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Considering the Long-Lost Rose Drachler

By Harriet Staff

Christine Meilicke writes for Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems and Poetics about the severely unknown poet Rose Drachler, who began to write and publish in her fifties and sixties: “Her first publisher was a young poet—David Meltzer, the editor of the kabbalistic magazine Tree and publisher of Tree books. Drachler’s first books were two chapbooks, Burrowing In, Digging Out (1974) and The Choice (1977).” Meilicke notes at first Drachler’s obscurity:

For most Jewish poets, the name Rose Drachler does not ring a bell. In literature circles, she was probably never known except by a small group of avant-garde poets and writers in the ’70s and ’80s, such as, Charles Doria, Jackson Mac Low, David Meltzer, Charlie Morrow, Rochelle Ratner, Armand Schwerner, Diane and Jerome Rothenberg as well as John Yau and John Ashbery. They encouraged her writing and published it wherever they could.

But Rothenberg himself writes at the end of the post:

Rose Drachler’s virtual disappearance in death is one of those inevitable but disturbing realities that confronts a number of heroic & gifted artists. Her presence in her final years, as Christine Meilicke testifies, was important for many of us – not only the Jewish poets among us but many others as well. John Ashbery wrote of her: “Rose Drachler’s poems are strong and sweet, firm and quirky, but this oddness soon comes to be perceived by the reader as a new canon.” And my own assessment in a preface to her posthumous collected poems is one from which I wouldn’t back away, even now, a quarter of a century past her death: “Her book — like all poem-books since Whitman brought the message home — is the life, the song of herself created in the work. ‘My own,’ she says, ‘I do not conceal/ Or deny what I am’: a Jewish woman into her late 60s: who has been (for how long?) like those secret wise men in each generation, one of the 36 poets whose work stays hidden in the world.”

As for Drachler’s work and context, back to Meilicke:

Her interest in anthropology and archeology connects Drachler with the Jewish poets of the ethnopoetics movement. Their common goal was to try to find meaning by forging a link with the past. Drachler finds continuity by writing poems on natural history as well as prehistoric and archaic themes. But she also dwells on her own ancestral history—the history of the Jews from biblical times onwards. Her poetic imagination is captured by midrashim about the patriarchs and prophets. Other poems deal with the biblical history of the temple, and the captivity, exile, and return of the Israelites as well as the coming of the messiah. To avoid sentimentality, Drachler undercuts the solemnity of her subjects with fantastic images: she envisions the messiah wearing “an Italian silk / suit cut in the latest mode / and drive a fine, white sports.”

Possible reasons for Drachler’s marginality:

…[S]he was a natural kabbalist and a feminist, who applied her visonary imagination to ancient archetypes and symbols. Many of her poems portray the feeling of being overwhelmed by some spiritual or natural power—by God, by inspiration, by strong passions, or by water — waves, rain and tears: “rising and swelling / we drown to be born.” Drachler’s poems fuse the spiritual and the sensuous:

In the tunnel
Light is haloed
Sound dissolved
The skin of separation
Is softened

Thought approaches
Airy and bright
Soft but pervasive
It penetrates rock
[…]

Reading Drachler’s poems is like meditating. Each poem deserves attention and elaboration; each poem can be read over and over again. Drachler reveals and conceals at the same time. In fact, concealment and obscurity run through her life. The poet and her husband, the book artist Jacob Drachler, lived a quiet and withdrawn life in a gated community (Seagate in Brooklyn). Drachler regularly went to synagogue, but she did not really belong to any local literary scene and often felt isolated. Out of this loneliness, Drachler created poems and shared them with young poets who admired her poetry and her wisdom. Thus Rothenberg writes in the preface to her poems: “The voice is quiet, not insistent, yet the poet’s wildness sounds beneath it.” It was that wildness and passion that enabled Drachler to have close friendships with poets twenty or thirty years her juniors.

Despite Meltzer’s sustained endeavors to familiarize the poetry world with Drachler’s work, she has been almost completely forgotten. This is surprising as the quality of her writing surpasses much of the poetry featured in Jewish journals and anthologies today. Was it Drachler’s pious modesty (tsni’ut in Hebrew) and her tendency toward self-deprecation that prevented her from advancing her own work? Or was this oversight motivated by the fact that she associated with the non-canonized avant-garde?

Rothenberg is hoping this can shift, writing also that “[i]f possible to do so, some of Drachler’s poems will appear here in the coming months, but in advance of that the full text of Burrowing In, Digging Out can be found on Karl Young’s Light & Dust web site by clicking here.” You can read Meilicke’s full post here. Also! The Collected Poem of Rose Drachler is still available from the ever-reliable SPD.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, September 24th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.