A Reverie on Shirley Kaufman’s Poem, "Our Neighbor In Charge"


Thirty years ago, the American poet Shirley Kaufman and her husband moved from San Francisco to a desert watered by more than five thousand years of wars that even today explode bodies as if they were wineskins burst by anything fast enough to pierce the superficial and seek out an innocent life. Shortly after they arrived in Israel, the Yom Kippur War broke out, quickly introducing them to "air raid shelters, deaths of young people whose families we knew, and the immediacy of fear…" (Interview with Lisa Katz. http://www.thedrunkenboat.com/kaufmanview.html)

Columns that breach political quicksand may lead to humane foundations to which these days of folly fear to reach. Here, too, we get sense of liminality, by focusing on a single threshold, a single-page poem titled "Our neighbor in charge of the." This page, as with all this book’s pages, has a yellowish tinge, the cast of living wood from which is was sliced still evident, as in a later poem Kaufman sees "uprooted / cedars like overreaching / toward / their Babel hubris / fir trunks / like ancient columns / thrown down…" ("The sign on a new bridge.")

Even at the beginning we cannot hide. There is no shelter; yet, we begin with the vision of a bomb shelter. I have seen pictures of such places dug beneath Israeli sand, where mothers lock their arms around children and stare at the ceiling, as Ancient Hebrews searched at the sky, wondering whether their vengeful god would suddenly strike them down for their alleged sins. The Jews are a people rooted in the sky, which gives this poem’s beginning, "Our neighbor in charge of the / shelter," an ironic twist from a Sky God, who allows deadly missiles the arc through his domain, to seeking refuge in the Earth Goddess’s merciful womb. Under fire, Heaven and Earth, the divine couple whom Mircea Eliade calls "the leitmotiven of universal mythology," hide under the Lady’s bed.

"…he’ll clean it," the poem continues, "sometime / before the next war…" Wars are not only inevitable, they are always already "dirty," so we need to make a place free of pollution from the contingent wars our leaders continuously plan in their fantasy of bombproof bunkers spread beneath the earth. Then, "we leave the door open / so he won’t forget." All shelters have a door; and in light of the earth-penetrating missiles now being designed and built, the shelter’s door is always open. "The rape of the earth" has become a literal truth.

So we will dig deeper, as the narration suddenly shifts from the third to the second person, a step more personal, a step closer to oneself. The neighbor is addressed, but is he? Who would talk to a person like this?: "each morning your sloping shoulders" carry the heavy burden the soul places on them. It is as if the words are sliding off his shoulders like rare raindrops. This is a poet speaking, after all, not someone dribbling mundane words off her tongue. The great Jewish poet, Edmond Jabs, wrote, "O how the bidden threshold slides into the threshold forbidden," Thus, each of Kaufman’s words looks beyond itself, testing the integrity of what is forbidden.

She continues, pointing out "your resourceful hands your /fingers…" In his book, The Human Hand in Primitive Art, (Austin, TX., 1925), V.J. Smith wrote: "It is reported that the walls of every native-built house in Jerusalem are decorated by prints of the hand, in order to avert the evil eye," and that "There is a record, from Tunis, of a Jewish practice of placing the imprint of a bleeding hand upon the walls of each floor of a building." The talent of the Jewish hand goes further than mere building, digging, or cleaning; it participates in ancient rituals of warding off evil; e.g., the "terrorist," by imprinting, an act that stems back to Paleolithic cave painting, where through millennia the ghosts of hands clung to lightless hidden walls.

The man’s fingers are then compared to "ten flavors / of yogurt / labeled in Hebrew". Why has yogurt entered this poem? As the poet doesn’t give us a clue, reverie must step in.. What I see—please bear with me—is Siddhartha sitting beneath a tree. The future Buddha has realized that all his yogic privations have only led to weakness, not to the promised realization. So he begins to eat again, and we know the menu of his first real meal in years: yogurt. Only after he has been nourished by the curds is he able to sit with his back straight, fingers touching, completing a somatic connection, and concentrate long enough to reach the state of consciousness that would change the spiritual world forever. From yoga to yogurt, from traditional austerities to faith in a concert between well-being and being enlightened.

Kaufman’s yogurt, one flavor for each finger, is labeled in the sacred language the transplanted poet had to learn in middle age, like a tree that sends out rhizomes to find a new source of water. And here it ends. Not the poem, but the thought.

In her interview with Lisa Katz, Kaufman says "There are always threads, and there is always ‘the way,’ when you find it. But nothing gets tied together –or resolved." So the poet is pointing somewhere else. Maybe the man’s ten fingers are an oblique reference to the Hebraic Ten Commandments, in which "Thou shalt not kill" is read "Thou shalt not make war on thy neighbor"? Roots are complex, and "if your knees were your hands / they would forget their thick-rooted pain…" Palms would meet the ground, bowing an act of levitation. But the human brain has an easier time remembering than forgetting; even more so, forgiving. It’s root is the brain-stem, that knee-jerk inceptor that wanders into the limbic system, tapping the amygdala’s reactive instinctive drives. So, "forget the headlines," Kaufman begs, "reckless words / I shove / under the table…"

To Katz, the poet lamented: "There was a saving moment of euphoria after the Oslo accords while we planned for two secure states living peacefully side by side. But now our hopes have collapsed, and we are all responsible." Have we come to a point where negotiations are off the table, and it is mainly reckless words that we will hear from now on? Reckless words, the bankrupt currency of the present American Administration, and the bombs and bullets they unleash, words Kaufman would "rub out / with my bare feet."

With bare feet one rubs out lines drawn in the sand: fences don’t make good neighbors. Bare feet are also a sacred gesture, the divine being as uncomfortable as a shoe that is an infinite number of sizes too large. So it all comes down to the notion of a "Holy Land," the concept of a god who is historically tied to a particular place, whose broken voice is knotted into books, and, like the spirit road in a Navajo rug, whose poets work to leave a door open.

© Joel Weishaus 2004