The poet Samuel Menashe (whose work been printed many times in the pages of First Things ) died in his sleep on August 22nd, at the age of 85. As the obituaries and tributes have noted, he had been the recipient of the first “Neglected Masters Award” from the Poetry Foundation in 2004, with his New and Selected Poems then being published by the Library of America. He had received a good deal of acclaim among poets and poetry aficionados overseas before that time, but 2004 for him was making it in his home: the United States. New York City was also his home. Until last year he lived in the same old apartment in a downtown walk-up where he had lived since the 1950s, a space which itself inhabits quite a bit of his poetry. Following a health crisis about 12 months ago he moved to an assisted-living residence uptown (a space he described without bitterness as being, relative to his old digs, “a palace!”).

His poems have been praised for their powerful resonance and their remarkable concision and precision. Christopher Ricks, reading Menashe’s work with his characteristic closeness, gave it this accolade: “Not just le mot juste but la lettre juste .” And Dana Gioia said of Menashe that he “is essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed. Nearly every poem he has ever published radiates a heightened religious awareness.”

Samuel liked people who liked his poetry, it’s safe to say. Materially speaking, he could hardly have lived more modestly, but he did not wrap himself in false modesty with regard to his work; neither however did he display excessive pride. What he conveyed in person was a joy and wonder in his own poems, as if he himself were encountering them each time for the first time, even though he could recite them from memory.

I can recite a few of them from memory myself, and it’s something I actually do quite often, and figure on continuing to do. For readers of Menashe who are also religious believers, I think quite a number of his poems possess a resonance well beyond the literary or strictly poetic. They often resonate with the heart, passion and mystery of profound prayer. And given both the brevity and reflective depth of his poems, I’ve found a number of them especially fitting as prayers before meals”table graces”and it is in this slightly mundane way that I expect to keep Menashe’s poems close to my lips. I think that this is perhaps not inappropriate for a poet who was so gifted at seeing and lifting up the sacred in the mundane. As an example of a Menashian table grace, take his poem “Manna” (which appeared in First Things March 2011):

Manna

Open your mouth
To feed that flesh
Your teeth have bled
Tongue us out
Bone by bone
Do not allow
Man to be fed
By bread alone

Menashe liked to tell the story of giving a talk at Brandeis University decades ago, and asking what he knew to be a largely Jewish assembly of students if they knew where the phrase “not by bread alone” came from. He was Jewish himself of-course, and proudly so (even if, as Dana Gioa said, not “orthodox) and his poetry contains deep plumb lines into the mystery of the Jewish people as God’s people. The answer that came back to him from a Brandeis student was that Jesus had said “not by bread alone.” Menashe took delight in pointing out that Jesus had said it, indeed, but that he was quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 (as Jesus responded to all three of Satan’s temptations in the desert by invoking Hebrew Scripture: “It is written . . . ”). And Menashe requested that the same scriptural passage appear under his poem when published.

“Open your mouth” to feed us; it is surely a plaintive and quite naked prayer from the creature to the Creator. And the reflections through Scripture can tumble on endlessly: the word as our support; the word as food . Jeremiah 15:16: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them, and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts.” For Christians, the thread can be followed to the Eucharist. John, chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God [ . . . ] And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us . . . ” And at the Last Supper the Word made flesh said, “Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.”

While the Hebrew Bible (in English) can certainly be called the primary touchstone of Menashe’s body of work, it also includes the comprehension”sometimes quite playful, it seems to me”of the New Testament as well. The following poem (published in First Things August/September 2008) causes me to smile no matter how many times I read it:

The Annunciation

She bows her head
Submissive, yet
Her downcast glance
Asks the angel, “Why
For this romance,
Do I qualify?”

Menashe was also deeply gratified to live to see his poem “Michael” inscribed last year on a plaque beside a statue of St. Michael the Archangel erected by the Archdiocese of Denver.

A second poem, which I sometimes use as a table grace,
is one that many readers would take naturally as something rather different. Menashe was fond of telling how this poem was read not so long ago during a talk given by a mover and shaker in the world of finance, who considered it quite apropos to the times:

Improvidence

Owe, do not own
What you can borrow
Live on each loan
Forget tomorrow
Why not be in debt
To one who can give
You whatever you need
It is good to abet
Another’s good deed

In addition to being a wonderful showcase of that immaculate Menashian construction, I think it’s a poem which persists in being genuinely funny through countless readings. Yet, it is, of-course, also a profoundly religious poem. The hint in the title is the exquisite part: im providence bringing Providence (divine) into the picture. Read this way it is a wonderful set of words to remind us that we are in fact in total debt to God”in hock to our eyeballs, as it were”but that this should not be a cause for worry but rather for delight in that One who makes our thereby fundamentally improvident ways possible. It is in fact in trusting, ever so recklessly, that we abet the good deed.

If “Improvidence” is at first glance a secular poem which betrays a religious subtext, then “Whose Name I Know” might, I suppose, be the reverse: a religious poem which one could nevertheless read in a secular way. It might be read as a reflection on a cherished and revered friend, or more aptly a tragically unrequited love. It’s a measure of the internal integrity of a poem when it can stand up to completely different readings. Yet it is as a reflection on the mystery of God’s own name that it resonates with a great and quiet power.

WHOSE NAME I KNOW

You whose name I know
As well as my own
You whose name I know
But not to tell
You whose name I know
Yet do not say
Even to myself”
You whose name I know
Know that I came
Here to name you
Whose name I know

The prayer is there, and it is in its way plaintive once again; it is that reminder to God of who the supplicant is and of why God should be taking any notice at all. You Know that I came / Here to name you/ Whose name I know . There is in this a most subtle yet somehow also a most urgent hint of what the psalmist once said in different terms, as in Psalm 30:9: “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?”

Menashe’s fundamental inclination is towards the praise of that name that is not uttered. A line from Psalm 149”“Let them sing for joy upon their beds””provided the touchstone for this poem (republished in First Things February 2009):

Hallelujah

Eyes open to praise
The play of light
Upon the ceiling”
While still abed raise
The roof this morning
Rejoice as you please
Your Maker who made
This day while you slept,
Who gives grace and ease,
Whose promise is kept.

To delve closely into Menashe’s poetry is to encounter the myriad ways in which he rejoiced in the day his Maker made, even through loss and even in great stillness. His awe of the ordinary is etched in words that wear the grace and ease he received from that Maker. I count it also a very real kind of grace that though his voice is now silent, those words are still with us.

Sean Curnyn is a writer who lives in New York City. He maintains a website called The Cinch Review.

RESOURCES

Samuel Menashe at The Poetry Foundation

Dana Gioia, “I Am the King’s Son”: On the Poetry of Samuel Menashe

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Articles by Sean Curnyn

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