Contemplating a world occupied by both the head and the heart
Yehoshua November is a graduate of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and of Taylor Allderdice High School, and so local readers should have special interest in his new book of poetry. But I think it is a book that should captivate us all.
Two worlds exist at the same time at every moment of our lives. This is the central thesis of this hauntingly beautiful book of poetry which November has given us.
That key phrase, “two worlds exist,” has many different meanings in this book. It refers to how past and present can coexist, or to the way a scientist looks at something and the way the poet looks at the very same thing. It can refer to how the woman whom he married because he was madly in love with her body and the woman whom he has lived with ever since, through drudgery, poverty and heartache can somehow coexist in his mind whenever he looks at her. It can refer to how the young man he once was, who dabbled in jazz, now wears a black coat and lives the life of a Jewish teacher, and yet is in some ways still the same person that he was back then.
It can refer to the boy who stands up in the class he is teaching, who grabs his coat and his red sports drink and belts out his announcement that he knows that he is going to fail again. He walks out disgusted with himself for not being able to understand the text, and as he slams the door, there is silence in the room, as quiet as water or field or sky, a silence that lasts for a millisecond, like the silence that followed the first man’s sin. All of a sudden Adam and what he did long, long ago are present in this moment too.
It can refer to his father, a doctor who, when he heard that a class of medical school students was going to come to examine the two children who were born with one heart and died soon afterward, puts the bodies of the children in a cardboard box and hides the box in his locker, and then has them circumcised and named when no one is around. He then buries them in one grave. As Nov-ember thinks of what his father once did, he thinks also of the verse in the Torah that describes how the Israelites approached Mount Sinai together “as one person — with one heart.”
It can refer to the flock of seagulls who rise off the river in perfect formation over the heads of the students in his classroom turned toward him or their texts and who do not witness the wonder that is taking place right outside their window.
In a similar vein, he thinks of the time when he dropped his wife and his deaf child off at one more hearing expert’s office, and saw her wave as he pulled away and he thinks of how many times they waved goodbye to each other when they were dating, and he wonders if she will ever wave goodbye to him and to this life of theirs forever.
That two worlds coexist — call them the upper and the lower or the body and the soul or the spiritual and the earthy —and that one has the power to influence the other is the central teaching of the Jewish faith. But in this tender book, November deepens the concept to apply to many, many different levels of our lives. The spiritual becomes manifest where we least expect it, and the material, the crass, the bitter, the disappointing, is also manifest where we least expect it.
This is a book full of reflections on love and pain. It contains humility and humor, and it expresses guilt for the small cruelties that we inflict upon each other, as well as awareness of the larger cruelties that life inflicts upon us all. And it celebrates the faith, or at least the hope, that there is Something greater than ourselves within and behind everything that takes place within our lives.
Jack Riemer writes for Jewish publications throughout the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.