Seeing My Heart on a Page: Diversity in Poetry and Rabbi Brody’s “Etz Chayim She”

Since it’s a holiday and I don’t have time for a normal post, it seems like a good time to recommend a book which came out recently which doesn’t exactly fit in with what I normally talk about on this blog (that is, scifi and fantasy), but which does have to do with something I am very passionate about. And while I’m talking about this book, it seems like a good time to talk a little bit about diversity in poetry, and what that means. And get ready, because I’m also going to be talking a little about my own experiences with religion and gender.

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About a week ago I attended a book launch party that Rabbi Suzanne Brody was having. Rabbi Brody is the director of the religious school at my synagogue, but she is also a poet. And has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, so that’s pretty cool. Rabbi Brody has written two books of poetry, both of which I now own: The first, called Dancing in the White Spaces, was published in 2007, and her new book is called Etz Chayim She. Now, I was very excited about both of these books, but in order to explain why I have to talk about diversity, and poetry, and about myself.

I remember learning about poetry in school. I have been writing poetry since I was 8, so I think they probably taught us a little bit about it, though I don’t remember. I do remember learning about it in high school. I remember reading Shakespeare, and counting out pentameters, and looking up trochaic tetrameter when soliloquies and monologues didn’t count out right, and talking about it in school even though only my teacher seemed interested. I remember Romantics (who were white men). I remember Transcendentalists (who were mostly white men, and it’s only thanks to the vagaries of memory that I can say “mostly” instead of “all”).

I remember Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath, and…and that’s it, I think. I mean, there were other female poets who I read, and loved, even in high school, if not many. Dorothy Parker is one notable example–as soon as I read “Indian Summer” I was utterly in love with her poetry. But as far as what I learned in school–what most kids my age would have been exposed to, kids without a sister who kept poems on her wall and a grandmother who taught English and whatever strange form of verbal stimming kept me repeating poems constantly in high school, writing them beside my own in the margins of my homework–what I learned in school included only two main female poets. Perhaps a few more recent works by women sprinkled in for variety, but not enough that I remember any of their names, or even for sure whether they made it into the curriculum. Even now I can’t list that many female poets–more than I could then, but not as many as I can men. (I have mentioned only women and men so far–that is because I have never, to my knowledge and dismay, read published poetry from someone of a gender other than those. If you know of some, by all means recommend.)

So, obviously there is a diversity problem in how poetry is taught, and likely in how it is published and marketed. Diversity in poetry works a little differently than diversity in fiction, at least for the most part–poetry is a more direct expression of the self, and since there aren’t exactly characters in most poetry, you can’t look for diversity within a single poem. Even more so than with fiction, the responsibility for diversity falls on the audience, and on the people who connect the work and the audience– publishers, marketers, and anyone who writes a curriculum with poetry on it.

And it is important that we have diversity in the poems that we read, or teach, or sell, or publish, because it teaches us about others, and because it shows us we are not alone. Because sometimes poetry communicates things that prose can’t, in ways that prose doesn’t, and because seeing your heart on a page is as important as seeing your face, or your family, or your culture. Because everyone deserves to see their heart on the page, and everyone deserves to feel that someone understands them and can put their feelings and their life and their pain and their questions into words. And because Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker and Richard Wright deserve to have their poetry remembered and taught and read, and Suzanne Brody and all the many poets whose names I do not know deserve to have their voices heard.

And because I know so many people who decided in high school or before that poetry was confusing or pointless or boring or just irrelevant to their lives,and that’s their prerogative, but maybe they wouldn’t have decided that if they heard more from poets who had something in common with them, and not only from dead white men from a century or more ago.

So I got these books by Rabbi Brody and I was excited, because she is a Jewish woman, and I am a Jewish woman, and even without getting into what I know about her as a religious school director that is enough for me to be excited. Because I have questions and confusion and pain and exultation all, and more, clamoring inside of me and flowing from my Jewishness. I do not know how to reconcile the things that I was taught about G-d with the images that have surrounded me since I was a child and are now a part of my mind. I do not know how to reconcile the awe-inspiring with the comfortable, heavens with lullabies, even though my heart hears both when I hear Hebrew. There are so many things I do not know. So many things that I knew once, when I was a child, with the wisdom of a child, that I cannot remember now. But I am learning, and I am relearning. I hope that I will always be learning.

So when I read poems which talk about learning “face to face/with Shechina,” (Hevruta, pg 31) a word that I only just learned–how long ago? not even a year–a word that means so much to me, a word that made me cry with joy because suddenly things which hadn’t made sense since I forgot how to imagine a genderless divine made sense again, when I see a poem which talks about that I cry. When I read “So what if today / you opened your fingers / handed over / those precious burdens / to G-d to hold / keep safe for you” (Open Handed, pg 6), I cry, because my fists hurt from being clenched. When I read poems about hugging the tree of life and sinking into the letters of the Torah and melodies like blankets I cry, because these are pieces of my heart that I have not seen put on paper before–not even by me. Sometimes we need to see a piece of someone else’s heart to understand what is in our own.

That is why these poems are important to me. That is what they mean to  me. I do not know what they will mean to you. I can tell you that I think they are beautiful, that the imagery is solid and deep and full. The imagery feels to me like an expression of truth, but I do not know if it will feel that way to you. I can tell you that I like the line breaks in some better than others, but all in all the technique is solid, and some of the line breaks I really like. I can tell you that I like the word choices and that I think the books are thematically well organized. And all of those are important things, but they are the transport for the poems meaning, not the meaning itself, and it is hard to say much when you are talking about an entire book of poetry, rather than one poem in particular. I might be able to if they were rhyming poems, because for a not-small portion of my life I practically breathed rhyming poetry–but they aren’t, and poems of this type are relatively new to me.

These poems may not mean to you the same things that they mean to me. I still think they are worth reading, because they are beautiful, and because they come from a perspective that we do not always hear from in poetry. I don’t know what they will mean to you if you aren’t Jewish, or if you aren’t religious, but I think they are worth reading anyway. If you do not see your heart on these pages, you will see someone else’s, and I think that is worthwhile. I suppose I cannot be certain, since I am not Rabbi Brody, but if the purpose of poetry is to place a piece of one’s heart on the page, I think these must be very good poems indeed.

And if you have never found a piece of yourself in a poem, and do not find a piece of yourself in these, I hope that this at least gives you hope that you might be able to, someday, even if you have to look for a very long time.

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One thought on “Seeing My Heart on a Page: Diversity in Poetry and Rabbi Brody’s “Etz Chayim She”

  1. Pingback: Seeing My Heart on a Page: Diversity in Poetry and Rabbi Brody’s “Etz Chayim She” | Scribbling on Seashells

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