To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rose Drachler: Three Poems with Numbers & Letters

[Originally published in Burrowing In, Digging Out (1974)  and The Choice (1977), both from David Meltzer’s Tree Books.  See also the note at bottom of this posting & the essay on Drachler’s work by Christine Meilicke, which appeared as the posting on Poems and Poetics for April 19, 2017.]


The counting made
The corners
Of the building

One and one
Two and one

Four horns
One and seven he counted
One and six

The goat stayed fluid
It steamed
Yellow eyes, square pupils
Fringes of flesh at its throat

They beat him with sticks
They threw stones at him
They sent him away
The goats were a gift
Both goats
One to die and one to drive away

One and one
Two and one

The counting was washing
It was clean
It was for the building


Aleph the cow with wide horns
Her milk in the night sky
Walks slowly on clouds
Aleph to the tenth power
She leads with symbolic logic
To the throne of milky pearl
Aleph the sky-cow with lovely eyes
Wide-horned giver she gives mankind
Her sign of is-ness.  The cow

Bayz the house snug
Under the heat of the sun
Out of the rain and the snow
We curl up in a corner
Under the roof of Bayz
Out of the daily sorrow
Bayz the comforter
Inhabited by humanity
Cat-like and childlike
Inside of his Bayz

Ghimel the camel
Carries man into the book
The leaves and waves
Of the forest the sea of the book
Boat of the desert the camel
Long traveler drinking the task
Ghimel drinks the dry road of daily observance
It slakes the thirst for communion

Daled the door like a wall
No hinges no handle
Daled the mysterious opener
Into a place with a road
The six hundred and thirteen small roads

I have swallowed Vav the hook
It had something tasty and nourishing on it
A Promise of plenty and friendship
With someone more than myself
I’ve got Vav the hook in my gut shift to rearrange the discomfort
Like a sharp minnow inside
When he draws up the line
Attached to the hook
When he rips the Vav out
There will be strange air around me 
Burning my gills

Yod the hand
And Koff the palm
Rested gently
On Raish the head
Of Abraham our father
Who crossed over
Burning the idols
Behind him in Ur
He looked upward
At stars sun and moon
Then looked further
For a pat on the head
From Yod and Koff
The unseen hand and palm

In the crook
Of the Lammed leaning forward
I put my neck when I pray
My shepherd makes me meek
He makes my knees bend
H guides me I follow
With the loop of the Lammed
On my throat
I go

Mem is the water
Sweetly obeying
The red-raging water
Which parted
Mem came together
And drowned the pursuers
Stubborn refusers of freedom
The enslavers Mem drowned them
Mem was the water
Brackish tormenting
Sweetened with leaves
By our Moses
The waters of trust
Which he struck from the rock
Mem mayim water

The jelly-glowing eye full of love
Sees past the eye the Ayin
Like a dog it perceives the hidden
It turns and stares at its master
It pleads with him to come home
the longing for certainty
Fills him too full
Return, my master, he says
Your eye to my eye

Peh the mouth speaking hastily
Praying easily fast without reverence
Full of gossip causing estrangement
Let my soul be as dust to Peh
The loud quarreler the prattler
The carrier of tales to and fro
The beguiler the mouth Peh better still

Shin is the tooth
It chews on the word
(With the dot on the left
It is Sin)
So much sharper than Shin the tooth
Is learning in the study
Together by dimlight
Chuckling together at the tooth
The horn that was known to gore
The tooth for a tooth in our story
The sharp-toothed father
Of our fathers
Who was wont to gore in the past

a scorner
a watcher
a screecher
a warner
a crested commander
a blue demander
a four colored blue
a jay

a tree top caller
a fire
a green dusted fire
a crier
a crested sayer
a ten time prayer
a two a pair
bright fallers
quiet hoppers
a fair pair

a touhee
a touhee
a four color bird
a three color bird
a one eye a one eye
a stare on the stair
an imp
ertinent hopper
a stopper a stayer
a one eye a touhee

a thrasher
a scraper
a searcher a lurcher
a red brown thrasher
a focus in motion
a leaf mold searcher
a brown leaf thrasher
a ground watcher
a searcher for motion
a brown searcher

a pair
a true crew
a nodder a prodder
a weaver
a figure eight dancer
a crew of two
a true trait
a constant mourner
two mourning doves

NOTE & AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.  Drachler’s poems are in a line with other works of the 1970s & 1980s that reflected an early fascination with the powers of the Hebrew alphabet (or any other system of writing, by extension), both as letters & as numbers.  Their kinship, before we ever knew of her, was to my own Gematria & to aspects of the poetry and poetics of practitioners such as David Meltzer, Nathaniel Tarn, Jackson Mac Low (his magnificent Presidents of the United States of America, among other alphabetic works), or the letter-based collages of Wallace Berman.  Her self-effacing & precise “Biographical Note” from her notes to The Choice is clearly worth reprinting here; viz: I am truly a non-person.  I have been mistaken for the janitor’s wife, a nurse for dogs, an aunt, a good witch, a poet, a distinguished (dead) actress, a mother.  I suffer from the spiteful machinations of my grand piano.  I am compelled to continue a needlepoint rug the size of a ballroom by the lust of the eye of the needle for friction with wool.  Strangers tell me the most intimate story of their lives and drunken Ukrainians propose marriage to me on the subway on Friday afternoons.  I am old and ugly.  I was born old but interested.  Water loves me.  I have been married to it for more than half a century.  I know the language of fish and birds.  Also squirrels and toads.  I am a convert to Orthodox Jewry, also I have tried riding a broomstick.  I had a vision of the double Shekhina on Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street.  I have taught cooking and sewing to beautiful Cantonese girls and the affectionate daughters of Mafiosi.  I am married to an irascible but loving artist.  A nay-sayer.  My parents drove each other crazy.  Me too.  Which turned me to books and poetry and I thank them for it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Christine Meilicke, “Burrowing In, Digging Out”: Digging Out Rose Drachler (redux)

[Re-posted from the Blogger version of Poems and Poetics, February 1, 2010]
 “Do you have any books by Rose Drachler?” I ask the book dealer in a New York second-hand bookshop that is known for its immense collection. “Rose what?” “Drachler.” “Never heard of her.” Nevertheless, I go to the bookshelf and scrutinize all poetry under the rubric “D.” Nothing there. Suddenly I notice a book behind the row. There is more! I move the first row only to find what I was looking for—The Collected Poems of Rose Drachler besides a number of other forgotten books.

For most Jewish poets, the name Rose Drachler does not ring a bell. In literature circles, she was probably never known except by a small group of avant-garde poets and writers in the ’70s and ’80s, such as, Charles Doria, Jackson Mac Low, David Meltzer, Charlie Morrow, Rochelle Ratner, Armand Schwerner, Diane and Jerome Rothenberg as well as John Yau and John Ashbery. They encouraged her writing and published it wherever they could.

Drachler wrote in a variety of styles that demonstrate her awareness of innovative, contemporary poetry. Some of her poems are composed in a prose style, while others are lyrical (in fact, they are reminiscent of Rilke or Yeats). Some poems appropriate Jewish texts, while others deal with purely personal subjects. Certainly, the poet’s far-ranging experimentation deserves attention.

I first saw a poem by Drachler in Rothenberg’s anthology A Big Jewish Book. It was a very weird poem about ritual counting:

The counting made
The corners
Of the building

One and one
Two and one

I have never forgotten the strangeness of this piece and found it repeated over and over again when I read her work. Drachler’s poems are lucid on the surface, but complex and opaque if one really tries to comprehend them. The poet pays a lot of attention to detail and makes use of an excruciatingly precise language. To invoke the specificity of her materials, she takes particular care to name plants, animals, and places correctly. Whether she writes about ritual prescriptions or about her garden, she never becomes vague. Yet she is always mysterious:

Touched I ooze
Sticky, I dry rubbery
A nuisance, exposed to air

As sowthistle, Brimstone-wart
Sunspurge, North American scelpius
Videlicet milkweed


To appreciate these poems on plants and animals, we need to feel with them. We need to “feel ourselves into” an old cat, an inchworm, a llama, a dog, a shark, an oak tree woodbine, or shrubbery, as they evoke emotions or symbolize certain states of being. Imagine, for instance, the “Llama:”

It looks far along its nose but sees best
Does not appreciate companionship other
Than llamas.

Perhaps the serenity of Drachler’s poems results from such introspection and her highly reflective character. In his preface to The Collected Poems, Rothenberg calls her “a genuine kabbalist: a poet whose work is totally comprehensible--& totally mysterious.” It was the mystical side of her poetry that fascinated a group of young American-Jewish poets who were deeply involved with kabbalah and with making their own canon of Jewish writing.

Surprisingly, Drachler only began to publish poetry when she was in her sixties. Her first publisher was a young poet—David Meltzer, the editor of the kabbalistic magazine Tree and publisher of Tree books. Drachler’s first books were two chapbooks, Burrowing In, Digging Out (1974) and The Choice (1977).

To Meltzer and his friends, Drachler personified a riddle full of contradictions: On the one hand, Drachler was an orthodox woman steeped in tradition (her father was a rabbi), on the other, she was an innovative poet open to new thoughts. Besides poetry, she read philosophical and historical literature as well as literary criticism. Her unconventional and original thinking is revealed in her correspondence with her peers as well as in her diary. The following passage from her journal demonstrates the breath and depth of her reflections. Drachler writes about her difficulties in gaining insight from the torah service and then goes on to think about the role of inspiration:

Sometimes a passage will glow up new and sharp, jump out of the run of loaded, time-filling custom. Even so there is a good, calm feeling of accomplishment, even on the least inspired Saturday. Inspired! Breath, full of breath. When a passage is strongly felt I perceive a change in my breathing. I breathe more shallowly and much less. [...] When I used to come to the unwanted and premature ending of one of my pregnancies, after a number of such occurrences, I learned how, by slow deep breathing, I could help the inevitable [...]. Breathing, too, is related to orgasm. Incorrect breathing can impede its oncoming. In certain societies where the focus is on these natural accomplishments it may be that instruction in breath-control is part of the secret learning of adolescents [...].

Her interest in anthropology and archeology connects Drachler with the Jewish poets of the ethnopoetics movement. Their common goal was to try to find meaning by forging a link with the past. Drachler finds continuity by writing poems on natural history as well as prehistoric and archaic themes. But she also dwells on her own ancestral history—the history of the Jews from biblical times onwards. Her poetic imagination is captured by midrashim about the patriarchs and prophets. Other poems deal with the biblical history of the temple, and the captivity, exile, and return of the Israelites as well as the coming of the messiah. To avoid sentimentality, Drachler undercuts the solemnity of her subjects with fantastic images: she envisions the messiah wearing “an Italian silk / suit cut in the latest mode / and drive a fine, white sports.”

However, other poems are permeated by a sense of melancholy and a feeling of loss, for the temple is no longer there. The past of the Jewish people needs to be consciously repossessed—through prayer, ritual and meditation. Thus, Drachler tries to come to terms with the modern condition: “We cannot see that wall [of the temple] / Those curtains, that time.” Here Drachler’s consciousness meets with that of her young Jewish supporters, who likewise attempt to reappropriate Jewish tradition, yet often in a much less observant way. In an unpublished letter to Rothenberg, Drachler suggests to the Jewish avant-garde poet that he should translate “the impossible, stuffy, Latinate translations in the Siddur” into strong contemporary poetry.

Meanwhile, Drachler continued to write her own liturgical poetry. In these Jewish poems, she meditates on the texts of the Jewish prayer book or the weekly torah portion; she ponders the sacred and anthropological significance of ancient sacrificial and purification rituals. Their purpose is to invoke a sense of the sacred and the numinous. Several poems conclude with a scene of deep awe, with “[h]alf a shudder.” They summon the God of Hiob and the Psalms: “The blast of His nostrils breaks the windows of the sky / He sends hail, snow, vapours, stormy winds obeying His word.”

Incidentally, Drachler perfectly fulfills Cynthia Ozick’s requirements for an American Jewish literature as voiced in her essay “Toward a New Yiddish”: “[Liturgical literature] is meant not to have only a private voice. Liturgy has a choral voice, a communal voice: the echo of the voice of the Lord of History. Poetry shuns judgment and memory and seizes the moment.” Ozick’s definition of Jewish literature in terms of liturgy may be criticized for being too narrow, but it certainly fits Drachler’s work, which strives to transcend the confines of the poet’s individual life by merging her into the chain of tradition.

Many of Drachler’s poems reveal that as an observant Jew, she feels a sense of duty toward the God of Israel. Yet this loyalty is threatened by the experience of history, especially the Holocaust. Drachler elaborates a story by Emmanuel Levinas in her powerful poem “We Love Him Absent.” The sardonic tone of this piece expresses the persistence of faith. The grandmother — a woman! — battles with God, but continues to believe in justice; she strives to live a just life, even if God himself seems unjust:


She scrubs away suffering sent by a veiled and
distant God. She renounces all beneficial manifestations.
God does not triumph except as tidiness.

That is her conscience, to bring order from chaos.
She is Jewish because that is what she insists on being
a daily follower of order. The suffering of the just for
justice makes her Jewish. God does not love her.
She loves God. There is no tenderness here.
They are not equals. There is no sentimentality.

That strain of defiance against God makes Drachler’s poetry impressive and memorable.  Rebellion and doubt, even bitterness, are balanced out by faith, obedience, and acceptance. Meltzer comments [in an email correspondence]: “The 'control' in her poetry was the ambix for her deep 'out of control' knowing.”

Some of these contradictions and paradoxes vouch for Drachler’s appeal to the poets of the Jewish counterculture, who published in Meltzer’s journal Tree. No simple affirmations. Nevertheless, she was a natural kabbalist and a feminist, who applied her visonary imagination to ancient archetypes and symbols. Many of her poems portray the feeling of being overwhelmed by some spiritual or natural power—by God, by inspiration, by strong passions, or by water — waves, rain and tears: “rising and swelling / we drown to be born.” Drachler’s poems fuse the spiritual and the sensuous:

In the tunnel
Light is haloed
Sound dissolved
The skin of separation
Is softened

Thought approaches
Airy and bright
Soft but pervasive
It penetrates rock


Reading Drachler’s poems is like meditating. Each poem deserves attention and elaboration; each poem can be read over and over again. Drachler reveals and conceals at the same time. In fact, concealment and obscurity run through her life. The poet and her husband, the book artist Jacob Drachler, lived a quiet and withdrawn life in a gated community (Seagate in Brooklyn). Drachler regularly went to synagogue, but she did not really belong to any local literary scene and often felt isolated. Out of this loneliness, Drachler created poems and shared them with young poets who admired her poetry and her wisdom. Thus Rothenberg writes in the preface to her poems: “The voice is quiet, not insistent, yet the poet’s wildness sounds beneath it.” It was that wildness and passion that enabled Drachler to have close friendships with poets twenty or thirty years her juniors.

Despite Meltzer’s sustained endeavors to familiarize the poetry world with Drachler’s work, she has been almost completely forgotten. This is surprising as the quality of her writing surpasses much of the poetry featured in Jewish journals and anthologies today. Was it Drachler’s pious modesty (tsni’ut in Hebrew) and her tendency toward self-deprecation that prevented her from advancing her own work? Or was this oversight motivated by the fact that she associated with the non-canonized avant-garde?

For the small group of admirers who continue to cite her as influential on their own writing, she represented a “poet’s poet.” Her marginality appealed to the poets of the Jewish counterculture. When Drachler died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 71, she was greatly missed by everyone who knew her. The Collected Poems were published one year later as a kind of last tribute to her. However, neither this assemblage of poems nor the fact that she briefly studied with John Ashbery, who thought highly of her writing, seems to have sufficed to popularize her poetry. Drachler envisioned herself in an image that still is an apt description of a role in Jewish literary culture: “In the sea, far out. I am alone with a gull.”

EDITOR’S NOTE. Rose Drachler’s virtual disappearance in death is one of those inevitable but disturbing realities that confronts a number of heroic & gifted artists. Her presence in her final years, as Christine Meilicke testifies, was important for many of us – not only the Jewish poets among us but many others as well. John Ashbery wrote of her: “Rose Drachler’s poems are strong and sweet, firm and quirky, but this oddness soon comes to be perceived by the reader as a new canon.” And my own assessment in a preface to her posthumous collected poems is one from which I wouldn’t back away, even now, a quarter of a century past her death: “Her book — like all poem-books since Whitman brought the message home — is the life, the song of herself created in the work. ‘My own,’ she says, ‘I do not conceal/ Or deny what I am’: a Jewish woman into her late 60s: who has been (for how long?) like those secret wise men in each generation, one of the 36 poets whose work stays hidden in the world.”  Several of her poems will appear shortly on Poems and Poetics, while the full text of  Burrowing In, Digging Out can still be found on Karl Young's Light & Dust web site by clicking here. (J.R.)]