Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Etta Blum, The Space My Body Fills.
The Sunstone Press: Santa Fe, 1981.


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 on her door, 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 to the Cancer Center in Albuquerque after she had passed away.
Susan Sontag, also a victim of cancer, wrote:

"A surprisingly large number of people with cancer find themselves shunned by relatives and friends and are the object of practices of decontamination by members of their household, as if cancer, like TB, were an infectious disease. Contact with someone afflicted with a disease regarded as a mysterious malevolency inevitably feels like a trespass; worse, like the violation of a taboo. The very names of such diseases are felt to have a magic power."(1)

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.

Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, called Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Holy Name), was an 18th Century mystic who founded Hasidic Judaism. He believed that “everything that exists is, according to its true nature, nothing but language. Thus, when the Creator uttered a word, the object designated by that word had already been named, and that means it had already been created."(2)

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:

"It is only in relation to this powerful new magic (this technology that isolates and reifies human speech, disentangling the human tongue from calls, cries, and whispers of the animate cosmos) that it becomes possible to intuit a humanlike God entirely outside the changing world, an omnipotent Voice to whom we, alone among all the animals, are beholden.(4)


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.

All of me
to see you together
I keep on fussing
with pieces
                 Shall I
take to
chipping from stone.


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:

Dear Mrs. Blum;

Thank you for sending me your book of poems.
Only yesterday a friend of mine wrote to me about one of my own books, saying that as music is best described by performing it, so poetry is best defined by writing it. This may have been merely a piece of polite letter writing on the part of the person who wrote it, but, even so, it is worth passing along.
For what I have seen of your book it is plain that you are after the real thing. Good Luck.

                 Very Truly Yours,
                 Wallace Stevens

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:

I am the tree ascending.
At the topmost branch
I've become the bird,
starting from tip to
climb into above.
Afterward, cloud.
Why not?
My purposes are clear.

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:

I sat by your side and
waited. Searched your
dead eyes, with the light
glancing off them as
of dark pearl. The mouth
opened to soundlessness.
Yet I waited.
                      Like a dumb
animal who had never heard
the word death, not
knowing how to say it.

At his funeral:

Now, what shall I do with
my dissatisfactions? Beneath
so much shovelled earth
you cannot be reached with
either love or torment.


My dear, it is no use.
You are within the earth.
And I, lying upon a knoll
in this city park, feel
your heart beating. So
much earth and life be-
tween. I see your smiles
and your angers, the
acceptance complete
as the rejection—so that
I scarcely know what to do.

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.
2- Grözinger, K.E. (1994) Kafka and Kabbalah. New York, 1994.
3- Dein, S. (2002) "The Power of Words: Healing Narratives among Lubavitcher Hasidim." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 16(1).
4- Abram, D. (2010) Becoming Animal. New York.
5- Blum, E. (1969) In, E. Blum-Alquit, Revolt of the Apprentices and Other Stories. Canbury, NJ.
6- Blum, E. From, "I cannot Recall Your Face, Wherefore My True Loneliness."
7- Blum, E. (1937) Poems. Golden Eagle Press, New York. Reviewers included: Stephen Spender, William Rose Benet, and Robert Fitzgerald.
8- Stevens, W. (1996) Letters of Wallace Stevens, Berkeley.
- Most of Etta Blum's poems remain unpublished, and can only be found in personal journals archived at the University of New Mexico's Center for Southwest Research. http://rmoa.unm.edu/docviewer.php?docId=nmu1mss376bc.xml
10- Blum, E. "I Am The Tree." " "I was out and about Friday afternoon and happened on a garage sale. The elderly lady had just few dismal items displayed in her driveway, and normally, from the looks of it, I would have driven on by. But something urged meto stop and take a gander. One of the few old books she had displayed on a broken lawn chair was The Space My Body Fills, poems by Etta Blum. I walked straight over, picked it up, paid the woman $1 and went on my merry way. She probably thought, 'Well,that's a girl who knows what she wants.'" T. Kincaid, August 26, 2009. http://willowmanor.blogspot.com/2009/08/space-my-body-fills.html Accessed. Feb. 2014.
11- Blum, E. From, "The Fountain, The Fire."
12- Perlman, M. (1994) The Power of Trees: The Reforesting of the Soul. Woodstock, CT.
13- Blum. E. From, "God: A Word."
14- "This (world of ghosts) is fluid, or dusty, fiery, muddy, or aetherial, so there is nothing firm to hold to—unless we develop intuitive instruments for seizing impalpables that slip through our fingers or burn at the touch." J. Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld. New York, 1979.
15- Blum, E. From, "My Refusal."
16. Blum, E. From, "Now, What Shall I do?"
17- Blum, E. From, "City Park."
18- Blum, E. From, "Finishing Touches to a Portrait."

Note: The number 18 appears, in various guises, several times in this critique. According to Gematria, a Jewish mystical tradition adopted from the Assyro-Babylonian 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.