Yeshiva Boys: Poems
By David Lehman
Scribner, 112 pages
William Blake never sounded so much like a Yiddish proverb as when he wrote that “excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.” It certainly seems true in the case of David Lehman’s Yeshiva Boys, which weaves together the poet’s customary excesses with the excesses of the 20th century, ransacking history, literature, and his memory for a “usable past” that often turns to tragicomedy.
Lehman is perhaps best known as the series editor of The Best American Poetry, but he has had a long and varied career, as a poet, professor (at the New School), and prose writer. He comes both to bury (Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man) and to praise (The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets), and he does it all with energy and verve. For much of his career, he has been nibbling around the edges of the subject of the Jews in America, and in 2009 he finally chomped down, hard, releasing both a nonfiction book on American Jewish songwriters and Yeshiva Boys, a collection of his most personal and probing poems to date.
From an epilogue in the voice of the poet’s mother, a Holocaust refugee (as was the poet’s father), to lyric narratives that follow Lehman’s journey from yeshiva shtenders to the steps of Columbia’s Low Library and beyond, Yeshiva Boys is situated in a very real world. Lehman often takes the tone of a hip reporter eavesdropping on the parties, affairs, and prayers of those around him. The concerns that Lehman tackles are often those of context: Does faith have a role in modern life? What role do memory and ancestry play in religion? How far can comedy go toward lessening the pain of a post-Holocaust landscape?
Lehman likes to disorient his reader, context-hopping or casting cultural figures as his yeshiva teachers and classmates:
“It’s Heidegger’s fault,” he said, and would have said more if not for the laughter that broke out from the back row of Rabbi Kafka’s class.
One boy stood up. He said his name was Philip Roth and his fly was open.
“It’s Rabbi Kafka’s fault,” he said.
In the same vein, Lehman uses -liturgical echoes to underscore purely secular phenomena (“How beautiful to me are the red fire escapes of my youth./?How goodly to me are the tents of morning housing the tenants of dry seasons in books read and read again until mastered in old age by tigers who crouch at the edge of the jungle ready to pounce”) and a kind of self-annotating, anagrammatic textual method that would be at home in the halls of a yeshiva. “For ‘scared,’ read ‘sacred,’” we are instructed in “Days of Penitence and Awe,” which reminds us of Talmud Tractate Berakhot 64a, commenting on Isaiah 54:13: “Do not read ‘your sons’ (banayich) but rather ‘your builders’ (bonayich).” Some of this signposting on the author’s part can be a bit overbearing. It’s hard to be a subtle clown, but it should be admitted that anyone aiming to clarify rather than obscure is a credit to contemporary poetry.
Lehman is our best academic wag since John Hollander or, more to the point of his concerns, John Berryman. He is as good with allusive treasures like “Some mute inglorious Milton/Against windmills did go tilting” as he is sending up course titles and named professorships: “The course you most want to take in college,/‘Romanticism from Rousseau to Hitler’”; “Man is the Arthur Dimmesdale Professor of Serial Adultery who writes a boring book on The Scarlet Letter and dedicates it to his wife.” His wit is barbed, sometimes even rebarbative, but more often searching and honest. A hungry poet daydreams at the window: “Could there be lunch after Auschwitz?” “It’s still?/?Nietzsche versus nurture,” another sums up. Four sestinas (one of Lehman’s favorite forms—When a Woman Loves a Man, his previous collection, has seven) testify to his verbal dexterity, as do titles like “On Purpose” (that is, intentionally, as well as on intentionality).
Witticisms are well and good, but sometimes in his comedy -Lehman is callow rather than caustic. The poet has a Janus-face, and readers familiar with Lehman the esteemed writer and editor at first may think they’ve misread lines like “A thong of beauty is a joy forever.” Too often these jeux d’esprit seem to have been thought up in a 10th-grade English class, and given that Lehman claims to have written these poems over a period of decades, they really might have been.
There is another problem presented by the decades-long composition period of the book: some of the material seems recycled from earlier work. “Sometimes?/?I think the most potent word/in English is ‘Jew,’” Lehman writes here. In When a Woman Loves a Man, he wrote: “That’s it, the one irreducible word in the language: Jew.” Very well then, he contains singularities. But the reader is not happy to be fed the dregs and dross of previous compositional efforts, and it’s sometimes a little too easy to suspect that of being the case.
So Yeshiva Boys is not a “good” book. It’s a book that is at times excellent and at times conspicuously bad, but always unfailingly interesting, thanks to Lehman’s excess of energy and thoughtfulness.
When I say that Lehman loves excess, it’s not to imply that he’s out of control. Excess is not necessarily mania, and Lehman has a particular gift for the long, sustained sequence, both within a single poem (as in “Mythologies” in 1990’s Operation Memory) and across a series of poems (as in “Valentine Place” in 1996’s –Valentine Place). “Yeshiva Boys,” the title poem and beating heart of the book, is -Lehman’s most ambitious and successful long poem yet, a 15-page meditation on past and present, taking us from the Ten Plagues to the ghettos to postwar New York, with Kant and Socrates, Shakespeare and Rushdie, along for the ride. The 20th century is treated as a classroom, and the speaker tries to solve moral problems the way the yeshiva bokhurim solve their textbook equations:
I was not deceived. I knew my future lay elsewhere
and I let it come rushing at me as an unsuspecting motorist
lets the landscape advance, who sits behind the wheel
of a vehicle that would explode upon impact
with another if both were traveling at sixty-five miles per hour,
going in opposite directions, having left home at the same time.
More severe and more stunning than any poem in recent memory, -“Yeshiva Boys” is well worth the -effort of reading this book on its own and will stand as one of the hallmarks of Lehman’s career. –Yeshiva Boys travels the road of excess. It leads to the place Blake told us it would.