Poem of the week

Twilight by Samuel Menashe

In this week’s poem, a beautiful nocturne, the New York poet Samuel Menashe finds transcendence in everyday images

An image of distant spiral galaxy Messier 74 captured using the Hubble space telescope

‘There’s only one star in the poem, but others come out faintly in the auditory imagination’.

Samuel Menashe was born in New York in 1925. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish. “Scribe out of work/ At a loss for words/ Not his to begin with” he declares wryly in the opening lines of “Curriculum Vitae”. The language of his poetry is certainly unusual, but not because it’s self-conscious or strangely angled. On the contrary, it seems beautifully natural and unforced. Such naturalness, it reminds us, is a rare quality in contemporary poetry in English. It’s not simply that poets feel obliged constantly to do something different and surprising: there’s also the problem of paring down the clutter of modern experience. Menashe’s short poems are stringently economical, but never reductive.

Their central structure of a few sharp images still leaves room for shadows and open questions. Some poems take the form of proverbs or Talmudic snippets of wisdom. Christopher Ricks describes the latter as apophthegms. Whatever their preoccupations, all are invariably songs: lightly woven mnemonic chants reminding you that poetry begins in, and ultimately belongs to, the mouth.

Menashe takes pleasure in rhyme and assonantal echoes. His full rhymes sound out clearly but often evade symmetrical pattern. Sometimes there is no rhyme, and still the melody sings out, as in “Promised Land”: “At the edge/ Of a world/ Beyond my eyes/ Beautiful/ I know Exile/ Is always/ Green with hope –/ The river/ We cannot cross/ Flows forever.” Poems like this one are plainly biblical in their imagery and feeling. Others have an engaging trace of New York wit. Their little jokes may be pleasingly “little”: a closed-down diner, apparently called Homer’s, inspires not the scholarly allusion most poets would strive for, but a streetwise-silly pun: “Where can we eat/ With a garden view/ And a bell tower/ Across the street – / No place like Homer’s” (“Diner”).

Menashe has described how he learnt poetic structure from reading Shakespeare’s sonnets as a young man. A number of poems can usefully be thought of as miniature sonnets: the term alerts us to all the connectedness with which the simple outlines are inlaid, and to the work’s musical, “sounded” quality. This week’s poem, “Twilight”, is typically sonnet-like, and a fine example of the way Menashe parcels mystery in imagistic simplicity, straightforward statement in unpunctuated grammatical ambiguity. Its first three lines contain teasing layers of meaning and sound: “Looking across/ The water we are/ Startled by a star”. The syntax is arranged so that, irresistibly, the reader is reminded that human beings really are, mostly, water – although this is far from the main grammatical intention. We have to read on and find another, plainer meaning, but the inner, teasing, un-meant meaning lingers. Then, the way “startled” contains the “star” that follows it creates a kind of Doppler effect. Perhaps it reminds the reader that the subject of the sentence is plural, and that therefore “we” are two pairs of eyes and see a slightly differently star. That same “ar” or “ah!” sound is then echoed once more in “dark”. There’s only one star in the poem, but other stars come out faintly in the auditory imagination.

In the following rhyming couplet (“It is not dark yet/ The sun has just set”) the lines are not quite metrically compatible. The uneven distribution of stress on the rhyme-words (unlike ‘set’, ‘yet’ is barely stressed at all) softens the emphatic chime that the twin monosyllables may suggest to the eye. The white space between the stanzas, though, is a neat visual effect: we can imagine the stretch of water lies just there, separating the human watchers from the star.

In the next stanza, the same opening lines introduce a different, subtle and perhaps faintly amused emphasis: this time “we are/ Alone as that star/ That startled us.” This might be one of those little jokes, a frail, affectionate, smile-inducing joke between the speaker and his companion. But there is also something startling and unsettling in the poem’s insistence on finding the “star” in “startled”. Again, the syntax seems to draw us teasingly on, as if, each time the reader had reached the end of a line, and cottoned on to what was being said, it turned out instead that there was a further mental distance to travel.

And finally, the questions still hover, unresolved: what are “we” as “far” as, or as far from? Perhaps “we” are two lovers who find that their closeness was illusory? Perhaps the star is now viewing the human beings, and finding them as far away as the star is far away from them. Perhaps there is a biblical hint that we are far from God or the Promised Land. Menashe is the kind of poet who almost makes sense of that vague word “spiritual” – a word I usually try to avoid, but which seems to insert itself quite naturally at this point. Somehow, he anchors a sense of “something else” in the everyday imagery he uses, and nowhere more effectively than in this beautiful little nocturne.

There is a certain resemblance between Samuel Menashe and his near-contemporary, Paul Celan. The scale, the intensity, the Jewish consciousness are a significant shared inheritance. Menashe does not write about the Holocaust, except, perhaps, indirectly in a searing quatrain called “Daily Bread”, but he is at times elegaic and always concerned with mortality, recalling in early poems the hardships of his own military service in Europe during the second world war. Overall, however, he seems less haunted by historical trauma than by the ordinary sorrow and fragility of the human condition. Clear language and flowing melody are still his, a psalmist lit by a clear New World light, keeping his eye on the metaphorical Promised Land lying beyond that forever-flowing river: “Whatever he saw/ Receding from sight/ In the sky’s afterglow/ Was what he wanted/ To see, to know” (“Enlightenment”).


Looking across
The water we are
Startled by a star –
It is not dark yet
The sun has just set

Looking across
The water we are
Alone as that star
That startled us,
And as far

• “Twilight” is published in Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, ed Christopher Ricks.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/15/samuel-menashe-twilight-bloodaxe