The Dead Preside


On Poetry

A few months ago, the first poetry reading I ever attended in New York came back to haunt me, almost literally. I was folding laundry on a Sunday night, listening to iTunes on shuffle, when a ghostly, familiar voice issued out of my speakers, interrupting the music. Soft, deeply resonant, and a little like Boris Karloff—or more precisely, Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s impersonation of Boris Karloff on “The Monster Mash”:

Samuel Menashe here. On June 19, in the year two thousand and one. In the city of New York, where I was born on September 16, in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-five. I am reading a selection of my poems from a book called The Niche Narrows.”

This time capsule–like announcement introduced a series of poems recorded by Menashe in some hermetic sound booth for the CD New and Selected Poems, released by Rattapallax Press in 2000. And listening to them gave me the most wonderfully uncomfortable feeling I’ve had since—well the last time I’d heard Samuel Menashe read. Which was more than five years ago. That reading (near Columbia University) is still the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to hypnosis. And hearing him in my room all these years later disturbed me when I realized that the frail man I had seen reading poems preoccupied with his own death had died in the interim. It took the sound of his voice, already ethereal, to bring that fact home to me; this month marks a year since the event. His short, rhyming poems found few readers during his lifetime and tended to strike scholars as slight. But when he read aloud, Menashe’s voice alchemized a mesmerizing pull between each word. At readings, even his most opaque and koan-like verse became solid, somehow comprehensible.

The reading was in Manhattan, in 2006. I’d been sent there by my first employer after college, a local independent bookstore, to sell copies of his newest book. Actually, I’d volunteered. While I usually hated dragging boxes of books and a cash box on a hand truck through Manhattan (and invariably coming back to the store with the wrong amount of change), this reading was different. It was a poetry reading near Columbia University, and for the past two months, I’d been stricken with a particularly severe customer crush: a tall, blonde, extremely shy Columbia student with almost cartoonishly thick-rimmed black glasses—whose main appeal for me may have been that she frequently seemed as awkward as I was. From our cash-register interactions, I’d learned three things about her: her name was Sarah (according to her debit card); she was a Columbia student (according to her student ID); and judging by her purchases she had a serious interest in contemporary poetry.

I’d like to explain to my younger self why, romantically, volunteering for this reading wasn’t much of a plan. But in a way my younger self was right—Sarah showed up at Menashe’s poetry reading in all her slightly nerdy yet perversely attractive splendor, and we made eye contact. She was among the last to file into a packed classroom. The audience, mostly college students with a significant bro contingent (I’d never seen so many polo shirts at a poetry reading) seemed ready to be bored. So when Menashe—ancient, white haired, smiling—tottered up to the podium, the deck seemed stacked against him.

But then Menashe began to recite his first poem—he read from memory—and this small, wizened man’s unusually rich, musical voice commanded attention. Each word seemed outfitted with reverb; even the dudes in polo shirts leaned forward, as if against their will. Menashe read another short, rhyming poem, and another. I’m not sure exactly when the light, musical charm of those first poems became something more like a trance, but by the ninth or tenth (extremely short) poem, the Columbia classroom we were in felt more like an old theater. It was as if the lights had dimmed. Each syllable he pronounced was so deliberate and convincing we hung on every line. His controlled, charismatic pacing gave even the silences—between words, between poems—a seductive pull. And as I sank into his reading, the images and structures of the poems came into sharper focus.

I couldn’t have told you then what was so powerful about his poems, but I’ve since had years to think about them—so here’s a quick example. Despite their small canvases (often between four and ten very short lines), Menashe’s poems hold an uncanny amount of space. For instance, “Old Mirror,” which was among the first poems of the night:

In this glass oval
As love’s own lake
I face myself, your son
Who looks like you—
Once we were two

Here the small, fixed perimeter of the “old mirror” (and the poem) frames vertiginous depth. Two parents create one son, who grows up to look in the mirror and see two sons, who remind him of two parents creating one son—him. And the poignancy of that. It’s a little dizzying, but also beautifully crystallized in just twenty-three syllables. Two mirrors—the real mirror he’s standing in front of and “the lake of love,” the reflective surface in his imagination, are turned towards each other, creating the confined rabbit-hole effect you get when you do that with any two mirrors. Many of Menashe’s great poems have a similar symmetrical sensibility. Axes of great distances in time and imagination intersect in a single crystalline shape. That brings to mind a snowflake, which seems too brittle a comparison. These poems are more like atoms, with particles constellated by a powerful but invisible central force.

After a few more poems, once Menashe was sure he completely held our rapt, hypnotized attention, the reading took a dark turn. The crystallizing technique in his poems remained the same, but their subject became, almost exclusively, his own death. The organizing force of the poems was the last moment of his own life, and he circled around that moment, peering at it from all sides, even from those that lay on the other side of death. He looked on at his own dead body in “The Visitation.” Or saw himself in a friend’s skull, as in a mirror, in “Memento Mori”:

This skull instructs
Me now to probe
The socket bone
Around my eyes
To test the nose
Bone underlies
To hold my breath
To Make no bones
About the dead

Nobody moved through any of this. Students who had attended for course credit, their dates, booksellers paralyzed by powerful, retarded crushes on girls named Sarah—were all completely still.

When the reading ended, the genie receded into the bottle. Menashe was a weak old man again. Half the room bought books. Menashe for his part was just as eager for people to leave with CDs and began giving them away. Sarah was among the last to buy books—the room had thinned enough for us to have an awkward conversation without interrupting the flow of commerce. “I think he’s some kind of hypnotist,” she said. I agreed. A stack of cards on the table advertised another Menashe reading in two weeks at my bookstore. I pointed it out to her.

I was the last person to buy a book, and Menashe insisted I take a CD, too. For a minute, when he shook my hand, he was mesmeric again—his handshake was uncomfortably strong and his eyes bright green. Then he smiled and walked away.

I saw Samuel Menashe only one more time—two weeks later, though he would live for seven more years. It was the reading at my bookstore advertised on the card. No hand truck required. Sarah did not attend. Menashe remembered my name and thanked me even more effusively for selling his books than he had the first time. For years, I had it in my mind, in a pitifully half-hearted way, that I should see him read again. Occasionally I would scan Time Out New York and New York magazine listings for his name. I would Google “Samuel Menashe, reading, 2007,” “Samuel Menashe, reading, 2008,” and so on. But I never went.

Over time, though, Menashe’s work became increasingly important to me. Now, left with a CD and an inscribed book, and holding my underwear (we’re back to folding laundry) and an embarrassing memory of being awkwardly distracted from the importance of his work by a pretty girl, I felt deeply sad. But also grateful he took the time to record his poems. As he reads his time capsule–like introduction, different Samuel Menashes constellate around my computer speakers like in one of his poems. The voice of a living poet present in a room (a recording studio)—recording himself for a time and place far in the future (now), imagining what it would sound like to people (me) after its own death. And me on the other side, listening to it after his death, vividly remembering him alive and reading poems that were trying to take a morbid peek at where I now stood.

Or as Menashe kind of already put it himself,

The dead preside
In the mind’s eye
Whose lens time bends
For us to see them
As we see the light
Shed by dead stars
Telescopes enlarge

This poem, like nearly all of his others, is best listened to. The CD New and Selected Poems appears on Amazon with the ominous “available from these sellers” listing. There are only eleven of them left.

Brian Gittis works at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.