New York City tends to obsess the poets who live there. Whitman and Crane used the epic city as a metaphor for the epic self-as-New-Yorker; Moore conscientiously collected and arranged its oddities; O’Hara manically maneuvered through its people and experiences. Surely these poets who made it in New York could, as the saying goes, have made it anywhere, and it’s no wonder that the city’s personality bursts through their voices without upstaging them. But contemporary New York poets, rather than inhabiting the city, often seem to have been inhabited by it—even contaminated. Attitudinal, world-weary, neurotic, each is another version of the same caricature of “self-expression.” That’s why it’s such a delight to come across Samuel Menashe, a lifelong New Yorker whose poems exist at a sonorous remove from the frenzy of life downtown. His small poems—most are less than ten lines long—speak to the archetypal condition of the poet or “scribe,” as Menashe calls him, with a quietude and depth virtually unknown in contemporary poetry.
Menashe’s earnest assumption of the title “poet” has made him something of an anachronism in our professional age. While his contemporaries have garnered the fellowships, prizes, and university jobs that represent success in American poetic culture, poetry has been for him an independent, and ultimately isolating, venture. At almost eighty years old, and with only a fraction of his work in print, he is practically unrecognized, except as a sort of eccentric cult figure, the last West Village bohemian. The poetry, however, rises above this kitschy reputation. Menashe’s tiny lyrics are keenly aware of their author’s obscurity; it suspends them in a timeless sort of space, ballasting them between opposing questions of the same dilemma: is there any point in writing a poem? and is there a point in anything but writing a poem? Consider “At a Standstill”:
That statue, that cast
Of my solitude
Has found its niche
In this kitchen
Where I do not eat
Where the bathtub stands
Upon cat feet—
I did not advance
I cannot retreat
What’s most impressive here is the way in which, in so few lines, Menashe manages to encompass an entire life in poetry. In the first line, the poet’s ambition for immortality is evoked, only to be relegated to the humble surroundings of the prototypical bohemian flat—with its kitchen too small for a table, but just big enough for a bathtub. It is an image that is absurd and yet, with the last line, uncompromising and, one feels, true.
Menashe’s portrayal of his self-as-poet is vulnerable, though never sentimental or narcissistic. A poem like “Morning” speaks movingly to the intimate sorrows of the artist:
I wake and the sky
Is there, intact
The paper is white
The ink is black
My charmed life
Harms no one—
No wife, no son
This leanness is typical of the poems in The Niche Narrows. Menashe returns to the same subjects and words time and again, inhabiting particulars in order to expand their significance. A “charmed life,” here a solitary life, harms no one—the kind of slightly enigmatic statement that many poets are content to pass off as interesting in itself—but Menashe presses the point, defining “no one,” as “No wife, no son.” What’s so poignant about this last line is that, in qualifying the line before it, it both narrows and expands the meaning; at once, we are moved to sympathy for the singular speaker and brought to an understanding about the nature of the poet, the costs of such a life. Craft prevents the meditation from becoming hokey or overly self-conscious: the linked vowel sounds and slant rhymes of “wake” and “paper,” “intact” and “black,” as well as the mixed images of the sky and the writing tablet, set up a composition that is slightly askew. In the last three lines, the rhymes get closer: “charmed” and “harms,” then “one” and “son.” As the sounds come together, so does the picture of this poet, whose reason for being is the same as his reason for being lonely.
In most of Menashe’s poems, there is a deeply grounded sense of humor about the self. Often it returns us to the bodily condition with a sort of droll pathos in which the poet sums up the experience of living and dying in a few matter-of-fact phrases, as in “The Visitation”:
His body ahead
Of him on the bed
He faces his feet
Sees himself dead,
A corpse complete
This is an example of Menashe’s “niche,” the tiny poem which intends to encompass the scope of mortal existence; its narrowing is the approach of death, which brings life into stark focus. In the title poem, the mortal predicament is summed up in eleven words:
The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Here, “Hones” and “disclose” describe the body of the poem as well as the body of flesh. The niche is narrowed—visually and sonically—through a series of shortening lines and half-rhymes that hone the general “one” into the particular “him.” It’s a morbid little metaphor of emaciation: the end of the poem is the end of the man.
In his introduction to this volume, Dana Gioia states that “Menashe is essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed.” Given the fact that Menashe has written poems with such obviously Judeo-Christian titles as “Adam Means Earth,” “Manna,” and “Promised Land”—as well as one that refers, with unchecked intimacy, to Noah’s nipples—this is a reasonable conclusion. With one or two exceptions, though, the overtly religious poems are the most problematic in The Niche Narrows. Those that use too many Biblical references compress meaning and syntax so tightly that they often must be decoded rather than read. Others assume the mannerisms of New Age mysticism, becoming simultaneously emphatic and, well, loopy, as if in creating access for his belief the poet has had to force out all nuances of pathos and wit, those rewards of his best writing.
Nevertheless, Menashe is to be commended for taking the risk of writing poems of outright praise and wonder. He is often capable of achieving an effect that is airy and subtle, as in the aptly titled “Sprite of Delight,” which “Springs, summersaults / Vaults out of sight / Rising self-spun / Weight overcome.” Here, as in other poems-about-poetry such as “Spur of the Moment” and “Walking Stick,” creative power is evoked with both joy and a grounded intelligence. When Menashe’s poems of praise succeed, we are just as rapt in wonder at the way inspiration works through the poet’s mind as he is, as in “Dreams,” where he asks, “What wires lay bare / For this short circuit / Which makes filaments flare—.”
While even Menashe’s most difficult poems have a gentle familiarity to them, they are rarely personal. One of the primary satisfactions of this volume is that no time is wasted getting to know and accept the tastes and preoccupations of the poet; he doesn’t dredge through memories or parade us through his bedroom, and, except as the archetypal mother, father, or friend, he rarely makes mention of specific people or places. His vocabulary is plain—without personality, one might contend. The common nouns are stone, tree, eyes, nose, darkness, light. Common abstractions are Paradise, Solitude, Time, Immortality. In this way, he reminds us of Dickinson, exploiting the duality of simple words and stacking syntax in order to render complex meanings. Yet in Menashe the poems don’t seem as if they are built as scaffolding around existential anguish as they often do in Dickinson. As much as he is a wordsmith and an artist, Menashe is a good son, prone to natural fondness and grief. In “Grief,” he writes:
To begin with—
Wherever I am
Me in my bed
You are dead
While it’s not stated, the context of the surrounding poems leads us to believe that this poem is dedicated to one of the poet’s parents, those essential yet unspecific characters who appear throughout the book. We find their influence in a self that has felt itself loved both by the father and the Father, and has created, through poetry, a vigil in order to receive those presences again.
By avoiding explicit autobiographical anecdote and compressing his poems to the point where each word reveals the limits of its meaning, Menashe takes risks that are unfashionable in contemporary terms. But to call him a “difficult” poet would be a misnomer, for there are few poems in The Niche Narrows that require a dictionary or supplemental reading; in fact, the immediate reaction upon reaching the end of a Menashe poem is usually amusement. Afterwards, one basks in the understanding of how simple genuine profundity is. But the “I” in Menashe’s poems, that scribe who is following his true calling, does present a difficult dilemma to contemporary poets—of the kind that requires soul-searching rather than scholarship.
The idea that the existence of a poet is a prerequisite to a poem, and that this implies some confluence of talent, circumstance, and character, is unsettling to us. We have bought into a poetic culture that imitates popular American culture at large—with its cults of personality, its shameless self-marketing, its ethos of maximum productivity, and its surface frenzy—to such a degree that a voice untouched by these factors seems at times naïve, even absurd. That Menashe, who is on the margins of the poetry world, has written good poems about being a poet while so many insiders have become talking heads for the industry begs the question: can “successful” poets speak truthfully to their own condition? If not, po-biz success and poetic integrity may soon become mutually exclusive. Under these circumstances, the pause that Menashe gives is exactly what we need.