Poet ponders what transpired after photographer’s shutter clicked

The 1913 photograph by August Sander on the cover of Adam Kirsch’s third book of poetry, “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press), shows two young women in high-necked blouses gazing at the camera over cups of morning coffee. One sits back, possibly suspicious of the photographer. The other, certainly the wilder of the two, leans her head on her hand, looking both bored and defiant. They are, according to Sander, “Small Town Women.” 

In Kirsch’s poem of the same name, when he writes about the two:

“In this small parlor where the window’s shut

Airtight and only beams of light convey

News of the world beyond the haven that

They are condemned to occupy all day”

–the news beyond this room is the approach of what will become known as the first world war. 

The women are in Germany, probably near Cologne, the home base of the photographer, who is also German. The photo is early work from what some see as a particularly German project, called “Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts” (“People of the 20th Century”), which Sander intended to be a comprehensive documentation of the German population, classified by social “type.” One thousand eight hundred of these portraits, made mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, survive. 

In 2004, Kirsch encountered 150 of them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and began to imagine a project of poems about them. The pictures of ordinary German people surrounded by the emblems and implements of their everyday work lives, he says, “made the warp of history visible.”

Kirsch’s poems take the pictures’ subjects into the complex and troubled world that came after Sander’s shutter snapped. A baby in his flowered gown grows up to die in battle. A young butcher dresses up to have his picture taken, even

“Though in the closet hangs an apron flecked

With bits of brain beside rubber boots

Stained bloody brown from wading through the slick

That by the end of every workday coats

The killing floor he stands on.”  

(“The Butcher’s Apprentice,” 1911-14.) 

Kirsch is a poet and literary critic from a family of literary journalists (his father, Jonathan Kirsch, is an author and the Jewish Journal’s book editor and critic, and his grandfather, Robert, was an editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review). Until recently, Adam Kirsch was a senior editor at the New Republic. Currently, he oversees a graduate program in Jewish studies at Columbia University, and, among his many responsibilities, he writes a weekly column for Tablet on studying Talmud. 

He spoke by phone from Berkeley, where he was preparing to give a talk on Jewish literature. After a technological glitch, when the audio recording of his conversation with the Journal vanished, Kirsch graciously agreed to write responses to the same questions. 

Jewish Journal: Some reviewers talk about the poems bringing the people in the pictures to life. Is that what you are doing here? How would you describe the relationship between the poems and the individuals in the photographs?

Adam Kirsch: Often I am thinking about what the future of these people’s lives would have been like. Because these photos were mostly taken in the 1920s and 1930s, there is a huge historical shadow looming over them, and it’s impossible to see these people without wondering what kind of role they would play in Nazi Germany and the second world war. With other photos, I’m reflecting on the kind of life that creates the person we are seeing — whether it is a beggar, as in “Match-seller,” or the contented middle-class women who are on the cover.

JJ: In our phone conversation, you talked about looking for humanity in the face of the enemy. You’re not just looking back in time but looking back at Germans as a Jew. How do you see the relationship between German history and these poems? 

AK: For me, the Holocaust is a constant subtext of the poems. The people in the photos are, broadly speaking, “the perpetrators.” However, by seeing them in these pictures as individuals, you begin to wonder about the connection between an individual and a mass phenomenon like Nazism, and about what culpability these specific people bear for what is about to happen. Some of them will be monsters, other bystanders; some might even have been dissidents. Is history something we create, or something that happens to us? At the same time, I chose not to write about Sander’s photos of actual Nazis in their uniforms because I didn’t feel up to addressing such people head-on in poetry.

JJ: The formal, carefully constructed poems in “Emblems” seem well matched to Sander’s portraits, which are are almost stark in their directness, but also intriguing. In your introduction to the poems, you write about this duality: “Nothing human can be so static. Inside the social function … inside the clothes and accoutrements … there is the face. “ The book consists of 46 photographs matched with 46 poems. How did you choose which of the pictures to write about? 

AK: I didn’t have a rule of thumb about which pictures to use; I looked through the catalog (which is massive, with about 600 photos) and waited to see if an idea or a possible approach came to me. I was looking for photos that gave rise to a further story or idea, where I felt that I could add something to the image.

JJ: How did you use the pictures while you were writing? 

AK: After studying the photo, I seldom went back to it while writing the poem; I didn’t want to actually describe the picture closely, but to take it as inspiration for something new. 

JJ: You said some didn’t work out. Looking back, do you have thoughts about why? Was any part of the project particularly a struggle? 

AK: Sometimes there were poems I couldn’t bring together, or that once finished struck me as not interesting enough. I don’t think I could name a common theme, though. … I had no certainty while I was writing that I would actually be able to publish a book with the photos — I was extremely fortunate that Other Press wanted to commit to producing this kind of a book, and that the August Sander Archive was willing to work with us to make it happen.

JJ: Your poems are interested in the question of how others see us and what of us can be seen. You talked about issues of complicity and what we 21st-century Americans might be seen as complicit in, viewed 50 years from now. How aware do you feel the people in the photographs are of their place in history? 

AK: One thing these photos show, for me, is how much of fate is out of our hands, a matter of chronology and demography. In a photo of a baby boy born in 1920, you know that he will grow up to be in the Hitler Youth and to fight in the German army during World War II — maybe much worse. Yet, of course, he didn’t choose to be born in that time and place; his fate was generational. Sander’s photos raise the dilemma of how we feel free, in our individual lives, yet [which] are actually determined to a great extent by history and circumstance. That conflict is one of the themes of the poems.

Poem: Jewish Holiday Tattoos

The blue dove on my wrist — shadow of wing
with an olive branch floating above:

from the last night of Chanukah, when we used
Jewish Holiday Tattoos to mark each other with
flags of Israel, six-pointed stars, arks, torahs.
They were funny, we thought, as we sat down
to latkes and applesauce, to red cabbage and blintzes,
and by menorah light compared our wrists.
But, suddenly, gooseflesh. Jewish tattoos?
Sacrilege? Or a measure
of how far we’d come — able to live where
a tattoo was just an ornament,

one that would wash off, leaving only
a faint-green branch borne by a dove of hope.

Susan Terris is the author of “Ghost of Yesterday, New & Selected Poems” (Marsh Hawk Press, 2013). She’s also the editor of Spillway Magazine and a poetry editor for Pedestal

Poem: Terezin

With my hair soot red
as coals above my grandfather’s bones,
buried near the poems of Desnos,
I hurried through the Gate of Death,
up the gallows’ knoll,
the executioner’s chiseled wall,
to see the Ohre’s shores rivering out
to wag the Elbe’s long tail,
and hurried through the tunneled mounds
down again to hell,
past the fire’s wind lash
of oven grates to holding cells
where brush wire and Jewish arms
in tubs of creosol
scrubbed all brains of the mind’s eternal no.
In their bones the earth’s push-step
the Aryan angel denied, moved me
to doubt in a changing world,
that all things, including stone, began
from one single Godly loss of breath.
On the slab at Terezin, in the “Lords House,”
I climbed to bed, cold as heaven,
and played dead.

This poem appeared in “The Hunger Wall” (Grove/Atlantic Press).

James Ragan is the author of eight books of poetry. For 25 years he taught as director of the USC Professional Writing Program and is currently distinguished visiting professor of poetry at Charles University in Prague.

Poem: On Her Deathbed, Bessie Beckoned My Mother Close

Once, a pocket was not attached to a woman’s clothing,
but tied around
her waist with a string or tape.

It would contain cellar keys, a paper of pins, a packet of seeds, a baby’s bib,
a hank of yarn or a Testament.

Or enough money to be buried,
so she would not burden her family.

Published in “5AM,” Spring 2006

Patty Seyburn has published four books of poems. Her most recent is “Perfecta” (What Books Press, 2014). She is an associate professor at CSU Long Beach.

Poem: Ocean Parkway at Night

Rabbis feed pastrami to their worries.
A truck’s horn won’t stop carping.
Pale kiosk lights refuse death.
Houses choke together
without lawns. Avenues tangle
without reason, and the elevated
bowels of the subway drip
sparks on an underworld of streets,
where station wagons cut
without warning, forcing squirrels
to hide themselves, murmuring,
in gutters, but the rats never stop
looking for food, and since
my Grandma Shisel cooks here
no longer, I must part the coarse
surf of Ocean Parkway,
wise as my father
before me.

Baruch November is the author of “Dry Nectars of Plenty,” which co-won Big City Lit’s Poetry Chapbook contest. He founded an organization to cultivate the arts called Jewish Advocacy for Culture & Knowledge, and teaches creative writing and literature at Touro College in New York.

Poem: Ritual

Is it for our smiling faces
that she gets up at seven on Fridays to put an apron on
and stand in front of a hot stove, even in the summer heat
when the air conditioner’s not working well, even when
her ankle is swollen and her medicine is making her throat dry
and her body tired?
Is it for the kisses planted on both her cheeks
that she cooks a feast every week for fifteen people?
pot roast and carrots, chicken, salmon, eggplants,
and special vegetarian dishes for her oldest granddaughter.
Is it the ritual she loves? — setting wine and challah on a white cloth
so her children, some married, some with children of their own,
can come stand around her table and listen in silence
as one of her sons reads Kiddush.
Or are these the gestures of a woman who gives without thinking?
whose fingers turn a beet into a delicacy,
whose hands find pleasure in onions, parsley, and garlic cloves.

Lori Levy is the author of “In the Mood for Orange,” published in Israel in a bilingual English/Hebrew edition. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in the United States, England and Israel.

Janice Silverman Rebibo, American-born Israeli poet, dies at 65

Janice Silverman Rebibo, an acclaimed American-born Israeli poet, has died.

Rebibo, of Brookline, Mass., and Rehovot, Israel, died on March 11 following a yearlong battle with cancer. She was 65.

She was known for her bold, vivid and often humorous poetic voice in English and Hebrew.

Over many decades, Rebibo was widely published in Israeli newspapers and literary journals, and authored many books of poetry, including the 2014 English collection “How Many Edens.” Her 2007 collection “Zara Betzion,” or “A Stranger in Zion” earned her a number of honors, including from the Office of the President of Israel.

Rebibo also was highly regarded as the main translator into English of the works of the late noted Israeli poet Natan Yonaton.

Her eclectic style evoked a strong sense of vulnerability and musicality, according to Israeli composer Matti Kovler, with whom Rebibo collaborated on the librettos for two of Kovler’s operas.

“She had a great ear for puns and nuance,” Kovler told JTA.

In addition to her writing, Rebibo was a senior staff member at the Hebrew language institute Hebrew at the Center in Boston and had a long association with Hebrew College. Last year, she was scholar in residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University.

Rebibo, who will be buried in Israel, is survived by her father, Henry Silverman, and two children.

Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’

Walt Whitman

The Substance of Feeling

The poet writes the history of his own body.

— Henry David Thoreau

For Walt Whitman, the Civil War was about the body. The crime of the Confederacy, Whitman believed, was treating blacks as nothing but flesh, selling them and buying them like pieces of meat. Whitman’s revelation, which he had for the first time at a New Orleans slave auction, was that body and mind are inseparable. To whip a man’s body was to whip a man’s soul.

This is Whitman’s central poetic idea. We do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh. Whitman introduces his only book of poems, Leaves of Grass, by imbuing his skin with his spirit, “the aroma of my armpits finer than prayer”:

The Arrogant Poet You Love to Hate

In “Pound of Flesh,” at the Odyssey Theater, Ezra Pound spars with Pvt. Cooper, a young soldier who keeps him company while he awaits trial in Italy for his crimes of treachery against the United States in World War II. If this private is not Pound’s intellectual match, he more than matches the poet on moral grounds.

Michael Peter Bolus, who wrote and directed the play, first considered using a Jewish soldier as Pound’s foil. But Pvt. Rothberg, the fictional man he created, was too brainy, too intellectual, and the debates between the two divested the play of its inherent drama and left it as a case of talking heads. Though Bolus changed Rothberg into a non-Jew, the character “wouldn’t go away,” says the playwright. Rothberg turned into “a shadowy presence” haunting the play. Behind the scenes, it is Rothberg who teaches Cooper what Pound’s poetry is all about — hatred.

This is not a new point of view. Critics as eminent as Harold Bloom find little aesthetic value in Pound’s work. Still, Pound was one of the leading poets of the past century. As Bolus says, “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to confront 20th century literature without confronting Ezra Pound.”

Thirteen years after the Odyssey staged Tom Dulack’s “Incommunicado,” a play that also tackled Pound’s days in a wartime prison but with a larger cast, “Pound of Flesh” goes beyond the modern question of asking whether an artist can be separated from his art. Where writers like Philip Roth still produce inspiring work even if they live morally dubious lives, Pound did not conceal the malevolence in his poetry.

“Unlike a lot of anti-Semites and racists, his racism is right there in the poetry,” says playwright Bolus, who studied poetry with Derek Walcott, and got a Ph.D. in theater studies at the City University of New York.

The title of “Pound of Flesh,” of course, invokes Shylock’s famous words in “The Merchant of Venice,” and Bolus does a remarkable job of capturing the arrogance, the brilliance and the over-the-top hubris of the poet. His voice is quite distinctive and comes through even when reading the script. Bolus also nicely allows the non-Jewish soldier to turn the tables on Pound, even correcting him on his grammar.

Say what one will about Shylock, but he never ended a sentence with a preposition — something Pound does in this play.

“Pound of Flesh” plays at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (except June 4 and June 11 shows at 2 p.m.). Through June 25. (310) 477-2055.

Maseng of Many Hats

Somebody must have perfected human cloning, because no way is Danny Maseng just one person.

When the singer-songwriter-guitarist-actor-poet-dramatist-lay rabbi-teacher-visionary, who will headline the Fund for Reform Judaism’s annual fundraiser at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park on June 13, isn’t performing, he may be teaching the Zohar, leading a service at his New York congregation or dashing off a new setting for a passage in Jewish liturgy.

Or he might be working institutionally on innovations in Jewish arts, Jewish worship, Jewish music or Jewish camping.

Maseng , 51, (whose first name is pronounced "Donny") was born in Israel to American parents and jumped onto the fast track as a youngster outside Tel Aviv. Trained in classical guitar as a child, he was playing professionally by age 14 and became a popular singer and actor in Israel while still a teenager, appearing in productions of the Habimah National Theatre.

His first stateside gig was a role in the Broadway production "Only Fools Are Sad" in 1971. Maseng immigrated to the United States in 1975 and worked in theater as an actor, director and designer. In recent years, he’s had roles in the "Law & Order" spinoffs and the soap opera "One Life to Live" and has done voice-over narration for documentaries.

Maseng told The Journal he started writing tunes as soon as he started performing as a kid, but didn’t get serious about songwriting until the early ’80s. "I was always writing music as a singer, but I didn’t see myself as a songwriter; it was always about the singing, what sounded good for my voice," he said. One of his early full-length works was a musical titled "Let There Be Light" that never made it into production, but will be released later this year as a concept album.

More recently, he’s toured a one-man show called "Wasting Time With Harry Davidowitz." Using the stories of his grandfather, Harry, as a framework, the intimate 90-minute performance traces Maseng’s own spiritual journey using homily and song.

After the introspective "Wasting Time," Maseng said, "I wanted to do something big, with big vocal music." The result was "Soul on Fire," which Maseng’s Web site describes as "a blend of meditative, uplifting, and ecstatic songs" that form "a musical journey of discovery."

The work combines spoken narration with updated versions of Chasidic, folk and cantorial tunes, as well as Maseng’s own compositions (and a song by Irish singer Loreena McKennitt). Maseng may be the first composer to pair the teachings of Reb Nachman of Bratslav with a Zen Buddhist chant.

Maseng started writing liturgical music about three years ago, although his interest in it is not new. "There was something about liturgical music that always spoke to me," he said. Nor was his fascination limited to Jewish music; he said Bach was his favorite composer when he was a youngster.

Although Maseng formed a chamber group to perform liturgical music before he left Israel, he got sidetracked from it for 25 years. Now, he said, "it’s literally taken over everything that I’ve been doing."

Recent commissions from cantors and synagogues include prayer settings, the seven wedding blessings and a Chanukah tune. "For a songwriter to know in advance that your stuff is going to be recorded and paid for is a real luxury," he said.

Maseng is also active in Jewish life on the institutional level. A former arts director at the Reform movement’s summer camp in Wisconsin, he’s currently the director of the Spielberg Fellowships for the Foundation for Jewish Camping, Inc. He’s also a teaching fellow for the worship think-tank Synagogue 2000 and was recently awarded a grant to establish T’hila, the Jewish Arts Institute.

For the past 10 years, he has taught classes in Torah and Jewish mysticism and served as spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim, a Reform synagogue in suburban Westchester County, N.Y.

Maseng’s mellifluous, caressing voice, virtuosity on the guitar, eclectic musical styles and multiple talents make him a powerful asset to the forces that are seeking to revitalize Jewish institutional life. But he doesn’t seem to have allowed his ego to keep pace with his gifts.

"I don’t really believe that human beings create," Maseng told a Vancouver reporter in April. "I believe that God creates, and a person’s individual talent is really just special ears or special eyes that have the ability to access something that already exists."

For more information about the Fund for Reform Judaism event, call the Union of American Hebrew Congregations at (323) 653-9962.