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Thursday, November 24, 2016

G-d's Breath Hovering Across the Waters | Henry Israeli



Twenty minutes early, I sat waiting for my English and Creative Writing advisor, Sandra Holm. A reusable water bottle perched on the table beside me, claiming one of the semi-comfortable chairs as taken. I twiddled my thumbs, not wanting to look at my phone for fear that I would be categorized as one of those millennial students that can’t stay off of social media. I flipped through magazines and uncovered a little poetry book with a jellyfish on the cover. 

“Those are to take, you know,” said the receptionist. 

“Really? That’s really cool.” 

I took the book home with me, enticed to do so by the dedication on the title page: To Jane, with great admiration + respect. 

“G-d’s breath hovering across the waters” by Henry Israeli is a phenomenal work of poetic strategy, switching between a historical nonfiction account of Arnold Penzias and Robert Wilson’s confirmation of the Big Bang and anecdotes about the death of Israeli’s mother. The placement of the personal within a greater theme of cosmological significance is immensely powerful. Henry Israeli’s tone switches from didactic to despondent, denying to understanding. The book becomes an astronomical metaphor for the unexpected death of a loved one and a personal metaphor for the existence of the universe. He speaks directly to G-d throughout many of his anecdotes, allotting Him responsibility.

One of the things that draws me to this book and that has prompted me to read it several times over is the heavy sentimentality that seeps through the poet’s grieving process into scientific narrative. There is a plethora of apostrophe within the poems as Israeli questions Penzias and G-d and the people who turned the RCA dog into an icon for technology, many moments of interrogation returning to the topic of his Mother’s death and the addressee’s relationship to the event. In my favorite poem, number ten, Israeli has a conversation with G-d in which the latter asks why he speaks to him with a lowercase ‘g’. Israeli responds that it is out of a lack of respect. He views his deity as a G-d whose “job is to make you fear [Him],” who “will cut you down like a sheaf of wheat quicker than you can blink” as you go about your daily business. This is how his mother died: hit by a car on her way delivering Rosh Hashanah gift baskets to her family and friends. Another of my favorite poems from the book describes Death’s quotidian life. According to Israeli, “Death drives a foreign car." His mother was killed by a Volkswagen. 

Variegated Terrain of Emotion is a term coined by my English 215 teacher, Joshua Wilson. VTE is the phenomena in creative writing where a writer is able to talk about a vast amount of topics within one piece without being disjointed or erratic. Even more relevant than apostrophe is Henry Israeli’s exemplification of VTE. One of the poems in this collection that utilizes VTE especially well is the second to last poem of the book, “Theory of Evolution.” This poem begins with “Everybody wanted a Volkswagen,” stating that even Hitler wanted one and that he himself was one, “small and compact, full of / simple ideas everyone could grasp.” Israeli switches the subject to his mother, whose family fled Germany before the Holocaust. He talks about Stalin and swastikas and death and accidents and sameness and evolution and timelessness, and does this all while truly just addressing his mother’s death and the injustice of the whole ordeal. It is fascinating. The effectiveness of VTE is that it relates an abundance of topics under one unified idea. It gives a voice to causality and its hypotactic qualities leave me aghast and overwhelmed in the very best way. 

Henry Israeli is an astounding poet. His use of apostrophe and variegated terrain of emotion are especially noteworthy, and I recommend this book to anyone with a heart that beats for someone else. Thank you, Jane, for giving it up. 

[written originally as a critical review for my English 209 introductory poetry class]
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