Wednesday 12 January 2011

Seventy Faces

Until a few years ago, despite having studied poetry in English, Latin, French and Spanish when young, and despite being a life-long voracious reader, I’d never really read poetry for pleasure. Then I found the Internet, found blogs and found the poets - along with the other writers, the artists, the photographers - in the blogging community and began to read their work, published one poem at a time, fresh from their minds or fished from old notebooks. Now I read poetry quite a lot and by no means mostly on line, and I think its place in my reading, in my life, will continue to grow.

One of the poets I discovered on the Internet when I arrived here six or seven years ago was Rachel Barenblat, who blogs at Velveteen Rabbi, a wonderfully talented, committed, prolific poet of great sophistication, but always accessible. In the year following her son’s birth in 2009, every week Rachel blogged a new poem about her experience of motherhood. I read them voraciously, never less than awed, moved and enchanted by their emotional immediacy, formal skill and variety. The ‘mother poems' can be read, in reverse chronological order, here. What a collection this is – what a book it will be!

But no need to wait for that. She has a new, full-length collection out now. 70 Faces: Torah Poems has just been published to coincide with her ordination as a Jewish Renewal rabbi. This is a hugely accomplished work that resounds with the cadences of ancient scripture, of historical English-language forms and of modern poetry with all its playing in and out of form. Written from the heart of faith and study, the poems reach out from a deeply informed and deeply felt specificity to the widest of audiences. Steeped in tradition and scholarship, she is in every moment a sophisticated and challenging writer, woman, mother and rabbi for today.

Here are characters and landscapes of old, familiar stories from the books of Moses retold, repainted in startlingly vivid thoughts and images - the flood wreaked by a God with post-partum depression, the investigation and conjuring of the often absent woman's perspective, the rueful wondering how these stories might have been less harsh and vengeful, how their harshness might serve now as a lesson in compassion.

And so the old stories come right into the texture of our own lives. I find here, in the lyrical re-telling and addressing of these new-old stories, a bitter-sweet, compassionate, entirely pertinent depiction of the continuing human compulsions to violence, competition, authoritarianism, lashing out and masochism - all those impulses that persist and horribly distort what might have been the blessings of prosperity and technology. 
This poem is old-fashioned. This poem
is being written right this second,
each breath a new letter on the unrolling page.
I love this book. It is sure to grip readers, from many religious traditions and none, who yearn, in these speeding, drifting times of ours, for a way into ancient and enduring songs and stories.

70 Faces: Torah Poems is published by Phoenicia Publishing of Montreal. Their website, where the book can be ordered, includes a preview of some of the poems and an audio recording of the poet reading.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful review, Jean.

Beth said...

Thank you so much, Jean!

rbarenblat said...

Oh, Jean, thank you so much for this review. I am deeply moved. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Jean said...

Rachel, you know it comes from my heart, don't you? I've been trying to write more book reviews recently and learn to write them better. But I'm quite incapable of enthusing about a book unless I truly mean every word of it. And I do, I do!

marja-leena said...

Beautiful review. You are such an excellent writer, Jean!