Holy longing, holy language: Yehoshua November’s "God’s Optimism"

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April 11, 2011

In the foreword to Yehoshua November’s collection of poems, God’s Optimism, Liz Rosenberg recounts that when she asked him, in an introductory poetry class, why he wrote poetry, he replied, “I want to restore the sanctity to language.” If the effulgent praise on the book jacket hadn’t buttered me up enough, that one remembered remark opened my reader’s heart. A guy who wants to restore the sanctity to language is my kind of guy. The odds seemed good that these would be my kind of poems.

“It’s amazing the gifts we are given,” the book begins. This is the first line of November’s “We Go To Work For Unsettled Sums,” and reading it, I think: modah ani l’fanecha, Melech chai v’kayam! (I am grateful before You, living and enduring God!) But even with my gratitude practices, I recognize myself in the yearning-for-something-more that permeates these lines. That is part of what I love about this collection: from the start, November doesn’t hold himself above the rest of us. There’s no hint of holier-than-thou in these lines.

These poems come out of the loneliness of forgetting that (as the Slonimer Rebbe teaches) we’re already in devekut, in a state of unity with God. We may be part of God – and God a part of us – but we imagine ourselves to be isolated individuals: that’s the tragedy of modernity, and these poems are steeped in that sorrow, even as they offer glimmers of a way out.

November lifts the veil cloaking ordinary moments, revealing the holiness underneath. In one poem he writes about a moment in a university professor’s office when, the professor’s back turned, “I concentrated all my energy on whispering Hashem’s name, / all irony faded / and angels were swimming from your lamp.” I remember being an undergraduate struggling to lift up my Jewishness in the face of professors who spoke the language of Lacan and Derrida. I’m charmed by the image of the earnest student whose faith in things unseen brings angels into being and turns the light of philosophy into the insight of holy understanding.

Some of these poems make me choke up with tears I can’t entirely explain. Like “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah,” which offers a scene I’m unlikely to ever witness in the flesh: young bearded men slipping out of their black-and-white garb to immerse in cleansing waters, ruing the tattoos that reveal the old lives they can never entirely escape. The Hasidic masters taught that one who has sinned and then returned to God is more beloved than one who has never sinned. This poem knows that, although that infinite mercy is subtext here, never text.

“The motion of the lives around us / has been like a great bus / slowly turning onto a crowded street,” November writes in “After Our Wedding.” The world spins around each of us, but even when we’re not looking, holiness is unfolding everywhere. The divine presence may be hiding, but in every moment lurks the possibility of uplifting some spark into a deeper connection.

Several of these poems draw explicitly on texts from the Torah. In one poem November explores the love story of Yaakov and Rachel, then shows us the moment when he himself almost leaned in to kiss his wife for the first time but was unable to roll away the stone in front of that source of water. In another he alludes to the akedah (the binding of Isaac):

God, You have made it clear that this is a religion of tests,
but in the books of mysticism
You have also whispered that all the while
You hide just behind the wall,
waiting for us to pass.

In the technical sense, Avraham’s tests were biblical in scope. Ours tend to be more intimate: the suffering of a loved one, (God forbid) the loss of a child. In November’s world, what makes a place holy are human tears, which means the whole world is holy. What’s more, love and suffering are our universals, intimately connecting us across boundaries of space and time.

It isn’t easy for a religious man to live in a secular world where images of nearly-naked women are blazoned on advertising surfaces wherever the eye may drift. November acknowledges that obliquely in a poem about divorce, called “Billboards.” But the poem is about much more than advertising. He asks, “But how, to begin with, / do two people never related by blood / unpack everything they have separately collected / into shared rooms?” Genuine connection is so implausible as to seem impossible, especially when so many worldly forces militate against it. And yet. And yet.

Some of these poems are surprisingly funny—like “Climbing,” which shows the narrator engaged in morning prayers in a small basement shul. He sees a workman who climbs a ladder and enters the ceiling—and in so doing becomes a metaphor for all of us “trying desperately to ascend.”

Or “A Jewish Poet,” which notes, that “[i]t is hard to be a Jewish poet… every day you have to ask yourself why you’re writing / when there is already the one great book.” (Tell me about it.) But in the humor (as in November’s sorrow) there is a certain poignancy and longing. These poems put in words the yearning that I hear in wordless niggunim. I know one niggun that asks why a soul enters the world, and then answers “to know God.” Surely that is the answer these poems provide.

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