Samuel Menashe, 1925-2011


(a book review from 2006, followed by a memorial poem from 2011)


Samuel Menashe”*


Samuel Menashe

New and Selected Poems

New York: American Poets Project / Library of America, 2005

195 pp., 20.00

Introduction by Christopher Ricks


Review by Burt Kimmelman



It can no longer be said that Samuel Menashe, one of our great poets, is being shamefully ignored; he is the inaugural recipient of the newly-moneyed Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters Award, which has occasioned the publication of his New and Selected Poems by the Library of America in its American Poets Project series (he is the first poet published in this series while still alive). Even so, the question remains as to whether or not Menashe will ever, say, read his work to the kind of large audience that would gather for a National Public Radio broadcast, such as Billy Collins did not long ago (there will be no poster proclaiming, “Samuel Menashe in Concert”). Aside from being aesthetically gorgeous, Menashe’s poetry is dense, and subtle—sure to turn away the idle gawker—and utterly serious as well as extraordinarily intelligent; especially its Spartan terseness, which can enchant a reader, is quite demanding. His poetry is not for the sightseer, the voyeur. One must be committed to it, intellectually and emotionally; to read him is to make a commitment to him.


Menashe has always been a poet’s poet, and it is likely he will remain just that, such is his breathtaking skill. To be sure, his work is, perhaps more than any other recent poet’s, a case study in craft, as in this astonishing bit of virtuosity (note the symmetries of syllable count and end rhyme):


To Open


Spokes slide

Upon a pole


The parasol


Here we find athletic albeit delicate auditory and cerebral wit.


Yet it is Menashe’s sobriety that ultimately betrays any hope of his becoming a rock star, his uncompromising honesty:


Night Watch


The heart I hear in bed tonight

Is mine—it frightens me

To hear my heart so clearly

It could stop at any time


Keep your ear to the ground

I was told without fear

Now I am hollowed for sound

And it is my heart I hear


Instructions in his youth (“I was told without fear”) now betray as well as sustain him. He will have it both ways. Menashe is our living existential voice, “hollowed for sound”—all pretense pared away—who sings his beautifully distilled song of our predicament, who finds the truth of death and solitude to be his very own. Thus the reader is forced to embrace a profound somberness, perhaps a sadness, or is forced to make a Heideggerian bid in which the vulnerable human faces death and hence by, so to speak, dying while still alive authenticates the life being lived (i.e., humanity’s unique calling is “to die,” whereas an animal can only “perish,” and a god is immortal and so is ignorant of the truth of the Earth).


Menashe’s outlook is not quite the gloominess many readers have felt about the work of a poet like William Bronk. Yet the two poets form an interesting parallel. Menashe is not at all interested in Bronk’s epistemological crisis, the impossibility of reality; their two respective bodies of work, however, do share a love of precise language and a stark recognition of an aloneness. And, as it happens, both poets have refused to involve themselves in poetry politics that could yield multiple prizes and/or academic sinecure. Still, Bronk died knowing he had earned a fervent, if relatively small, following. Likewise, Menashe can take comfort in knowing that there have been intermittent appraisals of his verses in periodicals like The New York Review of Books.


Menashe has simply allowed his reputation to stand or fall based on what are supposedly simple, brief utterances, which are really quite challenging poems, poems that are profound and beguiling. While Bronk’s calling card was the crisis of knowledge, Menashe’s has continued (there are seventeen new poems in this collection) to be the dilemma of communion between the living and the dead, when the pull of oblivion profoundly colors daily moment-to-moment existence—perhaps this situation might be termed a crisis of faith, but faith is not really the point. This communion is drolly spelled out, for instance, in the Jewish Yahrzeit ritual for the dead documented in “Commemoration,” in which Menashe is probably honoring his mother:


Old as I am

This candle I light

For you today

May be the last one

Of your afterlife

With me, your son—

With me you die twice.


Most commentators on Menashe’s work involve themselves with his linguistic exactitude and amazing musicality (in passing it is worth pointing out the subtle progression in the above poem’s end rhymes: “am,” “one,” “son,” and the more obvious and anchoring “light,” “afterlife,” and “twice”). If a reader is reminded of John Donne’s ploys in sonnets like “Death, be not proud” and “Batter my heart, three personed God,” this may not be an accident. Indeed, Menashe is quite capable of the metaphysical conceit whose irony and deft sleight-of-hand argue for Donne being the other poet worthy of comparison, as in “Dreaming”:



as the sea

at whose ebb

I fell asleep,

dreams collect

in the shell

that is left,

perfecting it.


Life hones Menashe; he is, in a sense, a shell hollowed to perfection.


There are many haunting poems worth mentioning in this volume. They are so not simply because of their subtle sounds or because they invoke mortality—but also because they can make the Old Testament a living text (the third body of poetry I find worthy of comparison), making the past, tradition, completely alive and contemporary in attitude. Here, for instance, is “Downpour”:


Windowed I observe

The waning snow

As rain unearths

That raw clay—

Adam’s afterbirth—

No one escapes

I lie down, immerse

Myself in sleep

The windows weep


Most of all, Menashe rings true because he speaks of life in archetypal terms. His poems as poems, furthermore, are essentialized statements, purely distilled, not simply insofar as they emerge briefly from the silence of which he also profoundly makes us aware (his poetics is about silence, silence that nurtures our language—silence the groundwater whence springs beauty), but also because they deal with life’s fundamentals, as in this spare, poignant, untitled appeal being made in the difficult three-syllable line:


Pity us

By the sea

On the sands

So briefly


Is this third line, “On the sands,” redundant? It is not. The poem exemplifies what the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg has called absolute metaphor, an irreducible concept or image that lies at the core of our cultural and existential identity; one such absolute metaphor is the shipwreck, a universal experience, and the sand in this poem (where survivors would beach) is the liminal ground, psychological and physical, we stand upon provisionally, the ground that is pulled out from under our feet into the vast ocean that would welcome us; we too are pulled into the deep, eventually.


Menashe’s poems are built meticulously out of a vocabulary and image-hoard that express the fundamental turns in a life lived: “water,” “ocean” and “waves”; “stone”; “mother” and “father”; “star,” “moon” and “darkness”; “bone,” “corpse,” “grave,” “dead” and “ghost”; “bed,” “soil” and “clay”; “snow” and “rain”; “I,” “you,” “name” and “Adam.” The word time is rarely used (when it is it is incidental—e.g., “It could stop at any time”) but the idea of time is ever-present in Menashe’s elemental dramas.


For him life is fraught with transience, sadness, regret, ultimate solitude—as well as love; his is the fallen world, the world of Adam’s curse. The world is not dissolute, though; there is a life-sustaining unity to it. The objective world is found to be in keeping with the speaker’s plight. There can be joy in these poems, at times, as in these two lyrics on facing pages, one perhaps a romantic statement, the other perhaps religious:




Sun splinters

In winter’s skin

Quivers hundreds

Of lines to rim

One radiance

You within




O Many Named Beloved

Listen to my praise

Various as the seasons

Different as the days

All my treasons cease

When I see your face


Menashe holds the largest subjects in the fewest words of any poet who comes to this reader’s mind—and, make no mistake about it, his are the large subjects of our lives. We would do well not to move from poem to poem in this volume quickly; each will reward re-reading, in fact requires it—there is too much to take in at once. The Modernist idea of condensation (à la Pound) is fully achieved in Menashe’s work. His feat is at once inhuman and all too human. And Menashe is not only a poet for our time but for all times, all time.


Copyright Burt Kimmelman, 2011.


*This review originally appeared in Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 32-33 (Summer/Fall 2006): pp. 183-87.



            "Samuel Menashe, New York Poet of Short Verse, Dies at 85"

                                    New York Times, August 23, 2011



                                                Your ashes

                                                In an urn

                                                Buried here

                                                Make me burn

                                                For dear life. . . .

                                                            - Samuel Menashe



Words let us

live — so you

read them twice,


your voice for

good measure,

though you knew


how silence

could make them




- Burt Kimmelman




Copyright Burt Kimmelman, 2011. All rights reserved.