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Lamp already lit: Ammiel Alcalay’s “neither wit nor gold” (from then)

By Harriet Staff

David Kaufmann writes for Tablet about Ammiel Alcalay’s new book, “neither wit nor gold” (from then). In this “challenging collection of notes, photographs, and diary entries he wrote in the 1970s,” Alcalay views his younger self (who played badminton with Charles Olson) through the eyes he’s currently got.

Kaufmann relates the poet’s work to utopia:

Alcalay doesn’t see the complications of the past as a cause for despair but rather as a source of hope. Through thought old relations become clearer, and new ones become bracingly possible.

Alcalay is therefore something of a utopian—I mean this as a compliment—and as with many utopians it is hard to distinguish his radicalism from his conservatism.

Kaufmann goes on to apply this idea to Alcalay’s literary style:

This comes through most clearly in his poetics, in the way that he puts his creative works together. On the one hand, his book-length albums of borrowed language and surprising juxtapositions identify him as an “experimental” writer, in the fine tradition of modernist and post-modern literary collagists…. On the other hand, he traces his insistence on quotation back to the medieval Hebrew practice of shibbutz—which, in the words of Hebrew scholar David Yellin, cited by Alcalay in After Jews and Arabs, is “the lighting of a candle from a lamp already lit, or the kindling of flame from a fire already blazing.” In earlier poetry, the original light was Scripture and the first spark was divine. In Alcalay’s work, though, that spark is secular and historical. His poetry aims to retrieve what has been lost to oblivion and, more important, lost to violence. Alcalay’s most impressive poetic work to date, the book-length from the warring factions, is an elliptical meditation on the atrocities committed during the Bosnian civil war of the early 1990s. Alcalay has borrowed most of its language and formulations from documentary sources, and its “I” is very rarely Alcalay himself.

Kaufmann appreciates the results of this approach. He quotes an Alcalay poem:

do not feel badly because you have lost
sight of this daylight no matter how hard
I try nothing happens today to you alone
those who have reached the place where
death stands waiting have not pointed out
a way to circumvent it I myself grieve when
I look back there into the past it is enough
to make anyone ponder now here at last
we are ready to end this when you start
to leave you must not think back
with regret you always return
garment of brightness
in the midst
of plenty

Definitely worth a read. You can also check out Ammiel Alcalay’s revelatory Lost & Found chapbook series, which we discussed not too long ago, here.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, July 26th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.