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 Schulmans latest collection,
Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).
This is because Schulman began teaching at Baruch College in
1972, and over the yearsto my astonishment, she saysshe
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 graceanother self-referential
wink of the poets 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 Schulmans 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 [Monets Impression
Sunrise] to the epigraphs [one is from Chaucer: The lyf
so shorte, the craft so long to lerne,/ Thassay so hard, so sharp
the conquerynge.]. Light, air, praise, wonderin Hopkins
sense of wonder, as in his poem Pied Beauty.
The first line of the famous Hopkins poemGlory be to God
for dappled thingscertainly catches Schulmans 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 Librarys splendid exhibition Passions
Discipline: The History of the Sonnet in the British Isles and America,
which runs through August 2.) The second poem of the sequence on Schulmans
mother is reproduced here.
New Yorkers will specially delight in poems from her 1994 collection,
For That Day Only,
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 pianos 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 Pfaffs, 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.