by Sonya Taaffe
Published by Papaveria Press, 32 pages
Reviewed by Erik Amundsen
Review originally published in Under Review, a special publication of Not One of Us, edited by John Benson
I once told Sonya Taaffe that, on the day she wrote a poem that didn’t move me; a wolf would eat the sun. Take a look outside if you want a spoiler alert for A Mayse-Bikhl. If you do not see the sun shining, that’s because it is night when you read this, and be most certain that the reflection staring in at you is you, and not a dybbuk, because in reading this collection, you stand a strong danger of being possessed.
For a while, this has been all I have been able to say about Taaffe’s collection, a score of poems from almost a decade’s worth of years, some of which I saw in early forms (“Domovoi, I Came Back!”) and some I read here for the first time. These all collected under an explicitly Jewish theme, under several explicitly Jewish themes, since the history and entwining of that culture with the places the Diaspora has traveled and settled and given to and gained from all the other cultures it touches… These are roots and rhizomes, a symbiosis that feels too big and too complicated to hold in the head all at once.
Still, all of these poems are familiar, people you meet and wonder if you’ve met before, because of the impression they make; the kind of impression so strong, it defies time, and makes itself retroactive. I feel like I’ve read all of these poems before I read them. They are not predictable, but I feel as though I should have known them from before. They read as though they are fated.
Taaffe knows, more than anything, and more than anyone I have ever met, the functional questions of myth: How myth? What myth? Why myth? And this transfers to any cycle she chooses, any culture I have seen her interface with. Here, she is looking at the myths and the fabric of a huge part of her own origin and her own culture. These are personal journeys, some of them. Some of them journeys into a community of which I am not part and could not fully understand. Most of them are both at the same time, but all of them use the power of myth to bring the journeys into a place of value for anyone. This is not religious poetry, exactly, though the numinous is in here. It’s not the memoir of immigrant experience, though immigration, emigration and crossing of borders all feature. I’m not going to say accessible, since that implies you can pick these poems up and put them down and do what you want with them. They have identity and volition and they will be respected. They are not universal, for all that they are mythic; they are too intimate to be treated as or by a group, to exact and particular to just fill in anywhere. But they are identifiable. You know these poems, or you will have known them.
Taaffe invokes two figures of Jewish folklore more than any other; the dybbuk and the golem, the possessing daemon and the human created by humans. Immensely powerful, both, appearing and reappearing; they are the other that is also an aspect of the self – the internal, the dybbuk, who Taaffe writes in “Kaddish for a Dybbuk”
in the delirium of stolen fingers
heart, brain, spilling with thoughts
no corpse can claim-
Taaffe works the lines of desire and death wherever her words fall, but it is in the dybbuk, the one who has not had enough life, where it always seems to focus most brightly, most sharply.
There is also the golem, the external other, but so informed by the self, made, sort of… Taaffe’s golems have their own existence, both self-determined from the moment of their awakening and also in that they always were; the sense that they existed in some ineffable mind before their ostensible creator started working on the clay. Strip away everything that was not meant to be a being, whether the golem is a metaphor for the lover as sometimes seems in “Madonna of the Cave.”
As if you were a golem all those years
before our faces rested together in the dark,
the dumb shammes, turning in clockwork
…red figures on the blackest ground
Sometimes they appear as words in “Sefer Yetzirah.”
Every golem’s letter is the letter
the sign of holding fast as truth to death.
Did I mention these poems will change shape on you? I read them differently every time. Makes writing them up as a review very, very tricky.
A thing struck me early; how much earth and how much fire are in these poems. Taaffe always struck me as someone who brought us more to wood and to water, and she makes no secret of her love of the sea, but still, here we have clay and kiln, road, candle flames and ashes (yes, even those ashes, though they are not an ostensible focus of the collection). But, here there is still the sea, still the wood and the water. They’ll change shape. Like a dybbuk, once it’s gotten into you.
I’ve spent so little time on the individual poems; it’s not enough to say there are no false notes, here. Or that “Shnirele, Perele” is still my favorite for all its joy and determination. Or that “Tzaddik” makes me chuckle and “Domovoi, I Came Back!” gives me chills. I haven’t even spoken of Ashmedai or the Lilim, and I am running out of space. So let us visit them, the transient trickster daemon, sometimes a lover:
You are a demon dressed in yesterdays,
and I fall into mirrors, falling in with you.
Little Ashmedai, leave me with my broken glass.
Ours is a season that never stays.
Then the faces given to desires hidden, even from the one who desires:
Of names that were whispered once,
Spat against three times, charms traced
This is a book full of demons. Daemons, spirits; I keep running into them every time I flip through, desperately trying to find the passage I meant to write about. There they are, tugging, pulling at me, telling me to read this passage instead, talk about that poem, tell my story again, even though I cannot do them justice. You are going to have to read this collection yourself to know them; I know they aren’t going to let me be even if they get you (and they will get you), but they might not tug and pull as hard and sharp on me if I’ve done this thing for them. I owe them that much for what they’ve shown me.