Collected Poems

Esther Cameron. Of the Essence Press, $18.95 USD (680p) ISBN: 978-9-659-25634-1

The prize-winning poetess-scholar Cameron (Western Art and Jewish Presence in the Work of Paul Celan: Roots and Ramifications of the “Meridian” Speech) presents her expansive poetic oeuvre, a lifetime of reflection and literary prolificacy. The collection is the first volume in a sexpartite series of the author’s collected works. Her poetry, she explicates in a proem, represents more than a prolonged composition compulsion:

There has also been the working out of a personal destiny within the destiny of the world….For each of us has a story that is part of the story of the world.

Her profuse outpouring invites the engaged reader to an intimacy, a meeting of minds, a communion that ideally engenders community. As a convert to Judaism, Cameron commemorates her experience by iterating Ruth:

I go where you go, share even to the end

this people’s doubt, its fate

(“Conversion”)

She limns her inmost thoughts, feelings, and hopes:

In a dark night I lay in prayer

while cruel armies gathered round,

for God’s arm flashing in the clouds

for splitting seas; but even more

that one small star of selfless love

might pierce the murk of sordid strife,

that one white flower of mercy pure

might blossom from earth’s stony ground.

(Untitled)

Along the way, the author intermittently reveals her literary and intellectual influences, including her foremost obsession, Paul Celan, as well as Osip Mandelstam and Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook. Yet the impetuses for her creativity are not always recondite versifiers of yesteryear, and sometimes depict contemporary issues of modern life:

And then there is that button saying “Like” –

Coin of approval flung to beggar’s bowl.

And all the “likes” are tallied, which could hike

The stakes in this game whose name is Control

Through Shallowness. And what shall then become

Of souls left faceless, unaddressed and mum?

(“Facebook”)

Throughout, her empathy and yearning to connect with others is emphatic and thematic:

We are the superfluous people.

Nobody needs us

except ourselves.

But if you’ll say you need me

I’ll say I need you.

And we can start.

(“Superfluous People”)

Toward those whom I am privileged to befriend

Even in thought may I not condescend

Nor make their need a footstool for my pride,

But make my soul be humbly gratified

To see another being unfold and rise

Whether through my assist, or otherwise.

(“Up for the Count: Hod shebetiferet”)

May I be always privileged to perceive

The other’s worth and beauty, and not grieve

To see such merits as are mine outshone,

But let me rather cherish as my own

All excellent gifts that make Creation bright –

The bearers shall be precious in my sight.

(“Up for the Count: Chesed shebehod”)

Her elegiac “postlude to life” features an elongated suite of plaintive, heartfelt quintets rich in pathos and wisdom:

Nothing

is so empty

as the boots of someone

who won’t be pack to put them on

again.

(“Unforsaken”, stanza 5)

To make

another feel

unforsaken, may be

the most important thing we can

do here.

(“Unforsaken”, stanza 37)

Don’t chew

grudge-cuds; there is

no nourishment in them.

Look up; grab mouthfuls of comfort

instead.

(“Unforsaken”, stanza 42)

While predominantly keyed toward the personal, which is by nature more difficult because more revealing, Cameron does not shy away from the political—a notoriously prickly realm for poetry to enter into with finesse—especially as it pertains to the intractable Jewish-Arab agon in Israel, where she has lived on and off for many years. In so doing, she exhibits sober realism and perspicacity:

Friend, the world’s indignation is not moral;

it flatters those it fears, and at their bidding

casts the blame upon the self-defender.

And it does fear, so deeply that it fears

to name its fear, that vast blot on the Name

of a just G-d and on that just G-d’s image

in humankind, that spreads across the world

these thousand years and more, now gradually,

now rapidly, in this our bitter time:

(“Eclipse”)

In the latter stages of her writing, Cameron delves into formal verse and indites cycles of sonnets (a poetic form that she postulates as an “aid to introspection”), including two (“Rim of Gold” and “Junctures of Light”) based on the weekly Torah portions, and another two cycles (“Counting Up to Unity”, in sonnet form, and “Up for the Count”, in sestets) on the annual counting of the Omer period in the Jewish calendar. Here the author avails herself of the rigors and strictures of subject and scheme to express herself, at times with classical rhetorical panache (in this instance, via the figures of speech syllepsis, prozeugma, and assonance):

Night fell upon him, and with night the obscure

Assailant who left him named and lame.

(“Rim of Gold: Vayyishlach”)

Becoming increasingly attuned to the spiritual and mystical over time, she recognizes, it seems, the role of the bard as that of one who exemplifies a vocation divinely ordained for all:

…to sound

The limits of our own capacities

Until we have become a channel clear

A fine-tuned instrument that can relay

A tone to open earthly eye and ear….

(“Counting Up to Unity: Gevurah Shebenetzach”)

The final poem (in English) of this compilation is a prosopopoeial sonnet portraying nature in Israel (a topic more on which would have been welcome) while proffering an aspirational sentiment of messianic ilk:

Not as a trickle widened to a brook

By other trickles bent into its course,

Not braided of confederate streams that took

From one another an increase of force,

But leaping from its source, a torrent strong

With clashing waves, a hero at his birth,

The river Dan, that dashes here along

And now receives, as tribute from the earth,

A hundred springs that from the same hill’s side

Run out, as the shy children of his clan

Run out to second and be carried by

Their champion, their victory’s destined man.

O soon may from the Source leap forth that One

By whose help we may call our warfare done!

(“Sonnet on the River Dan”)

There is much to admire in Cameron’s verses: intellectualism, contemplation, clarity of expression, commitment to craft, a longing for bonding with the like-minded, and a magnanimity of spirit. Precision attends her lineation and especial care is evidenced in her enjambents, calibrated to maximal effect (mostly suspense, occasionally surprise). Overall, the writing is often more intellectual than imagistic, though poignant lines are not unknown. The dictates of meter (iambic pentameter) and rhyme inhering in one of her favored forms, the sonnet, can eventually seem stifling, and they ineluctably engender archaic syntax that strikes the modern reader as contrived; to be sure, this critiques more a form, less its user, nor does it diminish the patent deftness necessary to conform to its exactitude (though the critique should factor into the modern writer’s poetic calculus, and advocate for sparing usage of antiquated forms clothing contemporary expression). Prosodic notes aside, in all fairness it should be conceded that Cameron’s employment of the sonnet to summarize each Torah parashah/sidrah is a novel and apt use for the form.

Cameron relies on poesy for catharsis and self-fashioning alike; it serves loyally as a lifelong companion and affords her the last word on the myriad experiences of existence, formative or midstream, a definitional cap that puts paid to her recurrent preoccupations, questions, troubles, and triumphs. All along words have artfully crystallized her journey, and this redaction further distills her literary life. But the vast project of collation that Cameron has undertaken in this tome is best summed by the latter herself, albeit in another context:

Then someone has to take the heavy shears

And, with the implicit shape in mind, decide

Which fronds must fall to make that shape show clear,

Divested of redundance, and to guide

The sap toward fairest harvest.

(“Counting Up to Unity: Tiferet Shebigvurah”)

In the final analysis, sincere consideration is due to one of Jewry’s most substantial living poetesses writing in English. Collected Poems also includes an appendix with poems written in German, and an index of poem titles. (Sept. 2016)