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.