Etta Blum, The
Space My Body Fills.
In the autumn of
1977, I began a residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, in
Taos, NM. One day, someone told me there was another
poet living at the foundation. When I knocked
Etta Blum was working at her desk. Although thirty years older
than me, a friendship between us quickly blossomed. Later,
in Santa Fe, to where we both moved after our
respective fellowships had expired, I'd visit her apartment for
tea and talk. Etta's energy was such that I didn't
suspect she was seriously ill, and only learned about her trips
Center in Albuquerque after she had passed away.
For a writer, words have magical powers. Their appearance is a mystery, an astonishment. It is common for an artist to think, "I don't have the talent to have made that. What is my name doing on it?" For most of the history of human creativity artists didn't sign their work, even though, because of the sophistication of Paleolithic cave paintings, it is possible that our ancestors not only had a complex spoken language but one that signified personal names. However, they worked anonymously for the community, a tradition that continued as the paintings were revised as palimpsests over tens of thousands of years. What changed this was the brilliant rendering of a monotheistic mythology by "a puzzling people," to the later Hellenistic-Roman mind, who chrystallized into the Kingdom of Israel around 1000 BCE.
In the Hasidic tradition of Judaism, words, especially nouns, carry a magical creative power.
Even today, to the Lubavitcher Hasidim. "a word and the thing it refers to are held to be spiritually linked, and because of this, the manipulation of words can effect change in the physical world."(3)
The best known story in Jewish folklore is that of the Golem, a living being who the 16th Century Rabbi Judah Loew created from earth by pronouncing a few words. (Ironically, the Golem couldn't speak.) Of course, this idea harks back to when God created Adam from earth. There are Tibetan meditation practices, which include chanting mantras, that are said to create, if not physical bodies, psychic ones. According to environmental philosopher David Abram:
Born in Poland, in 1896, Eliezer Blum-Alquit, emigrated to America in 1914. For most of his creative life he used the pseudonym B. Alquit. Later he became B. Alquit-Blum. In her Translator's Preface to her husband's book, Etta Blum wrote: "Further consideration, however, has led to the decision to use his full family name, as was his desire, with the pseudonym added: hence. Elizer Blum-Alquit."(5) Tailor, poet, editor, short story writer, the permutations of his name were as many as his professions. On the other hand, after marriage, at age 18, Etta Blum's name was as solid as her poems.
In 1937, Etta Blum published a book of poems that garnered positive reviews from well-known poets and critics. (7) She also received this letter:
This was 18 years before the Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco, the event that marked the beginning of the Beat Poets’ rise to public recognition. It is significant because one aspect of Beat aesthetics was to bring poetry to the stage. This move shook American poetry loose from what had become its comfortable pedagogical housing, even though most of the poets reading that night had college degrees. Although orality is no longer shackled to the moment, thanks to various recording and playback devices, the stability of written words, even in translation, continues to give them valence over time. "Written in stone," an expression that may be traced back to the Hebrew myth of the Ten Commandants, still carries weight.
With an MA from Columbia University and two daughters to raise, for most of her life Etta worked for the New York Board of Education. While during those years some of her poems appeared in venues such as The Nation, The New York Times, Paris Review, Poetry, The New Republic, et al., it would be 43 years before her second, and last, book was published.(9)
On the Internet today I found a few poems from The Space My Body Fills posted on a blog:
In another poem from the first section of this book Etta becomes "a tree among the trees / (my leaves pretending to be wings) / before going to sleep."(11) Poets have a long-standing relationship with trees, as, "like all beings, are themselves shaping powers of imagination. Not only do they stand for the human; human selves are symbols of trees."(12)
Addressing the god who was a central figure throughout her life, she wrote: "You are not to be embraced, / most transparent of ghosts."(13) It is the ghost of the man she had embraced, flesh to flesh, for 37 years that occupies the middle, most soulful, section of this book.(14)
Of the day he died:
At his funeral:
What she did during the last 18 years of her life was to write poems in the space her body filled, "(s)urely with the sight / of more than two eyes, / the agility of more / than ten fingers."(18)
References and Notes:
1- Sontag, S. (1988) Illness
As Metaphor. New York.
Note: The number
18 appears, in various guises, several times in this critique. According
to Gematria, a Jewish mystical tradition adopted from
that assigns a numerological value to letters, Chai has
the value of 18, and Chai symbolizes
life—a life well-lived, with poems well-made.