The poetry of Samuel Menashe is illuminated by the thought that, even the smallest lyric poem, when successful, will be like the focal point on an hour glass, through which so much experience and time passes, an entire future and entire past opening out on either side of it. It will also be a reminder that history might not come to a reader direct, that it is often carried in the medium of language and in the poetry’s apprehension of bodily life.
Donald Davie, on multiple occasions, praised the characteristically slender Menashe lyric:
The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Both “niche” and “hones” suggest skill and occupation (have you found your niche?), but the body with the body being honed, the niche is a coffin, a crack in the crust of the earth, a display case in a museum, in any of which a person (and “one” is a lonely number here, as well as a generic genderless pronoun) becomes himself, a self, as a skeleton or a fossil; this achievement of death is a perfection of identity, because a completion of life, and also a skilled achievement; the secret has been revealed, disclosed, to a select audience, those for whom this niche has appeal. When the number “one” is thinned out, it becomes a zero, or an absence of a number at all, or a thinner 1. When “one” self is thinned out, its sex becomes, anatomically, the crucial marker of its identity, as it would for an animal in a display. But against all of this, it could also be a poem about entering into the world and time, rather than leaving them: the niche narrowing might be the womb contracting, the one thin creature emerging, his bones disclosing him as a new life. That, I think, is a secondary meaning, but one that is borne (so to speak) by “hones” as well as “disclose.”
What of the history in this? The history that is a measure of time beyond the life of an individual man or woman, and yet to which the life of an individual adheres. But to say this much, with these metaphors, is already to impose too much upon the light of future and past cast out from the possibilities suspended in the form of Menashe’s words. For they, envisioning a context for one to become something honed, and disclosed, and nonetheless corporeal and bodily, provide an account of what it means to become, disclosed to the world after death, or in birth, in the narrowing of time that is either, in the niche of a life, around which others watch and live. The poem speaks to what it is to enter into and exit from a time that is greater than a self, as a self that is disclosed by and reduced to bone.
It was axiomatic to Stephen Spender that Menashe was a historical poet, albeit on terms of his own: “Samuel Menashe is a poet of entirely Jewish consciousness, though on a scale almost minuscule. He is not one of the prophets concerned with exodus, exile, and lamentation: but he is certainly a witness to the sacredness of the nation in all circumstances in life and in death.” But it takes little to say Menashe is very much a poet of exile, exodus, and lamentation, even if he is not a prophet who could purport to speak for a nation. In “Winter”:
I am entrenched
Against the snow,
To blunt its blow
I am where I go
The “I” is solitary, but so open to identification with any self-conscious voice that it might be the voice of a prophet or leader of a people; in the pureness of “I am” as a statement of being, the last line hovers between two readings: “wherever I go, I exist as myself and what I am” and “I am defined by wherever it is that I go, by whatever it is that surrounds me.” And with greater focus still, we can press hard upon the single syllable that is a single word that is a mark of self and the supreme unit of lyric verse: “I.” “I am entrenched” because the “I” entrenches and is entrenched both; the visor is lowered to protect the “eyes” and the “I” which is plural in so far as it reaches out to whoever speaks and reads the poem. Under the pressure of the pronoun alone, “I am where I go” is true in so far as wherever someone says “I go” there is an “I am” implied; and more than that, wherever the word “I” goes, the word “I” is. This becomes a poem about self set amidst and against the world and amidst and against words, with their potential for prophecy, narrative, lamentation, loss—all of the movements of history (as well as its denials that “snow,” blanking out the word in the white of the page, blanking out the self in the “no” of the word, contains).
Much depends, that is, on the frame; and these are poems that speak to history not, most of the time, by speaking about something that happened before or after, but by speaking with a consciousness that there will always be before or after, of a line, of a word, of a poem, to which it will belong and which will partially belong to it. Here is “Still Life”:
Where she sits
On her lap
Fits the frame
Many possibilities. Syntactically. “where she sits, the kindling snaps into flame, full stop/colon, what happens fits the frame,” or else, as a single unit, “where she sits with apples on her laps, she is kindling snaps into flame, such that/and what happens fits the frame.” In the second, “snap is either a sound that bursts into flame, strangely, or else it refers to a match. What matters most though is that something “happens,” with the “frame” being whatever broader narrative or picture will make understanding the poem possible: perhaps, her sitting with apples on her lap is itself kindling snapping into flame, a miracle of art made into life made still; or perhaps it is a picture in a fire, so that the first image is of a girl seen in the shape of a flame, which then snaps into flame; finally, there is the possibility that a picture has been cast into a fire, and now feeds its flame, snapping like kindling in flame, which fits into the flame. There is no history here, but there is happening, and in that “what happens” there is a momentous intrusion of the fact of change upon which history depends; it is a poem about the stuff of history, about what it might mean to happen, fit to different frames.
Even where his poetry is most witty, and most concerned with wit itself, it benefits from thinking how this also is a verbal art and sensibility intimate with historical understanding. “To Open”:
Upon a pole
“Spokes slide” and though there is nobody who “spokes,” the parasol of the poem opens as it is spoken; but then, it does not open, but narrows: as the poem becomes something, it takes shape both as itself and in its final line as a parasol, a closing off of possibilities. But then, to spin the poem by the handle one rotation further, whereas the title might be understood as an instruction, it could also be taken as a simple infinitive, with the poem a definition of what it means for something to open at all: the parasol as a figure of all opening, with opening not being a release of a cover, but the establishment of another cover entirely, beneath which we are shaded, and with the crucial prepositions “upon” and “inside” looking askance at “open” which would usually take “into” or “onto” or no preposition at all; opening is always oriented against an axis and within a space, the prepositions suggest. So here, what is opened is another meaning of opening itself, as well as a figure for opening, which is at once metaphysically essential and metaphorically arbitrary.
With poems so slender, time opens out more broadly, history is less defined as history and more noticeable as a pure, raw temporality that is inhuman, indifferent, and even inconsequential, where it is not divine. “The Reservoir”:
Sea gulls squawk
Over the water
We walk around
On your day off
The walled water
Swallows the wall
See gulls, and hear them too. It’s hardly a dazzling pun, but its dissonance attunes the ear to the obligations imposed by this poem’s play of syllables, in the last lines especially, where words and the space between words are no longer bulwarks against the spillage of sound between “squall” to “walled” to “swallows” to “wall.” It is a poem about what has been gathered and contained and now is threatened by disorder, but that entropic dislocation of sound and sense is figured earlier in the lines by the prepositions, “over” to “around” to “on” and “off” and then “before,” a preposition sometimes, an adverb here, marking the transition to another sort of disorder. It is not a poem about history, but it is a poem about a body and then words turned about in a world, and a world turned about itself. It’s not history, but it is about a great deal of it.