In the Absence of Bliss

By Maxine W. Kumin 1925–2014

Museum of the Diaspora, Tel Aviv

The roasting alive of rabbis
in the ardor of the Crusades   
went unremarked in Europe from   
the Holy Roman Empire to 1918,   
open without prerequisite
when I was an undergraduate.

While reciting the Sh’ma in full
expectation that their souls
would waft up to the bosom
of the Almighty the rabbis burned,
pious past the humming extremes
of pain. And their loved ones with them.   
Whole communities tortured and set aflame   
in Christ’s name
while chanting Hear, O Israel.

Why?
Why couldn’t the rabbis recant,   
kiss the Cross, pretend?
Is God so simple that He can’t   
sort out real from sham?
Did He want
these fanatic autos-da-fé, admire   
the eyeballs popping,
the corpses shrinking in the fire?

We live in an orderly
universe of discoverable laws,   
writes an intelligent alumna   
in Harvard Magazine.
Bliss is belief,
agnostics always say
a little condescendingly
as befits mandarins who function   
on a higher moral plane.

Consider our contemporary   
Muslim kamikazes
hurling their explosives-
packed trucks through barriers.   
Isn’t it all the same?
They too die cherishing the fond   
certitude of a better life beyond.

We walk away from twenty-two   
graphic centuries of kill-the-jew   
and hail, of all things, a Mercedes   
taxi. The driver is Yemeni,
loves rock music and hangs
each son’s picture—three so far—
on tassels from his rearview mirror.

I do not tell him that in Yemen
Jewish men, like women, were forbidden   
to ride their donkeys astride,
having just seen this humiliation
illustrated on the Museum screen.

When his parents came
to the Promised Land, they entered   
the belly of an enormous   
silver bird, not knowing whether   
they would live or die.
No matter. As it was written,   
the Messiah had drawn nigh.

I do not ask, who tied
the leaping ram inside the thicket?   
Who polished, then blighted the apple?   
Who loosed pigs in the Temple,
set tribe against tribe
and nailed man in His pocket?

But ask myself, what would   
I die for and reciting what?   
Not for Yahweh, Allah, Christ,   
those patriarchal fists
in the face. But would
I die to save a child?
Rescue my lover? Would
I run into the fiery barn
to release animals,
singed and panicked, from their stalls?

Bliss is belief, but where’s
the higher moral plane I roost on?   
This narrow plank given to splinters.   
No answers. Only questions.

Maxine Kumin, "In the Absence of Bliss" from Selected Poems 1960-1990. Copyright © 1985 by Maxine Kumin.  Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: The Long Approach (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1985)

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Poet Maxine W. Kumin 1925–2014

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects War & Conflict, Religion, Crime & Punishment, School & Learning, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Activities

Holidays Yom Kippur

 Maxine W. Kumin

Biography

An enduring presence in American poetry, Maxine Kumin’s career spanned over half a century. She was the recipient of prestigious awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She was the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1981-1982, and taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities, including MIT, Princeton, and . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT War & Conflict, Religion, Crime & Punishment, School & Learning, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Activities

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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