Poems of Praise from a “Baruch” Life

If not a private allusion, there is certainly a delicious irony in the fact that the phrase “Baruch atah Adonai” figures in one of the poems in Grace Schulman’s latest collection, Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

days of wonder's book cover  

This is because Schulman began teaching at Baruch College in 1972, and over the years—“to my astonishment,” she says—she rose from adjunct professor to Distinguished Professor o

f English at the College.

Baruch (blessed) atah (are you) Adonai (God), she explains, is a prayer commonly spoken before meals as grace—another self-referential wink of the poet’s eye? In a poem titled “Flags,” Schulman describes her father being asked by a wealthy, xenophobic bigot to say grace and, with stifled anger, obliging in Hebrew. “Flags” is one of ten new poems in Days of Wonder, which Harold Bloom has called Schulman’s best, confirming her “emergence into authentic eminence.” They join her favorites from four previous collections that have appeared over the last three decades.

Asked the significance of her title, Schulman says there is “no referent among the poems in the book, but I think the title has everything to do with the book as a whole, from the cover art [Monet’s “Impression Sunrise”] to the epigraphs [one is from Chaucer: “The lyf so shorte, the craft so long to lerne,/ Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge.”]. Light, air, praise, wonder—in Hopkins’ sense of wonder, as in his poem ‘Pied Beauty.’”

The first line of the famous Hopkins poem—“Glory be to God for dappled things”—certainly catches Schulman’s urge toward the exultant and celebratory, even when the subject matter is far from happy. This is notably the case in the 15-sonnet sequence titled “One Year Without Mother” that appeared in 2001; its last two words capture the entire volume: “Praise life.” (These sonnets will put readers in a perfect frame of mind to visit the New York Public Library’s splendid exhibition “Passion’s Discipline: The History of the Sonnet in the British Isles and America,” which runs through August 2.) The second poem of the sequence on Schulman’s mother is reproduced here.

New Yorkers will specially delight in poems from her 1994 collection, For That Day Only,

The Piano

Once men pried loose a window to haul in
the Knabe grand piano, and I heard
brick scrape dark wood, four legs land with a thud
that shook bare walls. Harsh birth.You played Chopin,

Father tried Brahms as Jacob fought his angel,
and I missed keys. Topaz lamps shone brightly,
never on our sheet music but on family
photographs on the piano: a lost uncle,

decades of cousins. In panic over chords,
I could implore the piano’s faces, ponder
the lives it held, or, at the worst times, stare
at statues: Esther, Saint Luke, a clay Buddha.

When the apartment changed hands, I did not
stay to discover how they moved it out.


— from Days of Wonder

which offers vivid scenes of New York in the tradition of Whitman, Crane, and Moore. The title poem, for example, recreates the city on June 11, 1883, and Walt himself and Pfaff’s, his favorite watering hole, figure in “Footsteps on Lower Broadway.”

Speaking of Crane, there is also in Days of Wonder a poem titled “Brooklyn Bridge.” Among the new poems is one with a psalmic feel, “Jewish Cemetery, Eleventh Street.” It describes the tiny 200-year-old burial ground of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue on 11th Street near Sixth Avenue.

Schulman is poetry editor for The Nation and a former director of the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y.

 

 

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