Beast, or: “Memoir”

Every day he ponders writing; demons, seraphs jostling, fighting
O'er memories alighting, dreams and images of Papa.
  Late at night he sees him living, gentle-hearted and forgiving;
Daily, nightly, he is grieving- for Papa, forever gone.
  As the earth turns, he considers that he'll be forever gone
Naught is left of mind nor brawn.

As the earth's been spinning, turning, one dream has been oft recurring-
Deep in darkness there lies stirring a vile, shifty chimera.
  It's but wishful thinking really, very foolish, rather silly,
Still, through dreamscapes rugged, hilly, slinks that taunting chimera.
  She's unbidden, uninvited, is his taunting chimera-
Forward, forward she is gliding, fed on memories of Papa.

Asleep? Awake? He's kaddish speaking, praying, swaying, then- a creaking-
'Tis the floorboards creaking, squeaking; and behind him stands Papa.
  How, he stammers, have you come here, I've been mourning you all year, Dear
Papa, tell me, can you hear me- can you hear me, Dear Papa?
  Reading, thinking, writing, praying, I've been mourning, Dear Papa...
Aren't you... aren't you... actually... aren't you actually gone?

No, no... you must have forgotten (though you are my first-begotten),
That hospital was naught but rotten; the doctors said I didn't have long...
  But we dismissed their dire prognosis; HaShem reversed the diagnosis-
He gave me life that I'd find gnosis- bid me wear my black kippah.
  So here I am, and you're done praying. May I have back my black kippah?
Please give it here; I'm your Papa.

Dawn break; awake; dripping; sweating. And- then- he knows what's most upsetting- 
All this time he's been forgetting... to lift his phone and call Papa.
  Rising from his restless slumber, lifts his phone and dials the number-
Has he been somewhat unencumbered? ... but Papa's cellphone isn't on.
  The earth's still spinnin' n'a-turnin', but Papa's cellphone isn't on-
Naught's ever left of love forgone.

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

Seedling, or: Watering can

My first tanka

Sprouting eagerly;
Stretching, absorbing learning,
Seedling roots search deep
~
Humble grey watering can;
Though I get refilled daily

EIF Poetry Challenge #14: Tanka

The above poem is my entry for Ingrid’s most recent poetry challenge. She provides a very thorough explanation of tanka poems for those who are curious to know more. But ~

In short:

  • The first three lines (following the haiku format) are the ‘upper poem’ (kami-no-ku) and the final two lines are the ‘lower poem’ (shimo-no-ku);
  • To write tanka in English, we normally divide the poem into five lines with the following syllable pattern: 5/7/5/7/7.

Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)


Loving-kindness ≠ charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root dq (צדק), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.


My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

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

Two teeth, or: A reminder

My 6-year-old lost two teeth in one day;
and, as always, she had something to say.
To her father the blogger,
she said: Might this not augur
a sweet poem about me- sans cliché?

Dedicated with love to my precious little daughter, who asked me to write a poem on the occasion of her losing two teeth last Friday and then repeated her request to me again several days later (an hour ago).

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.