Homunculus of death

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

I thought of my above words (which I wrote towards the end of my year of mourning for Papa) just recently because I’d noticed an unexpected degree of darkness and morbidity increasingly manifesting itself through my Twitter poetry.

Inspired by Ingrid, a fellow poet-blogger, I created this Twitter account and began writing daily Twitter poems at the turn of the year. At first, it seemed a light, creative exercise for me – a way to get my juices flowing. Now, having written more than two weeks of Twitter poems, I am glad I took the challenge – for reasons unforeseen.

Obviously, Twitter poetry is short. From a technical perspective, this requires that poets consider every word; every syllable; every letter. I knew this, and I do, expectedly, savor the difficulty of producing snippets of lines and verses that resonate. It’s not so easy, and it’s often frustrating to have my poetry limited by length, but it’s been very, very rewarding.

However, as I mentioned, there is something much deeper that I’ve been noticing. The terseness of these poems is actually – liberating. You see, this medium encourages me to spit out ideas without expounding upon them, very much unlike this blog post, in which I want to explore a new idea of mine with you in some depth. Twitter’s restrictions, I am finding, have been freeing me – from myself.

Unlike some other mourners that I’ve known, I would not say that something died in me when Papa passed away. Rather, I would say that something new took root – something was born within me that day – an unrelenting and unsparing dreadful little homunculus. Ever since, this somber fellow has colored all of my thoughts in shades of death, but whenever I have attempted to express these morbid thoughts in verse or prose my mind has quickly taken over from the gloomy creature in an attempt to beautify, contextualize, or rationalize them…


But Twitter won’t allow this

Twitter simply doesn’t permit my mind the space it needs to blunt the heartache caused me by the homunculus. The creature eagerly spits out its ceaseless death and fatalism, and, finding purchase in the Twitterverse, its words sit there, raw and unanswerable.

Now, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unhappy person; I am blessed in many, many ways, and I love being alive. Still, my perception of the world ever since Papa died bears a deep, flapping, shadowy gash, which the homunculus of death is constantly drawn towards. It simply won’t let me ignore the wound. The gash cannot be unseen, and the homunculus will not be subdued.

And… so… it seems a healthy thing to me to allow my homunculus free rein over my Twitter account, whenever it so desires. I cannot deny the horrid little beast’s existence, nor should I, for it is a part of me.

Perhaps, by reading its Twitter poetry, I will be better able to understand its mind – and my own.

This is not a poet

More than two decades ago when I was applying to universities, I intentionally sought out strong programs in biomedical engineering. My thought at the time was that a degree in BME would serve me as a stepping stone for medical school.

That turned out to be a terrible, foolish mistake on my part, which led to me being extremely bored, unfulfilled, uninspired, and rudderless for four years; receiving poor grades; and losing my scholarship. There’s much I could write about that fateful decision and its consequences… about my motivations; about my experiences; about what my subsequent academic failure led to… but this is not that post.


Papa’s take

Papa advised me against biomedical engineering and against the hard sciences in general; he suggested instead that I pursue the humanities. Of course, I was too stubborn to listen to him. In truth, I was a capable student and was taking the very highest level math and science classes in high school… but, today, I still can’t help feeling that Papa’s intuition was correct.

I know these sorts of recollections, benefitting as they do from hindsight, are actually impossible to judge. When I shared this very memory with my brother who is now a successful software engineer, he told me that Papa had counseled him similarly, discouraging him too from pursuing the hard sciences and engineering. In that case, Papa was wrong. Still, having personally failed myself as an undergraduate, I can’t help but perceive Papa’s warnings back then as prescient.

I also remember that during my high school years, Papa once recruited me to write an educational children’s book, based upon his approach to mathematics education. This memory is fairly hazy for me, but I distinctly remember not wanting to take this project on. Papa was hoping for me to write an entire series of children’s books following the first one, but my negligible interest expired very quickly. Still, I remember his confidence: you are good at writing; why don’t you put your talents to use?


Penning my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series

After Papa died, just 2.5 years ago, it took me a month of grieving before I found myself taking to the keyboard. Since then, I’ve hashed, rehashed, and continued rehashing my sundry intertwining motivations for pursuing that particular project during my year of mourning, but this is not that post.

Over the course of that year, as I pumped out my reflections and research on kaddish and Jewish beliefs and traditions on a weekly basis, I experienced an unexpected personal transformation. In addition to the religious, spiritual, intellectual, and familial facets to my project, I gradually came to see it as an outlet for my creativity. I wasn’t simply expressing my thoughts on death, love, and tradition in a dry fashion… I was playing with word sounds and placements… and I was enjoying the more artistic aspects of blogging.

In my broad research on kaddish, I inevitably came across beatnik Allen Ginsberg’s famed poem ‘Kaddish’, and I spent that whole year thinking about writing a kaddish poem of my own in honor of Papa, which I never got around to doing. Original poetry didn’t quite seem to fit into any of my content heavy blog posts, and I hadn’t written any poems for some two decades or more.


‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’

When I moved all of my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog posts to this new personal website from the Times of Israel, back in April of 2020, I found myself moved to pen a poem, inspired as I’d been by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’.

Even after making ‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’ public, I found myself tweaking it repeatedly until I was finally satisfied with how it read and sounded to me. That somehow natural process of writing and rewriting kindled a flame, and I felt my soul warming. Then, at a certain, unexpected point, the poem came to completion.

Mama wondered if I intended to continue writing only about Papa, kaddish, and mourning on my new website, and I told her that I did not. I would, of course, write about Papa when I needed to, but my intention was to build a platform here for my creative juices to spill out upon, creative juices which had been continuously steaming and bubbling up in those eight months since I’d written my final ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog post.


What is poetry?

I have no idea what poetry actually is. I have no idea how much of what I’ve written and posted on this website’s poetry page qualifies as poetry by historic and global standards – and to the extent that I believe that what I’ve written is, indeed, poetry, I’m deeply uncertain about its quality and worth to others.

I’m not writing this from a place of false humility, nor even from a place of any humility at all. I remain truly unconvinced that splashing words across a page (or screen) qualifies as poetry. That’s not to say that poets aren’t poets or that poetry isn’t poetry… but I simply do not know how to judge. Certainly, I am not one who is remotely qualified to make such a judgment.

But I also don’t care.

I don’t care whether my “poetry” is poetry at all, or whether it is “poetry” of any recognizable quality. What I primarily care about are two things:

  1. I intend my splashes of words as poetry; and
  2. Regardless, I love producing them

The pudding

Of late, I often catch myself walking around, mumbling words to myself, attempting to describe my body’s various sensations, as well as playing in my mind with rhymes and rhythms that resonate with me.

Also, my daughter’s instinctive request of me upon the occasion of her losing two teeth in one day was for me to write a poem about her and her missing teeth, which took me quite by surprise. Curious, I later checked with my wife, wondering if she had suggested the idea to our six-year-old… but no, she hadn’t. Apparently, our little daughter knows that her Abba’chka makes regular attempts at writing something he intends as “poetry”.

Anyway, it’s gotten to the point that I have taken to posting daily “micropoems” on my newly-created Twitter account, and usually at least several longer “poems” every week on this blog… and…

Well, I suppose the proof is in pudding.


Natural English, or: Sidespin

My Papa once explained to me the genius of Poe’s poetry
In making language lyrical that was much inert;
Some tongues like French and Russian flow;
But English breaks upon the teeth
Unless we pull chords deep
Beneath; deep beneath
The surface

Struggling (mired in A,B,C), remembering he who sired me;
Limited to words, my own, chop\py though they be;
These fingers English keyboards know,
Grasp flailingly at fleeting dreams
Although it’s then I truly
See; truly see him
Seeing me

With talk he wouldn’t be impressed; I’d rather offer something else –
Reality itself undressed; bereft, I’ve naught but language left,
Now feeling I have naught to show…

Here’s peddling clever stanzas cheap
While Papa lies there deep
Beneath; deep beneath

The surface

Object, or: Subject

‘This is not a blog’

A triolet by David ben Alexander

My soulful kaddish glowing bright
My damaged heart behind a screen
Herein, words set my nights alight
My soulful kaddish glowing bright
Reliving love, compelled to write
Heart torn at death so unforeseen
My soulful kaddish glowing bright
My damaged heart behind a screen

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Object Poems’ prompt.

d’Verse prompted us to write an ‘Object Poem’, which describes an inanimate object in detail. These poems can center around an every day object, such as a door, a jar, a spoon or something of sentimental value.

Ultimately, object poems will also create a different perspective of the subject, exposing a deeper representation to the reader. The d’Verse prompt encouraged us to focus more on the abstract, as well as to title or begin our poems with “THIS IS NOT A _________”

We were instructed to choose an object, look past the obvious characteristics and uses of this object, and spare our readers the details. Instead, we were prompted to take our audiences to the connections that our selected objects have made with us or what they represent.

As I’ve recently been exploring various forms of poetry, I decided to try my hand at a writing a triolet for this assignment.

Dreams, or: Stanzas

An emoji ‘free verse’

In a moment, 
🧗‍♂️ it would be 
over again and he'd 
🧗‍♂️ have to start over in the next... no, not this time. 
Grunting, 🤏 hand over hand, he scaled the 
🧗‍♂️ uneven face of 🤏 the dream cliff,  
fingers 🤏 aching with the weight of his body 
🧗‍♂️ as the first rays 🌄 of sunlight...
oh no ✋ no... 
no...  ...
... 🖐️

🤸‍♂️

🤸‍♂️
🤸‍♂️💦
🌊🌊🏊‍♂️🌊🌊
Far below the water's surface
he swam effortlessly, breathing
through the dream gills on 
the sides of his neck...
😮‍💨 here we 
go again... 
kicking 🦵 with
his powerful 🦵 legs,
frog style, 🦵 he propelled
himself towards 🦵 the
mouth of 🦵 the cave
ahead. Maybe... 🦵
this time 🦵 ... 
There!
Wait... 
What was
that 🕳️ dark...
no... please!
not... 🕳️
🤸‍♂️
🕳️

🤸‍♂️

        🦶💥 
     He landed 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚
  📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 🦶 📚 📚 📚 📚 
📚 barefoot 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚
📚 and 📚 tiptoed over 🦶 📚 📚 📚
the 🦶 📚 enormous 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚
📚 📚 bookstacks, 📚 👁️👁️ looking 
carefully for 📚 the... 📚 🦶 📚 📚 📚
wait... 📚 was that it? 📚 📚 📚 yes!
📚 finally! he saw it lying 🖋️ behind 
some 📚 📚 bookstacks; 📚 📚 📚 📚
📚 quickly - before this new dream
ended, he made a grab 🤜 for the
📚 Pen ✒️ of Poetry... 📚 📚 📚 📚
📚 he'd done it! ✒️ 📚 📚 📚 📚 📚
📚 📚 📚 finally... ✒️ his poems ✍
📚 📚 📚 would truly be his own! 📓 

Blogging, or: Abraham

Once upon- 

            he cared- what they thought of him,
Wrenching- at him- soul and limb;
  Oh- how things changed;
And the days, of course, as they ran their course,
Only saw things go- from bad to worse;
  All became more estranged;
Then came a day- he was faced with death
(Though he wasn't there for love's last breath);
  Darkness- swallowed- his light;
'Safe' and 'simple' broke, something black awoke,
  Fingers- aching to write

All the prose he wrote- and the poetry,
Available to friends and family,
  provided- release;
He wrote long and short- and slow and fast,
Uncovered
            some of- his own truth at last;
  Mind and heart wouldn't cease;
Language took him- far away from grief,
Daily blown- and battered like a leaf,
  He kept at this, day and night;
How, he couldn't say; kept the tears away,
  Couldn't fake what he'd write

Rejecting tweets, soundbites and Instagram,
He welcomed
            meaning in- like Abraham
  Would invite his guests;
Arguing with God- about beliefs
Brought him
            no small amount of relief,
  He was granted some rest;
And there arose long buried memories;
Breaking past thin mental boundaries,
  Strange fancies took flight;
Down upon his knees, whispering- God please,
  Please- make it alright

Today, for d’Verse’s “Open Link Night”, I’d like to share a poem that I wrote about ½-a-year ago, only a couple months after creating this blog.

Today Papa did not turn 73

Today is Papa’s birthday.

In Jewish tradition, we tend to commemorate the dates (on the Hebrew calendar) of our loved ones’ deaths, rather than their birthdays. Same goes for historic figures like our Jewish sages of the many centuries.

Generally, as somebody who deeply appreciates and respects his people’s traditions, I tend to think of them as frameworks for expression of human experiences. I don’t believe that they were designed by or mandated by God, but I do believe that they reflect and are the culmination of many, many centuries of Jewish wisdom.

That’s how I approached my year of mourning, following Papa’s death.

But the truth is that I often find our traditions to be… lacking? No, not quite lacking… insufficient? At least – insufficient for me. The practice of reciting the mourner’s kaddish on a daily basis during the first year of mourning for a parent was – not enough for me. It was not enough to get me through that year.

To be sure, there are other traditions associated with that year of mourning. There’s the common tradition of giving charity in memory of the deceased, and of studying Torah in their honor; but as much as I think of my traditions as my framework, it remains for me to fill in the frame. I found myself regularly confronted by the same niggling challenge that year, over, and over, and over again: where am I in this process? Where is Papa?

That, in large part, is why I started reflecting upon it and writing about it. I wanted to own it – to make that year a truly personal one.

Similarly, albeit in much less intensive way, I took to lighting a 24-hour memorial candle every Friday evening, just before Shabbat comes over us. The Jewish tradition is to light such a candle once a year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death and perhaps to light one on special festivals… but I find some small comfort in those flickering flames… in the physical reminder of Papa’s presence. Spontaneously, instinctively, I took this particular Jewish tradition and changed it up a bit.

And -so- I feel I must mark Papa’s birthday somehow, even though that’s not the Jewish tradition. Mama does so by sharing tender memories and Papa’s beautiful photography, as well as by eating some of his favorite foods; but I am found here, in written words. In fact, this morning, as I was contemplating what to write, I realized that it would be unnatural for me not to write something about Papa. After all, I write almost every single day – how could I let January 4th go by as just another day for prose and poetry?


It seems not a day goes by that I don’t think about Papa.

When my Dedushka (mother’s father) died, I remember my mother and her sisters weeping and eulogizing him. I remember one of my aunts crying, “I wish I could be like you.”

With a sloth in Costa Rica (2017)

At the time, I remember being taken aback by this sentiment. Mama and her sisters are all unique individuals, each with her unique strengths and flaws; and all are quite different than Dedushka was. Why should any of them want to be more like him? He was no more special than any of his daughters, and he was no less flawed than any of them either.

As much as I think about Papa every day, I recall his flaws no less than his strengths; and he was no less flawed than any of us. I have countless warm and loving memories, and I also have memories that leave me with frustrated pulses of energy shooting throughout my torso from somewhere between my lungs. I was never like him, and I could never be like him; and, just like him, I have my own human strengths and weaknesses.

But the funny thing is that I have been catching myself on that very same thought often enough recently: “I wish I could be like you, Papa.”

There were so many wonderful things about Papa. I loved his humility, his integrity, his brilliance, his wonderment, his unselfishness, his honor, his self-confidence, his capability, his worldliness, his innate moral compass… and… so… so… so… many… things…

He was a truly beautiful soul, was my Papa, and I know that I say so objectively because I could also, if I wanted to, list all of the things about him that disappointed or even angered me. He was far from perfect; and I know so as well as anyone else possibly could… but… still… I find myself wishing that I could be like him.

And obviously, I don’t wish to be like him because of his flaws, but rather despite them, for Papa was an absolutely extraordinary human being of the highest quality, and I continue to love him so incredibly dearly.

I was never like Papa, and I could never be like Papa; but, unlike him, I can paint this lovely birthday portrait… because I feel that I love him more than he loved himself.

My most disturbing dream

I’ve had a recurring dream, in which Papa somehow comes back to life some months after dying, only to die again permanently several months later. For some unclear reason, his temporary resurrection is not made public to everyone; and we are all aware and certain that it is, indeed, temporary. The details are very hazy to me, but my dream-self experiences this scenario as having been true. In other words, my dream-self perceives this as an actual memory, rather than as a fantasy.

In this dream, I try to explain to Papa and to myself why I am continuing to mourn him during that interim period between his two deaths. In other words, why did I continue reciting kaddish during the traditional Jewish year of mourning that began with his original death, and why did I continue writing every week about my mourning, while knowing that he wasn’t really dead, even though his reprieve from death was temporary?

My dream-self offers several related answers.

  1. First of all, my dream-self explains, Papa was in the USA, and I was in Israel so even though Papa magically came back to life, I never actually saw him in the flesh after his resurrection so he was still dead from my dream perspective.
  2. Secondly, since I knew that Papa’s days were numbered anyway, and since I’d already commenced with my traditional year of mourning, I had to continue going through the motions because his resurrection was supernatural anyway, and our tradition doesn’t account for such surreal circumstances.
  3. Thirdly, Papa really was dead, sort of. In my dream-memory he was somewhat ghostlike, hanging out at home all day and avoiding the outside world.
  4. Fourthly, the situation was too strange to explain to everybody who was reading about my mourning experience on a weekly basis. My dream-self reasons that it wouldn’t have made sense to my readership that Papa wasn’t dead during my year of mourning for him. My dream-self further reasons that I will tie up the loose ends later by writing an additional blog post at some point after my year of mourning has ended to explain the unusual circumstances of Papa’s supernatural resurrection and second death.
  5. Fifthly, what my dream-self doesn’t want to admit to my resurrected Papa is that my identity has become too wrapped up in my response to his death. I’d invested so much mental and emotional energy and time in writing my Skeptic’s Kaddish series that I had become the “Skeptic’s Kaddish”, and if I had publicly revealed to the world that Papa had been resurrected, it would have unraveled my entire sense of self.
  6. Lastly, my dream-self doesn’t even want to tell Papa about my Skeptic’s Kaddish series because he fears Papa’s disapproval. Papa was a very private person and probably wouldn’t have liked me writing about him, and what if he would have felt that I was just using his death to gain attention?

Whenever I wake up after having this dream, I feel that I need to write something about Papa to further expound upon my experience of losing him.

In the real world, I know that this dream is imagined, supernatural, impossible nonsense; I know that it’s nothing more than the concoction of my subconscious mind; but I’m constantly left wondering who David ben Alexander would be if Alexander had not died that day.