Living in the Past

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Philip Schultz
Harcourt ($23)

by Maureen Picard Robins

In 1980, I encountered Philip Schultz's Like Wings, and spent the day walking around New York City in a daze. Here were 55 pages of urban poetry, featuring wide, far-reaching stanzas packed with sweat, desire, and the stink of the past. Schultz's poems shuddered with passion, despair, and dark comedy in a way I hadn't seen before. His lines so packed with conflict and ambition that the only way he seemed to shoehorn everything in was to save two letter spaces by replacing the word "and" with an ampersand. Yet there was something else: the poems had the particular dill flavor of American Jewishness. Schultz wrote about his bar mitzvah and his relatives, and he invented a guardian angel named Stein. This wildly comic, celebratory, mournful, exuberant, and often charming Jewish voice would be heard again in Deep within the Ravine, winner of the Lamont poetry prize in 1984, and yet again in 2002's The Holy Worm of Praise.

Now comes Living in the Past, a book-length memoir in verse. Sans ampersands, the urgent lines still tug and travel, propelled by multiple voices, guttural expressions, Hebrew incantations, all of which becomes the musical embellishment. The opening poem sets the scene in Rochester, New York, in the 1950s; the major story line follows the 12-year-old boy during the year of his bar mitzvah, with later poems having the narrator reflect on his past. Yet like all complex fiction, there are subplots and richly depicted characters. There's Schultz's Grandma, his mother and father, and the uncles. There is Mr. Schwartzman, the boy's music teacher. There is the ghost of the German poet Gertrud Kolmar who didn't survive the Holocaust. There is the poet's wife and sons. And there is God.

The poems come off as tribute, as biography, as wonderings—but with plenty of caustic wit and humor to keep it real, as when the Rabbi comes to tutor the young boy:

Every time Grandma opens a door
he breaks wind to show her what a piece of dreck she is.
When he leaves she screams, "God sends him to spit on
my dishes and still he's not happy, he has to leave a stink
that chokes even the dead…."

Schultz's depiction of Grandma is glorious; she appears eccentric, brave, and superstitious, at once comic and philosophical. One begins to wonder if this is a modern retelling of the tales of Chelm, a fictional place in Poland where the lovable townspeople, all fools, are wise despite themselves. Grandma would climb "a chair to yell at God for killing / her only husband whose only crime was forgetting / where he put things," but when an anti-Semitic neighbor "steps on something Grandma drops in a dream and comes home / from the hospital with two empty pant legs … Grandma / won't even look at the ceiling because what God gives with / the right hand he takes with the left."

So many of these poems are powerful because they achieve meaning through upturned expectations: Rabbis seem ignorant; humble folk have enough wisdom to be holy; and the story of Schultz's bar mitzvah, which normally would be a frightening but celebratory occasion, becomes fraught with loss when the narrator discovers the body of his music teacher after he commits suicide. Yet even though Mr. Schwartzman, a Holocaust survivor, dies in body, he lives on through the book's long memory: "A boy has one bar mitzvah but becomes a man / many times, Mr. Schwartzman said when I wondered / if I'd be any good at being one."

Fierce and gentle, wry and wise, Living in the Past offers a poetry of intensity that is sustained to the very end. Schultz's intertwining of the historical and the personal, joy and sorrow, and dreams and reality gives readers much to ponder, and places his work on a par with the commentary about the human condition that has largely been the arena of European poets.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004