Two Poems

Poetry / Stephen Burt

:: Fuzzy Golem Doll with 6” Keychain ::

	Altneu Synagogue, Prague
Protector of children from boredom, of parents from fear
of not bringing anything halfway appropriate back,
I want to be chosen. I have seen,
week after week, cliques of visitors check
my price tag. I keep trying to count them. I keep losing track.

My grandfather and namesake lived for truth
or a word that meant truth,
and was killed by the word for death, and brought to life 
by a collective wish for a dispassionate
lowbrow hero with feet of clay.
Whatever made him famous he did with his hands.
He may or may not have been able
to do a good deed,
to interpret, as well as follow, simple commands.

Once I belong to you, you can take me downstairs.
A queue of high stains on the wainscot serves to remember
the existential threat of 2002,
when the Quarter flooded, and the water entered. 
Each wooden seat bears a brass nameplate. In the one center
of the sunken, holy, rectilinear area,
a cast-iron cage awaits cantillation and prayer.

What you inherit depends
not least on what you can make.
In my own recessed and featureless
interior I hold,
along with a spell or scroll
for strength, a rabbinical saying.

Carry these two truths in your back pocket
and take them out as occasion demands:
on the one side,  I am dust and ashes,
on the other, The world was created for my sake.


:: My 1983 ::

When I told Marina I liked her new striped tunic
but there was a hole in her armpit, under her sleeve,

I thought I was making a generous, helpful gesture,
an appropriate social move. 

That was the year when we studied the Great Depression,
the business cycle, and macroeconomics.

Companies grew by meeting existing demand,
or else by showing people what to want.

I wanted programmable gloves that could make you bionic,
whose workings I laid out in series, in graph-paper pictures;

I diagrammed volts and resistors, tongue-and-groove,
the difference between graphic novels and newspaper comics,

also a paralleliped-based function for love.
I gave a whole set of ten-minute lunchtime lectures

about linguistics to playground structures. “Steve,”
my favorite teacher told me, “you’ll probably use

those facts someday, and your future colleagues will thank
you for explaining them, but we’d like you to think

about what might be interesting to your friends,
not just about what’s interesting to you.”


From the writer

:: Account ::

Fuzzy Golem…” is one of a very few poems I’ve ever fin­ished in my adult life with explic­it Jew­ish con­tent. It’s also one of what seem to be two poems that come from our vis­it to Prague last year (cour­tesy of the very-worth-read­ing Irish poet and crit­ic Justin Quinn, whose new study Between Two Fires, about Czech, Russ­ian, Irish, UK, and US poets dur­ing the Cold War, will sure­ly inter­est Account read­ers). The old Jew­ish quar­ter of Prague, the Jose­fov, has four syn­a­gogues that tourists can vis­it, but only one, the Alt­neu (old-new—it was once the “new one”) syn­a­gogue still oper­ates; reli­gious Jews who live in Prague still pray there, but they are vast­ly, vast­ly out­num­bered by inter­na­tion­al tourists, who are com­ing to see (a) evi­dence of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that flour­ished in Prague for cen­turies and (b) ways to remem­ber the Holo­caust. It’s impor­tant that (b) not over­shad­ow (a).

The sec­ond stan­za uses some parts of the golem sto­ry that will be very famil­iar to some read­ers and alien to oth­ers. Golems are giv­en life by the Hebrew word emet, “truth,” carved in the golem’s fore­head or writ­ten on a slip of paper put into the golem’s mouth; they can be deac­ti­vat­ed, or killed, by eras­ing the aleph at the begin­ing of emet, which turns the word into met, or “death.” The most famous golem in Jew­ish folk­lore was cre­at­ed by Rab­bi Loew of Prague in the 16th cen­tu­ry to defend the com­mu­ni­ty against the usu­al mur­der­ous anti-Semi­tes; tourist Prague, and espe­cial­ly the Jose­fov, is full of golem kitsch, golem kids’ books and such.

There real­ly was a fuzzy golem key­chain on sale at the gift shop for the Alt­neu Syn­a­gogue, and the gift shop real­ly is above ground and across the street from the syn­a­gogue itself, whose holy space is below ground. That holy space real­ly was dam­aged (you can see the flood line on the wall) by the major flood that hit Prague in 2002. There’s some­thing disturbing—not moral­ly wrong, but nonethe­less disturbing—about tourism around one geno­ci­dal calami­ty decades in the past, while anoth­er calami­ty, glob­al cli­mate change, threat­ens so many lives, and so many ways of life, world­wide: Amer­i­can Jews, and many oth­er peo­ple who learned as chil­dren about the Holo­caust, have been taught aware­ness of one sort of dan­ger, while anoth­er sort threat­ens the world (and the Jews in the world, and the tourist sites in the world). Will phys­i­cal force, or mil­i­tary force, or “aware­ness” (what­ev­er that means) help?

Will art? If you are think­ing about a role for art in con­fronting glob­al cli­mate change—or in con­fronting oth­er world-his­tor­i­cal forces—you might end up favor­ing art that feels like pro­pa­gan­da, dis­count­ing art that seems sub­tle, inter­nal­ly con­flict­ed, inte­ri­or­ized: should we, indeed, sub­or­di­nate our own reac­tions to kitsch (like the fuzzy golem), or to pro­pa­gan­da, in a time of emer­gency? Should art be, like a golem, cre­at­ed for use, not autonomous, focused on exte­ri­or goals and threats, not on inte­ri­or­i­ty? The prob­lems of two lit­tle peo­ple, as the film has it, don’t amount to a hill of beans; or, as the Hebrew Bible and some famil­iar litur­gy has it, I am dust and ash­es (though see also Gen­e­sis 18:27).

On the oth­er hand, the peo­ple who will flour­ish or per­ish in the near future will have tastes, just as we have tastes: if you don’t respect your own inte­ri­or­i­ty, your own tastes, your own con­scious­ness, can you respect any­body else’s? Wouldn’t it be bet­ter to imag­ine kitschy golems, and peo­ple with ques­tion­able taste, and chil­dren, and tourists en masse, as hav­ing, each one of them, some inte­ri­or­i­ty worth respect­ing, each of them some­one for whom the world ought to be saved?

This sec­ond poem belongs to a series, most of them with the same title (“My” + year) and sim­i­lar met­rics (inten­tion­al­ly awk­ward, vague­ly pen­tame­ter-ish lines, short stan­zas, some rhymes); the series looks at espe­cial­ly embar­rass­ing or painful­ly reveal­ing moments in my own ear­ly life, and while not every­thing in it hap­pened exact­ly the way that I say it did, it’s sup­posed to be painful­ly, accu­rate­ly, auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, if not (cough) con­fes­sion­al. The series shows up in my forth­com­ing book from Gray­wolf, where it will be shuf­fled in with two oth­er series, one of them tak­en from my chap­book All-Sea­son Stephanie, which explores the child­hood I would have had if I had grown up as a cis­gen­der girl, and the oth­er a set of poems spo­ken by non­hu­man ani­mals and inver­te­brate objects—a block of ice, cicadas, a flashlight.

The “My” poems focus on shame in mem­o­ry: how much does what shames you reveal you? How much have I been shaped by what shamed me, and how much have I been shaped (shame, and guilt, not with­stand­ing) by what­ev­er inter­est­ed me as a kid? What’s the dif­fer­ence, in me, between the inter­ests that I was able to pur­sue (sci­ence, and sci­ence fic­tion, for exam­ple) and those I nev­er got to pur­sue since I was nev­er raised as a girl? How much did my feel­ings about girl­hood and boy­hood and about indi­vid­ual girls resem­ble the feel­ings that oth­er kids—“normal” kids—would have had? How much does my appar­ent lack of social skills at that age speak to what­ev­er social skills, and what­ev­er poet­ics, I have now?

Are my own poet­ics, or “con­fes­sion­al” poet­ics generally—in which you try to say what’s hard to say, what would embar­rass you, what wouldn’t be social­ly appropriate—just a way to recy­cle or put to use my child­hood clue­less­ness about what not to say, and to whom, since as a child I tend­ed to say every­thing that seemed impor­tant to me, every­thing that came into my head, at the same time as I want­ed oth­er peo­ple (espe­cial­ly girls) to like me? And how much does the ordi­nary, and (we usu­al­ly think) praise­wor­thy, train­ing in social skills and social graces that grade school kids undergo—in which we learn how to appeal to oth­er people—resemble the acqui­si­tion of the skills that you’d need to run a con­sumer busi­ness, try­ing to meet exist­ing demand?


Stephen (also Steph or Stephanie) Burt is Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Har­vard and the author of sev­er­al books of poet­ry and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism; The Poem Is You: 60 Con­tem­po­rary Poems and How to Read Them has just been pub­lished by Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, and a new col­lec­tion of Steph’s own poems will be pub­lished by Gray­wolf in 2017.