If childhoods have leitmotifs, mine was the steady, subtle, though sometimes bullying insistence on the unsurpassed importance of my Jewish American identity. On one side of my two-track upbringing, there was the uncontested conviction that Jews were the chosen people, the main players in God’s plan for humanity; on the other side, the daily pledge of allegiance to the American Republic, in all its shining-city- on-a-hill exceptionalism. How it is that my self-importance is not positively Trumpian is as big a mystery as why Muammar al-Qaddafi took over Libya and declared himself colonel, not king, or why, as John Berryman once wondered, cats love fish and hate water.
Unfortunately, and for reasons I don’t completely understand, my emotional investment in these and other inherited identities didn’t extend much beyond my immediate family, which was anything but coherent or harmonious. There was seldom a time when one of us three kids wasn’t being spanked or yelled at, or when my frazzled, overworked parents weren’t at each other’s throats. Daily alliances among the children were fungible; they broke apart and reformed in different combinations depending on who was tormenting whom or who was catching hell. I never felt closer to one sibling than when the other one was being teased or ostracized: my brother and I becoming angels when my sister acted out, my sister and I anointed as the chosen ones when my brother threw a tantrum, my sister and brother becoming best friends when I’d be sent off without dinner to my room, or the three of us suddenly turning thick as thieves listening to the parents screaming at each other in the middle of the night. If our earliest attachments determine or shape the quality of attachments later in life, it’s no surprise that my need for belonging, however deep and inescapable it may be, was and is still vexed, fraught with ambivalence and conflict.
* * *
An old rabbi and his family lived down the street from us. In our Jewish but mostly secular neighborhood, he was an anomaly. He was always praying in the window of his ground-floor study. I don’t recall ever seeing him outside, or anywhere but there, at that big table, under a gooseneck lamp, a satiny prayer shawl covering the shoulders of his dusty, rumpled black suit, his skull-capped head bent over a massive tome whose pages were so thin you could see through them when he turned one over, the print on both sides momentarily visible, like a cloud of gnats in sunlight, one crooked finger moving tremulously right to left across the words he mumbled along to, chanting Ha Shem this and Ha Shem that.
Once, during a hot summer day, I saw him with his coat off, the sleeves of his yellowish white shirt rolled up to reveal the numbers tattooed on the inside of his wrinkled forearm. When I asked my parents what the numbers meant, they looked at each other, and one of them said never mind, it wasn’t my business and I shouldn’t be looking at the old man, I should just ignore him. They were more uncomfortable than upset or annoyed, as if I had ventured into forbidden territory. I was too young, of course, to know or learn about the Holocaust. But what I gathered from their discomfort was that the rabbi was in some essential way off-limits, that he existed in some zone I should steer clear of. He was a different kind of Jew, not an American Jew like us. He embodied everything abnormal that defined by contrast the normal people we claimed to be.
This was the 1950s, when there was just so much not to talk about: my father’s war experience in the Philippines, the atomic bomb, the camps, the red scare, the arms race, Korea. And the economy was booming, at least for other families, but just enough for mine to keep believing Easy Street was just around the corner. We were Jewish Americans of that moment: We could be Jews at home and in the synagogue on the High Holidays, but everywhere else we were good Americans, like everybody else, only more so. What it meant to belong in either world, among either tribe, it seemed, was not to stand out like the old rabbi, not to be looked at. To belong meant to embrace the invisibility of the socially acceptable.
* * *
Like most Jewish families, we had a mezuzah on our front doorpost. Like most mezuzahs, ours looked like a metal toothpick container. Inside it was a tiny piece of parchment on which were written verses from the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael.” I didn’t know any of this back then. I didn’t know (and if my parents did, they didn’t care) that we were all supposed to kiss our fingertips and touch them to the mezuzah for good luck whenever we left or entered the house. Still, we were told in no uncertain terms that we should never, ever take down the mezuzah, much less break it open, because doing so would bring grave misfortune to us individually and as a family.
Since I was a curious child and our family had never seemed terribly fortunate to begin with, I decided one day, when no one was around (I was six or so, I think), to climb up on a chair and claw the holy case off the doorpost with the back end of a hammer and bust it open. The parchment was just a flimsy slip of paper, the size of a fortune in a fortune cookie, scribbled over with Hebrew script. I crawled under the chair the way we crawled under our desks in kindergarten during nuclear bomb drills. Tucking myself into a ball and waiting for the worst, I felt a pang of guilt for my parents and siblings, who didn’t deserve what would soon be visited upon them. But nothing happened. No lightning flash, no voice thundering down curses at me from the heavens. Just me under the chair and the silent house, and the holy rubble I eventually scooped up and tossed in the trash. It was my parents’ wrath now, not God’s, that I began to fear, but when they got home, nothing happened. Everyone was, as usual, too irritable and harried to notice. Not that day, not soon after, not until months later, when they had the inside of the house painted and assumed that the painters had taken down the mezuzah and forgot to nail it back when the job was done. Not only that, we went on being who we always were, no better or worse, seemingly a Jewish family in good standing with the Lord, going through the motions of what remained of being chosen.
* * *
I learned about the Holocaust not long after, on my first day of Hebrew school. I fell asleep in class and my teacher, Mrs. Dubrow, a tiny, wizened old lady who spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent, her face fixed in a permanent scowl, slapped me on the head and held a photograph before me and ordered me to look at it. “You’re no better than a piece of wood. You look at that picture.”
In the black-and-white photograph there was a smiling German soldier posing beside a pile of naked white bodies. Behind them was a massive ditch half-filled with even more naked bodies lying every which way on top of other bodies. The bodies outside the ditch were stacked up like cords of wood, only they were human bodies with all of their hidden parts unhidden, exposed. These were the first pictures of naked adult bodies I had ever seen. The nakedness was horrifying and violent: a violent crime being committed right before my eyes. “This,” Mrs. Dubrow hissed, shaking the photo like a club, “this is why you come here. You don’t learn, no better than a Nazi.”
As I would learn later, Mrs. Dubrow was a Holocaust survivor, as were many of her fellow teachers. She scared me as much as the picture did. Whatever happened to her in Eastern Europe in the old days before I was born, whatever tribe she thought she and I belonged to, whatever it was she wanted me never to forget, I wanted nothing to do with. She was as alien as the rabbi down the street. My real life took place in public school. This other school in the musty basement of the synagogue, in windowless classrooms where I was expected to learn a strange new alphabet and stranger words that went backwards, right to left, across the page, seemed totally disconnected from the actual world I lived in, from the real language I spoke and read. The God that Mrs. Dubrow was teaching me to fear seemed as joyless and hardhearted as she was. When Passover came around, we read about the Hebrews’ enslavement in Egypt, and how, time and again, when Moses said to Pharaoh, let my people go, God himself would harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he would refuse. “Why,” I asked Mrs. Dubrow, “why would God keep hardening Pharaoh’s heart? Why not soften his heart so he’d free the Jews?” Mrs. Dubrow smacked my hand with a ruler and said, “Piece of wood. No better than a piece of wood. No better than a Nazi.”
I stayed back four years in a row. At thirteen, when it was time for the bar mitzvah, I still couldn’t read a word of Hebrew. A piece of wood, indeed. So in order to get through the ritual reading of the haftorah, I memorized my lines by listening to a tape recording of another kid’s bar mitzvah. Now, according to Jewish law, I was a man. And that was the last time I went to synagogue, until my sister died thirty years later.
* * *
Every Passover, the suffering of the ancient Hebrews came to stand for that of the Jews who died in the camps during the war. Otherwise, as they were about the war itself, my parents were silent about the past. We went on living our version of the American Dream. No, we should never forget the Holocaust, but in those days it seemed okay to ignore it.
* * *
Nearly forty years later, I am sitting alone at my brother’s bedside in his studio apartment in the Elysian Park area of Los Angeles. He is in the last stages of terminal brain cancer. Despite huge amounts of morphine, he is in unspeakable pain, head thrashing from side to side, moaning, unconscious, utterly isolated in his agony. Because of the thrashing, I’ve pulled up the guard rails of the hospital bed we moved into the flat, and he looks as if he’s caged. On the other side of the bed, there’s an IV stand holding a nearly empty bag of morphine. The pain will get worse if the bag isn’t replaced soon, but the hospice nurse who is supposed to be on call has not picked up. He is dying just as horribly as my sister did three years earlier while my brother and I helplessly looked on. I look up at my brother and recall my sister, and I wish for their sake that we’d been better Jews, observant Jews, like the old rabbi down the street, or Mrs. Dubrow, or that we had found some other religion, some other God whose presence could have been felt there with us in the room, and made their dying less terrifying, less desolate, less arbitrary. I think about the crime I committed so many years ago, my discovery that there is no omniscient Ha Shem surveilling my every thought and deed, and that the laws, prayers, rituals, restrictions, and proscriptions were all a bunch of hokum, illusions of meaning and purpose, “like an outdated combine harvester,” as Philip Larkin says. And it occurs to me that maybe this is, after all, exactly how God shows his wrath: in and through his absence. My lack of faith, I am thinking, is how I am being punished for my lack of faith.
* * *
At the end of my sophomore year in high school I was sucker-punched in the nose by the fullback of the football team for dancing with his girlfriend. My septum shattered, I had to wear a head cast and then a nose guard everywhere for a few months. Worse, I, who saw myself as nothing but a basketball player, the next K.C. Jones (despite being only five feet nine, with no leaping ability and not much of a shot), was temporarily barred from playing the game. To stay in shape, I ran five miles every evening after working all day at my summer job, and in the fall I joined the cross-country team. I was finally cleared to play basketball in December, but on the first day of practice, always Mr. Hustle, I dove for a loose ball and broke my wrist and was forced to sit out the season.
Falling into a deep depression—what was I, what would I be?—I spent hours in my room feeling sorry for myself, hating my life, and listening to whatever music happened to be playing on the radio. That’s when I first heard Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” The raspy voice, the needling, unsentimental, accusatory lyrics—it felt as if Dylan were singing my self-contempt back to me. I was both singer and sung to: “No I do not feel that good when I see the heartbreaks you embrace / If I were a master thief perhaps I’d rob them / And tho I know you’re dissatisfied with your position and your place / Don’t you understand it’s not my problem.” More than the singing, I fell in love with the words, the surrealist juxtaposition of images, which seemed to me the verbal equivalent of a clever no-look pass or a pump fake or a behind-the-back dribble. I wanted to learn how to write like that. I studied every Dylan song I could find, bought every Dylan record I could buy, read everything about him I could put my hands on. (Imagine my surprise to learn that he was Jewish! So there was hope for me after all.) Because he mentioned T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in “Desolation Row,” I started reading them and other modern poets. When I saw the documentary about a Dylan concert tour, Dont Look Back, I became interested in Allen Ginsberg, and, through Ginsberg, I learned about Beat poetry, and got interested in Whitman, and the Psalms, and on and on. It was as if I had entered a new family, one that I had chosen. my one and only passion.
My actual family was less than delighted about my new passion. My dad said I would never make enough as a poet. I told him making enough was not what I wanted from life. He said, “Then be a lawyer, you’ll make more than enough!” He called me a quitter who never stuck with anything. I had quit Hebrew school. I had quit baseball. I had quit football. And while I still played basketball, it was clear to him that my heart wasn’t in it the way it used to be. My parents’ anxiety and disappointment weighed on me, their disappointment even more than their disapproval, much as I pretended that it didn’t. I was sixteen and could take comfort in Dylan’s words: “You mothers and fathers throughout the land, / Don’t criticize what you can’t understand, / Your sons and your daughter are beyond your command…”
* * *
In poetry classes and workshops I have taught in recent years, questions about identity have acquired a special urgency, particularly when they touch on the taboo of “appropriation”—the artistic use of the experiences of people whose identities different from one’s own. In one such workshop, a white student turned in a poem, a dramatic monologue spoken in the voice of a black woman. The poem was not terribly good, but it was not in my view offensive. After he read the poem, I looked at the other poets sitting around the table, including several black poets. No one spoke at first. The tension in the room was palpable.
“What do you think?” I asked.
One of the black women said she could not think or talk about the poem as a poem, in terms of craft. It was the intention, the idea of it, she couldn’t get past. In her view, a white person had no business writing from a black perspective. When I asked the class if any of them thought it possible to write credibly—or creditably—from a different racial or ethnic point of view, they said no, not really. What would be the point, they wondered, what would you even hope to accomplish? What would a black woman have to learn from a white man’s take on the black experience? I wanted to ask what exactly the black experience was, but instead, I suggested that when you write a poem like this, you are trying to learn something, not trying to teach something.
I trotted out all my beloved liberal arguments about imagination as an exercise of empathy, a way not just to discover who we are but how we could be other than who we are, the blah blah blah of expanded sympathies that can make us less quick to judge, less rigid, less categorical, and more sensitive to particularities of circumstance. Even as I repeated the argument I had made countless times before, I could see how flat it landed. None of these young poets seemed to buy it. Here was proof, as if I needed it, that the old melting pot metaphor, the assimilationist ideal of turning many into one, had been supplanted by the ostensibly more democratic metaphor of a tossed salad (a salad dressed with “Balkanic” vinaigrette!), or a crazy quilt of diverse affiliations all worthy of and vying for recognition and respect, as well as equal expression in the public square. Whereas in the fifties we wanted to assimilate into the mainstream and not stand out even while, behind closed doors, we practiced being Jews, now identity was front and center of what we wanted the world to know about us.
Still, out of loyalty to a fading ideal, I continued: “Whatever our affiliations off the page, on the page shouldn’t we be free to explore any and all human possibilities? Or do you regard your ethnic or sexual identity as the most important fact about you?”
I have made variations of that defense on countless other occasions, in response to similar objections to various forms of appropriation. I would often say that I never wanted to deny my own Jewishness, but I never wanted Jewishness or whiteness to define me, at least not entirely. At the same time, I would also acknowledge that I lived in at a time and in a culture that favored people who looked like me, and so I had the freedom not to care. If I had lived in Germany or Eastern Europe in the 1930s, I would have had an entirely different view of my identity.
A black poet in another workshop brought up the marketplace. If a poem by a white person had as good a take on his experience as he himself had, who would have an easier time finding a publisher? It was the politics of the marketplace that troubled him, made him feel as though something rightfully his own was being taken from him.
Whenever students brought up such concerns, usually in spirited but respectful ways, I would inevitably be drawn into thoughts about my own privileged givens, the distance I have always been so keen to put between myself and “my” tribe. Yet, as the present essay shows (as all of my writing shows), that identity is almost always there, shadowing my every thought. I can pride myself on my imaginative independence, on being on the outside or the margins of Judaism looking in, but I have never stopped looking in. I want to have it both ways: to belong, but not too much, to stand apart, but not completely.
Yet the association between recognition and the marketplace seems to me entirely spot on. Both operate on a strict and limited economy. Recognition is a scarce commodity, its value inversely proportionate to its scarcity. We want to belong to our group and we want to stand out. And if we can’t stand out as individuals, then we’ll let the group do it for us. It is like variations in a metrical poem: The more there are, the less important they become. If everyone were famous, no one would be. At the same time, the marketplace argument can cut both ways. Depending on the fashion of the times, the favored groups are always changing. And there are always favored groups, and groups struggling for favor.
Whatever my own hesitations, I usually end up challenging the idea that there are things we must not write about, for fear of giving offense. “The last thing imagination is designed to do, or should want to do,” I’ve said in more than one class, “is stay in a lane.” I might mention Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” a poem in which, in response to the death of Emmett Till, Brooks adopts the perspective of a white woman intoxicated by racialized myths and the violence they justify, a violence the woman endorses. “I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t write a poem from the perspective of a black man or woman,” I say. “Most poems are bad, and the chances of success are always slim, for sure, but I’d like to think I have the right to try.”
A student of Japanese and Latino descent in one of my classes pushed back strongly when I advanced that line of reasoning: “That’s different,” he said. “Black and brown people can write from a white perspective because they aren’t part of the white power structure. When you do it, it’s cultural appropriation. We should just focus on our own culture, and not raid someone else’s. It just isn’t kosher.”
I thought at first that he was joking, using the word kosher. But no one laughed, and he wasn’t smiling. I said, “That’s an interesting word, kosher. A hundred years ago it was a word only Jews used, and only among each other. Now it’s so mainstream it’s hardly even a Jewish word.” I wanted to ask the student what he meant exactly by “white power structure,” but frankly, on this occasion (as on others), I was afraid to give offense.
Still, I continue to wonder: By “white power structure,” do people mean redlining and other unfair lending practices, police brutality, or biased hiring? Does it also include the cars we drive, the latest devices we avidly consume, the huge chunks of time devoted to social media, selling ourselves and our enviable lives to thousands of “friends” we’ve never met? Is anybody pure? Is any culture? Even while we’re all caught up in various systems of power, and despite the rigid monolithic metaphor—white power structure—the systems that make up our social life are neither fixed nor fated, but are constantly in flux, emerging and dissolving unpredictably. And though it may seem like a small thing, I was deeply touched and heartened by how “naturally” a word like kosher had been assimilated from “my” culture into the American speech of a gay man whose father was Japanese and mother Latina. What better evidence of both the assimilationist metaphor of the melting pot and the identity-driven metaphor of a tossed salad. The exchange with my student seemed proof to me of just how impossible it is to privatize culture, how culture is not a thing or a piece of property you can build a wall around. Never unalloyed, it exists and flourishes through promiscuous intermingling.
In that first workshop I mentioned, we never actually discussed the offending poem. The white poet said he was sorry if what he wrote hurt anyone’s feelings. I didn’t think he needed to, but these were his peers, some of them his friends. He saw himself as one of them, and they appreciated his concern, and thanked him for occasioning such a good if difficult discussion, and they walked off, laughing and joking, a lovely group of people.
* * *
Consider the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest of holies for the Jewish people. Here in Exodus are God’s instructions to Moses on how to build what will house his Ten Commandments:
Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact. (Exodus 25: 18–22, The Hebrew Bible)
The cherubim, or angels, kneel on either side of the cover, their faces turned to the part of the cover that is between them, the part that would cover the holy scroll, while their raised wings touch each other tip to tip over the cover’s top. There is no definitive interpretation of the symbolism, either in centuries of rabbinical commentary or among biblical scholars. But what is not disputed is the iconographical lineage of this image, a lineage that stretches back many hundreds of years, whether in the form of angels or winged lions, or a winged sun disc, throughout the ancient Near East.
As with the kneeling cherubim, the creative spirit of culture exists among people, between people—not with or in any one people. To suit a monotheistic religion, the Hebrews adopted and modified an image that arose in a Babylonian polytheistic culture, which the Babylonians in turn may have cribbed and altered from an Egyptian source, which we call a source only because we have not yet been able to trace it back any further. Likewise, the story of the Flood and Noah’s ark migrated from an earlier incarnation in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, which also reaches back into an even more remote if not entirely inaccessible Indo-European past.
* * *
In response to Hannah Arendt’s controversial 1963 book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Sholem wrote Arendt a letter expressing dismay at her criticism of the Jewish leaders of the Eastern European ghettos who cooperated with the Nazis in carrying out the Final Solution. Sholem was puzzled that Arendt would criticize and judge her own people, especially because, as he went on to say, “I regard you wholly as a daughter of our people, and in no other way.” In her response, Arendt assured Sholem that “I have always regarded my Jewishness as one of the indisputable factual data of my life, and I have never had the wish to change or disclaim facts of this kind.” She described such data as “pre-political,” deriving from what she called “physei” (natural growth or development), not “nomo” (convention, social custom). She went on to say, “You are quite right—I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” It is important to point out that her love of persons, not abstract classes of people, did not equate with political quietism or make her any less concerned about social justice, even on behalf of Jews. From 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, to 1941, when she emigrated to America, Arendt was actively involved in the resistance to National Socialism. She even worked for years for Zionist organizations in Germany and then in France, before growing disenchanted after the war with what she called “the ideological tenor” of the Zionist movement, by which she meant its insistence on ideological purity. She also objected to the movement’s dismissal of the Yishuv (the pre-Israel “homeland” in Palestine) as obsolete, and, later, to how it rationalized and endorsed the terrorism perpetrated against the Arab population of Palestine.
Group identity is an inescapable fact of who we are. Yet it does not inevitably determine how we think and act. As Arendt implies, a more accurate reflection of who we are is found in the particular people, the persons, we embrace, the individuals we fill our lives with. We aren’t merely the product of the systems into which we’re born. If we were, how could we even know that to be true? Wouldn’t some part of our selves (some margin of self-awareness, or self-consciousness) have to exist far enough outside both self and system to see how inextricably entwined they were? I think of the conflicts in the household I grew up in, the competing allegiances between our nationality and ethnicity, or my own lifelong struggles to conform to and oppose familial and social expectations, to balance family and work, teaching and writing, intimacy and a need for solitude. Out of this mosh pit of contradiction and ambivalence, I’ve come to think, it is the multiplicity of groups we all belong to that prevents any one group from defining us, from claiming that it is all we are.
The truly individual, “authentic,” irreducibly unique expressions of selfhood are more emergent than determined. Like the Quaker belief in truth as continual, never-ending revelation, identity is a lifelong improvised pas de deux between nature and nurture, self and tribe, self and world. Identity is discovered and cultivated, inherited and imagined, given and made. It doesn’t spring ready-made from blood and soil; it isn’t merely data a system is programmed to produce. If your ethnic self-understanding is all-important to you, as it sometimes needs to be, it is because something in the particular circumstances of your present life leads you to make it so.
* * *
One of the most heartbreaking and quintessentially English poems of the early seventeenth century is Ben Jonson’s elegy “On My First Son”:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy;
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh! could I lose all father, now! for why,
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scaped world’s, and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry;
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
What do I mean by quintessentially English? The poem uses in part what literary historians call a native plain style, a style primarily of statement, with little in the way of metaphor or image, a measure of which in this poem is the preponderance of monosyllabic words—95 out of 103. These words all derive from the Anglo-Saxon branch of the English language, a branch which in turn grew from the even older branches of Germanic languages. But the rhythm of the lines distinguishes the elegy from other native plain-style poems, in which the iambic meter more often than not marches along, uninterruptedly, relentlessly, without substitution or variation, as in these lines from George Gascoigne’s “Woodmanship”: “My worthy lord I beg you wonder not / to see your woodsman shoot so oft awry, / or that he stands amazed like a sot / And lets the harmless deer unhurt go by.” In Jonson’s elegy, however, there are subtle variations in degrees of stress throughout the poem, as well as variations in the length of clauses, so that even while the couplets remain closed, the pauses within the lines keep shifting to different positions. No two couplets sound quite the same. This rhythmical flexibility is characteristic of what literary historians call the classical plain style, a style that comes to English via the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome. No surprise, then, that the wonderful paradox of vowing not to like too much (in the seventeenth-century sense of liking as to please or be pleased by) what he loves is a crib from the Roman poet Martial (quidquid ames, cupias non placuisse nimis [Epigrams, 6.29], you should desire that whatever you may love may not be too pleasing), or that when he calls his son his “best piece of poetry,” Jonson is punning on the Greek meaning of poetry as making, which links together fatherhood and art. In effect, Jonson is mixing elements of the native plain style of English with the elements of the classical plain style. The persistent traces of the native plain style in the more flexible movement of the classical mirror, I think, the persistence of fatherly grief and attachment even while the speaker not only accepts the death as punishment but tries to celebrate it, as a Christian should, since the boy, now in heaven, has “’scaped world’s, and flesh’s rage, / And, if no other misery, yet age!”
So here are the various cultural elements the poem mixes together. With the borrowing from Martial, Jonson is mixing Christian and pagan notions. In calling his son his “child of my right hand,” he is alluding to the Hebrew etymology of Benjamin. Then there is the emotional/psychological conflict within the speaker between the Christian imperative to give back to God what God has lent him and the biological imperative to cling to his own flesh and blood, a conflict of competing allegiances, competing identities. This apparently purely English poem is made of trace elements of other times and cultures—German, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Christian, pagan—and if this isn’t too much of a stretch, consider the metaphor of God as moneylender, not the forgiving redeemer of the New Testament but the legalistic judge of the Old, which as a Jew I can’t help think is also drawing on the ancient anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish usurer. None of this diminishes my love and admiration for the poem. Its depiction of parental grief, and of a soul divided between what it is supposed to feel and what it actually does feel—what it can’t not feel—is just as fresh and vital now as it was when I first read it more than forty years ago. Like a good friend, the poem has accompanied me through the roughest times: divorce, my own illnesses, and especially the final days of my brother and sister. During their funerals, while the rabbi read the Kaddish, Jonson’s cry (“Oh! could I lose all father, now!”) kept running through my head as I watched my shattered parents relinquish two of their children to the grave.
* * *
For good or ill, I have spent more time reading and writing poetry than doing anything else in my roughly three score and ten years of life. My poets, the poets I have grown to love, have become my second family, the family I chose; they constitute the better part of who I am. Diverse as this family is in language, gender, and race, it is still primarily (though not exclusively) a family of white Christian men and white pagan men. Some of them did terrible things off the page; some of them were fascists or fascist sympathizers. Some were spies. Some of them abused or neglected wives and children; some were mentally unstable. Many of them were drunks, perverts, drug addicts, sex addicts, sadists, brownnosers, backbiters. Some, furthermore, were colonialists, slave traders, slave owners. Some were themselves enslaved, or had once been slaves. Most were certainly anti-Semitic. Off the page, I probably would have detested them, and I have no doubt they would have detested me. But on the page they are guardian angels, beloved spirits, the most intimate and generous of guides. What they at their best have taught me is that the gold of the work is not reducible to the shit of the life. And that even the “wokest” of minds can never entirely escape the moral limits of their time and place. The miracle is what still manages to reach us, move us, expanding our understanding of what it means to be alive through someone else’s lived experience, not just despite our differences, but maybe, too, because of them.