, he always felt misunderstood in academia because Chassidic culture was foreign to his colleagues, but he also felt misunderstood in the Chassidic community because very few understood what his work as a philosophy professor entailed. Sometimes I, too, feel I have fallen into the gap between two worlds, but there is also a strong sense that my Chassidic life significantly enriches my poetry, and that my poetry provides a space for me to process my efforts to live as a Chassid. In this sense, the two worlds pleasantly overlap. Also, that my rabbis pushed me to return to poetry helped me see Judaism as much more expansive and encompassing than I had imagined it to be earlier in my life.
4) How does Chassidus speak to you?
Chassidus emphasizes physical life, or at least combining the physical and spiritual. I think this kind of world-embracing theology is healthy and comprehensive. It addresses the conditions of life in a body and explains Judaism’s non-ascetic leanings (marriage, physical commandments, etc). I always felt somewhat alienated from the thinking that Judaism is all about getting a reward in the afterlife. It sounded kind of like a video game, a philosophy that doesn’t speak to the here and now; it also seemed to breed a holier-than-thou mentality. It was refreshing to learn that kind of thinking was at odds with Chassidus.
Some of the points I note below concerning Essence and Revelation relate to this. According to Chassidus, the afterlife falls into the Revelation category; it involves experiencing G-d as He “suits up” into a spiritual persona: In the afterlife, souls experience luminous lessons in hands-on mysticism. In this life, we have G-d’s Essence. According to Chassidus, this explains why the deceased envy the living and their ability to do mitzvot, G-d’s commandments, which can be performed only in this world.
I’m also moved by the Chassidic emphasis on our unconditional connection to G-d. According to Chassidus, to live and feel this connection, and to fulfill our purpose of sanctifying the mundane, we must adhere to tradition. But even when we abandon tradition–and, therefore, tarnish the outer layers of our connection—Chassidic thought posits that an unconditional, deeper bond with G-d remains undiminished.
5) How does Chassidus help your imagery?
I think my studies in Chassidus–in which I encounter mystical images, terminology, and conceptual frameworks–add another layer to my work. It infuses my poems with a kind of tension or binary, as I mentioned earlier. After I sent my new book to the poet Tony Hoagland, he wrote me a postcard in which he describes this tension quite well. As he puts it, the book demonstrates a “simultaneous allegiance…to traditional spirituality and the difficulties and paradoxes of contemporary life; the poems insistently bring scriptural idealism into contact with realism, and they seem to insist that we cannot live the one without the paradoxical, sometimes contradictory, presence of the other.”
I think the juxtaposition of these two types of images represents an attempt to hold the teachings I’m studying up against the life I’m actually living. Perhaps it’s an attempt to blend the theoretical with the actual. I want these teachings to speak to me; poetry can serve as the bridge between study and the life that is lived when the books are closed.
6) How do you understand and apply the Chassidic idea of the divine dwelling below (dirah bathahtonim)?
Dirah Btachtonim is the Midrashic principle that G-d desires “a dwelling place in the lowest realm.” Chabad Chassidus understands this to mean G-d created all of existence, the higher worlds and this physical one, because He desires “to be present” in our physical world. The home “or dwelling place” metaphor implies Essence, for, in one’s home, one behaves as he or she truly is. And G-d is His “true self” here in our world. (I elaborate on this a bit later, in discussing Essence and Revelation).
In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe suggests that when the Midrash states G-d wants to dwell in the lowest realm, it means we—as G-d’s ambassadors—are charged with spiritualizing material existence by employing it in the service of G-d. The Alter Rebbe adds that G-d wants to dwell in “the lowest of the low.” In other words, in our doubts, darkest moments, greatest failings—those conditions basic to the life of a soul in a body. Somehow, we must redeem and elevate these experiences. We must infuse them with the Divine.
Similarly, poetry tends to provide unflinching renderings of life’s difficulties as they are. Not as a prayer for salvation. Rather, as an assertion that the imperfect has a kind of perfection to it. Holiness filtered through the messy human experience. This appears to be a theme contemporary poetry and the Dirah Btachtonim theology share. I would venture to say this thinking informed–inspired me to publish–some of the very personal, sadder poems in my second collection.
Furthermore, inviting struggles and imperfections into my work provides me—and hopefully my readers—with the potential to see Judaism as more real, as something that speaks to us in our flawed human context. And reciprocally, tension, struggle, and conflict make for meaningful art. “Light that comes out of darkness” is a term used in Chassidus but is also a good description of the moment in many poems when the speaker finds redemption through or in a conflict rather than via transcending or negating it.
7) Which Hasidic works do you still study? Why?
I try to study Chassidus every day. Each morning, before prayers, I learn with a few friends. We tend to focus on the discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which represent the most fleshed out last link in the evolution of Dirah Bitachtonim theology.
For me, at least, the Rebbe’s discourses speak most directly to our condition. So often, even as they highlight the imperative of Torah study and prayer, his teachings emphasize that an equal—or greater—connection to G-d is possible outside the synagogue, in living our mundane lives with Divine purpose. Of all the Chabad Rebbeim, he seems to have spent the most time with his Chassidim, explaining Chassidus and Dirah Bitachtonim in direct and accessible language. The 39 volumes of Likkutei Sichot record some of his many talks. It would be interesting to delve into other Chassidus as well, but the Chabad body of work is so vast, unified, and sequential, I feel there isn’t enough time to do it justice.
8) What is your distinction between revelation and essence?
In simplest terms, Essence, or Atzmut, refers to G-d as He exists unto Himself, beyond all definitions, parameters, or categorizations. Here, even the terms “infinite” or “spiritual” prove inadequate in that G-d transcends equally the physical and spiritual, the finite and infinite.
(Often Chabad Chassidus takes this logic to its extreme, suggesting that G-d’s engagement within our finite frame reflects His true unlimitedness, His transcendence of infinity. As one discourse puts it, certainly, “G-d is higher than nature,” but He is also “higher than higher than nature.” He is not locked in transcendence).
As noted, Essence refers to G-d as He exists beyond all limitations. Thus, an act that combines two opposites—such as a union between physicality and spirituality—bears the mark of G-d’s Essence. For, only G-d’s Essence, which remains locked in neither the limitations of physicality or spirituality, can unify the two opposites. Chassidus points to the performance of a mitzvah, a Divine command, as an example of this kind of Essence phenomenon: When the command is performed, a Divine light flows down from above, leaving the physical object used in the act infused with holiness.
Ultimately, Essence breaks all categories. It combines opposites and complicates all definitions.
In contrast, the term revelation (giloyim)refers to how G-d expresses Himself according to the makeup of His audience, how He packages Himself and manifests, especially in the higher, spiritual worlds. Each of these worlds receives a different measure of revelation according to its capacity to hold light. This is G-d not as He is unto Himself, but G-d acting within the spiritual parameters and expectations of the particular environment. In the upper worlds, revelation (knowledge of G-d) is the defining characteristic; it’s the weather up there.
However, according to Chassidic thought, this physical world is the realm most closely linked to G-d’s Essence. As noted, only Essence can balance opposites, physical and spiritual, and this Essence paradox occurs solely in our physical realm.
In addition, G-d’s Essence is unknowable and unchanging. And these two qualities characterize G-d’s presence in our world. In contrast, His behavior in the higher realms is marked by change (diminishment of light from one spiritual world to the next) and revelation, non-Essence qualities.
In this world, we experience no gradations in the magnitude of light—usually, we experience no light at all—because, here, G-d is simply being His unchanging and unknowable self. In this physical life, we may suffer a lack of spiritual revelation, but in the un-heavenly, ordinary moment, G-d’s Essence is most accessible.
Interestingly, when a miracle occurs, and G-d reveals Himself to us, the Essence dynamic recedes into the background, and this world takes on the status of the worlds of revelation. G-d pervades all of creation, of course. However, it was from a space higher than and prior to creation–from within His Essence—that G-d desired a home in the lowest realm. (The upper worlds largely serve as a sort of ladder leading down to this lowest point). And so our physical world bears traces of and is more deeply rooted in Essence than are the higher realms. As the ancient mystical work Sefer Yetzirah puts it, “The beginning is wedged in the end.”
9) How does this distinction of essence and revelation apply to poetry?
I think this theology, which points decidedly earthward, aligns with many of the impulses behind contemporary poetry, and certainly with my own work. One might say an absence of spirituality characterizes much of contemporary poetry because many of today’s poets eschew religion; at the same time, contemporary poets do, quite often, attribute a kind of luminescence to—they shine an intense light on—ordinary experience, insisting it has something to teach us. Perhaps, in some sort of secular way, this parallels the mitzvah dynamic noted above—where spiritual and ordinary conjoin. Indeed, locating transcendence or light in the mundane appears to be a chief ambition of many contemporary poets. Just look at the lines of praise on the back of any recent volume of poetry. Or perhaps contemporary poetry’s emphasis on the ordinary, the non-illuminated, as opposed to the transcendent, reflects a kind of Essence instinct.
Though I can’t say I’m always conscious of it, knowledge of the Essence/Revelation dialectic probably informs my work and may distinguish my poetry from that of other spiritual poets, especially Jewish ones. Here, I’m thinking, for example, of the spiritual work featured in journals of contemporary Jewish poetry, such as Poetica. To me, it seems many Jewish spiritual poets reach upward toward infinity and transcendence–the realm of revelations, you might say—and their language, correspondingly, tends toward musicality and abstraction. In contrast, my language may come across as plain spoken and hint at or reference a Divine presence behind the details of daily life.
Often, those unfamiliar with my poetry assume it will read like prayers, calling out to G-d above. They are surprised to find the poems usually entail human narratives locating or struggling with G-d below.
10) How does your spiritual vision of two worlds exist against the backdrop of very non-Hasidic Modern Orthodox Teaneck?
Based on what I have experienced, the Modern Orthodox synagogues here have been very warm; a number of them have invited me to give readings or talks. I have many wonderful neighbors in Teaneck who are supportive of my poetry and interested in discussing Chassidus. I’d say Chabad and Modern Orthodox overlap in several key areas. Both believe in the authenticity of the Oral and Written Torah, and both demonstrate a level of openness toward the larger world. For a Chabad Chassid, this openness is likely an outgrowth of the Dirah Bitachtonim ideology, which posits that the sanctification of the mundane—and in some cases the secular—is the purpose of creation.
If anything, living in Teaneck has forced me to question and own my identity as a Chabad Chassid. No one is expecting me to uphold Chabad customs or to learn Chassidus here, so I need to rely on my own initiative. Also, I teach Chassidus classes at the Chabad House. In this role, I’ve had the opportunity to deepen and clarify my understanding of Chassidus in a way that I had not experienced when I lived in Morristown, a Chabad yeshiva community.
11) How do you relate/respond to the deep atheism and anger at God within contemporary Jewish literary circles?
Concerning my first book, a reviewer in the Reform Jewish Quarterly wrote that the poetry was that of an innocent individual yet to encounter many of life’s struggles. We’ll have to see what happens as November ages. I understand where the reviewer was coming from, and I think my second book does more to engage with some of the darkness (but not anger) you mention, especially the title poem.
I think people deal with their doubts and difficulties in different ways. When G-d/the world does something terrible to me, I’m more overwhelmed and speechless than I am angry. That said, I don’t think that, today, I could write the way I did in my first book. I think my new collection doesn’t answer questions or give advice—it simply asks questions and shares experiences.
When I was younger and first getting into Chassidc life, I did feel somewhat disappointed by the agnosticism that characterized the contemporary Jewish literary scene (and larger literary culture, for that matter), but this was probably because, at that time, I was diving headlong into a new lifestyle and, seemingly, cutting my ties with the old one: after I finished my M.F.A. in poetry, I enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva in N.J. and didn’t concern myself with poetry for a few years. Like most of us, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized life is more complex; so many of us shoulder complicated histories.
Yet, secular contemporary poets have a lot to teach us about living with deeper consciousness. So often, they point out what others tend to overlook. A poem in Two Worlds Exist, “Contemporary Poets,” touches on this. Habituation—boredom with familiar life—may be one of the greatest sources of displeasure today. Poetry’s celebration of ordinary individuals and quotidian experiences can re-center us to a more appreciative sensibility.
As I’ve noted, I see some important points of overlap between Chassidus and poetry, even while many poets are atheists. And ultimately, it was my rabbis and Chassidic thought that compelled me to choose a career as a poet and not a rabbi. If anything, attempting to live as a Chasid and a poet in the larger world has enriched my life as a Jew and a writer, making both more meaningful and erasing, in a sense, the secular/Divine divide I felt throughout my college and grads school years.