Reviewed by E.C. Belli
Sitting in any of the rooms that is each poem in Approaching You In English you’ll notice a tear in the ceiling; none of these poems are sealed shut. Rather, they are permeable, pierced open in parts, and their cracks and fissures allow a certain light to come in. Born in Israel, in 1957, and of Iraqi and German-Jewish descent, Admiel Kosman seemed predestined to a life of labels. But as quoted in the introduction by translator Lisa Katz, Kosman sees “the course of my life as one of getting liberated from definitions of identity” and views “the personal line of my life not as a line of strengthening or developing these definitions but that of being liberated from them.”
What this means in practical terms for the poems in this collection is not a reluctance but a downright refusal to be boxed in. The first poem, “What I Can,” an anaphora-based ars poetica, makes it clear from the start: “I can write poems from sand, water and mud./ On the table I’ve written poems/ made of small pieces and crumbs of words”; and later, “I am writing poems now made of potatoes,/ sickly poems,/ ones that wound and tear and do harm, about my childhood about shame/ about rare/ sensitivities and I can write poems for you and brush them off as if nothing/ had ever happened then,/ a series of ornamental poems.”
Kosman’s materials are many. His topics range from writing poems to relationships to sex to women (handled magnificently with what one might call a very gender-light touch, a touching respect) to God to Jewish texts to life in Israel to Israeli-Palestinian politics. He even touches upon language, specifically English, which he takes a few friendly jabs at: “Please, I’m encroaching on Your generosity in English this time”; and later, “Please, won’t You be so kind and understand me this once/ in a broken foreign tongue [. . .] Can You hear me this time? In the language of non-Jews?” (“Approaching You In English”).
Kosman knows how to craft humor, irony, many of the more refined tones—nothing seems to elude his poetic abilities. But despite Kosman’s exquisite exercises in tone and topics, the reader is drawn in above all because of this mysterious light: a strange sense of communication with something beyond, with something transcendent that is present in nearly all of the poems that make up Approaching You In English.
Do the tears and slits ushering in this light mean that something about the poems is broken? Kosman alludes to a brokenness in the world that he could be reproducing formally. In “Note in the Western Wall,” for instance, the poet gives us: “Everything is falling out, falling apart. Even the parts that’s sleeping/ is falling. Like rotten teeth. And we haven’t done/ anything”; and later: “Come down here for a minute./ Almost everything is cockeyed/ in hell, ten degrees off,/ and your wall is being bombed./ Hold on tight. Listen,/ listen to me please./ For everything is going to fall.”
Similarly, in “I Saw A Dove,” he relates: “I saw a dove/ lifeless./ Perhaps she died of old age?/ But my mother quarreled with me early in the morning [ . . .] I saw a dove sprawled/ lifeless./ Perhaps she died of old age?/ And perhaps not [. . .] there was blood on her neck and between her wings, and my mother screamed in the early morning and said,/ why should we live at all.”
But permeability does not necessarily imply failure. Especially when what seeps in is positively sublime, intangible but true, believable but not verifiable. Readers of Approaching You In English will find that, quite the opposite of failure, Kosman’s willingness to keep poems open, to use them as vessels, denotes generosity, a tenderness, a certain compassion—the same that provides him with the impulse to liberate himself and others from definitions of identity, that tells him to tell us that we do not need to be what those labels want to limit us to.
Compassion is actually palpable in Kosman’s work. “Ordinary Clothing Made of Light” is one such moving occurrence: “We have four fine children,/ well-behaved, with an immediate need/ for undershirts, underpants,/ and sets of clothes —/ for thin, transparent suits/ made from the light [. . .] These four fine children!/ who must go —/ and walk to school and back —/ No one in the cosmos cares!!/ Please arise, dear citizen,/ and enlist in a moving cause./ Send a modest contribution/ to the address below/ and if you have —/ (even used)/ clothing made of light.” It is also felt in “Wanted”: “Wanted, a quiet place to rest the soul./ Just for a few moments […] Wanted, one phrase, clean, agreeable and warm to serve as a bench,/ a refuge, for someone close to me, a dove-child, my own soul,/ who left the ark this morning/ for a few moments, in the early hours./ and couldn’t find a place to rest her feet.”
A professor of religious and Jewish studies, Kosman is often considered a pious, religious, even an exegetical, allusive or intertextual poet. Yet he enjoys widespread appeal. His knowledge and theological erudition is serious, but the reader need not be privy to all his references to behold the light that permeates his poetry or to understand that these poems are vessels to a beyond. This is, perhaps, the result of his compassion. It is not the loudest voice that rises to the fore in his poetry but rather, the most feeling: “Don’t take it out of the world./ Leave it in the world for me./ Leave her gentle stirring/ at the window,/ set going by first/ light [. . .] And please leave her hair/ gathered up for so many years,/ to this day, with a ribbon./And leave the gold, if possible,/ leave this ray of splendor/ that has been falling thousands of years in/ the same one-thousandth of a second” (“Morning Prayer”).
Translator Lisa Katz has done a tremendous job of keeping open the passageways to transcendence that present themselves in Kosman’s Approaching you in English. She has allowed new readers to peer, too, into the cracks and slits in the ceiling and connect with that something beyond.
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