Two Journal writers shine, in poetry and prose

Readers of the Jewish Journal already know the work of Carol V. Davis, our poetry editor, and Tom Teicholz, author of the long-running “Tommywood” column. Now we can read the literary efforts of Davis and Teicholz between the covers of two newly published books, each one notable for the light it casts on their work.

“Being There: Journalism 1978-2000” by Teicholz (Rare Bird Books) is a collection of his essays and profiles, appropriately described by its publisher as “like the best dinner party you never went to.” We eavesdrop on Teicholz in conversation with movers and shakers ranging from rock impresario Bill Graham to financier Baron Guy de Rothschild, from junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist Michael Milken to Nobelist and Yiddishist Isaac Bashevis Singer, and even novelist Jerzy Kosinski, author of the novel that shares a title with Teicholz’s book. Many of these pieces first appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, but the anthology is leavened with a few previously unpublished pieces.

As we discover in the autobiographical preface to “Being There,” the title is the key to understanding Teicholz’s writing career as well as the principle of selection that produced the book itself. He describes how he made the scene with the literati and glitterati of Manhattan starting in the mid-1970s, a who’s who of artists, writers and celebrities of every stripe: “Being there was a case of right place, right time,” he explains. “Journalism was a way in — to people, places, experiences as much reason as excuse always to be learning.”

Teicholz displays all of his characteristic wit and insight. He dubbed Singer “the Yiddish Yoga,” for example, and reports that Kosinski thought Peter Sellers was too old for the role he played so memorably in the movie version of “Being There,” but reconciled himself to the casting decision because Sellers “underwent plastic surgery for the role.” Some of Teicholz’s most sustained and important journalism, by contrast, focuses on aspects and echoes of the Holocaust, including an article about the protest against Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, where SS troops are among the buried, and the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk in Israel.

Teicholz, who is a producer as well as a journalist (and, by the way, an attorney), has an eye for the telling detail and the revealing word, as he demonstrates in “The Trial of John Damjanjuk,” which was first published in the Forward in 1990.

“There had been talk that Demjanjuk would sit in Adolf Eichmann’s bulletproof glass booth, but security officials decided against that precaution,” he writes. “Wearing a brown suit, he had adopted Israeli custom and wore no tie, just an open shirt. … Demjanjuk raised his arm in what some feared would be a salute but turned out to be a gentle wave of his hand. He shouted in his deep voice, ‘Boker tov’ — Hebrew for ‘good morning’ — and then, ‘Hello, Cleveland,’ to the TV cameras.”

Davis’ work for the Jewish Journal consists of curating the poetry of others, but her book “Because I Cannot Leave This Body” (New Odyssey Series/Truman State University Press) is a showcase for her own verse, both exquisite and powerful. Perhaps the best way to signal the extraordinary scope of her work is to note that the new collection includes a glossary with definitions ranging from “Hamsa” to “Kufi” to “Tzitzit.” Equally significant is the fact that an earlier book of her poetry, “It’s Time to Talk About” was published in Russia, which Davis twice visited as a Fulbright scholar, in an English-Russian edition.

Poetry criticism requires a vocabulary that is often intelligible only to other poets, but I think it is both useful and accurate to say that the poems in Davis’ new collection are blessedly accessible to the general reader, always lucid and affecting. Her eye travels from the flawed beauty of a coneflower to the blackbirds on the Nebraska prairie to the long shadows of Vietnam and Jonestown. Sometimes she will share a golden memory of childhood, as in the poem titled “Dare,” and then confront us with the fate that befell one childhood friend who served in Vietnam and another whose mother took him to the Jonestown commune — and yet the hard truth does not overmaster the delicacy of her verse.

Her eye falls on mundane sights but her mind conjures up mystery and mayhem. The title of a poem about a beauty supply store on Pico Boulevard is “Money Laundering,” for example, and the title of a poem about life’s trivial annoyances is “Contemplating Murder.”

Yet she is just as capable of soaring into the sublime, as in the poem “Because,” which describes a visit to a Russian monastery in the Pushkin Hills:

Because I cannot leave this body
I dream I am flying
The air splits subdivides
Splinters into layers of grey and worn lavender

* * *

Because I cannot leave this body
I climb a circular staircase to the bell tower.

A line from “Because” gives the collection its title, a fitting reference because her words take flight in one poem after another, and Davis invites us to fly with her.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.