Yehoshua November’s first book of poetry, “God’s Optimism,” is a collection of stunningly honest poems dealing with a broad array of human situations — love and marriage, life and death, God and redemption and, of course, Harpo Marx.
More on that later.
A devoutly Chasidic Jew, November’s poems pull away the black curtain of hats, suits and kippot — the only glimpse many people ever see of this community on any given day along Murray Avenue — to reveal a community of men and women grappling with the same life issues as the rest of us.
If nothing else, November’s poetry reminds us that Orthodox or Reform, Jew or non-Jew, we are not so different after all.
As Pittsburgh poet Lynn Emanuel wrote in a liner note for this collection, “the struggles and emotions of the book are compelling in ways that even a non-Jewish audience would be moved by.”
For instance, in his poem “Tennis,” November imagines what it would be like to escape his daily routine:
“One evening you will walk past a park
between two fading apartment buildings,
and see men playing tennis in white garments,
and long to slip out of your life,
to be buried in the white robe with no pockets,
and float like the ball,
between two rivals, two great friends,
this world and the next.”
Love and relationships dominate much of November’s work, but he’s as preoccupied with the miracle of two lives being made whole through marriage as the pain they suffer when they’re ripped apart.
In “When A Man Leaves His Wife,” November writes:
“As he drives through the streets
he thinks, ‘I will keep driving
until I reach the road
that leads out of my life with her’
because he does not remember
that the loneliness he is carrying
belongs to her.”
Clearly, lost love has had a profound affect on November’s work, whether it is the love of a spouse, a parent, grandparent or child, all of which he touches upon in this collection.
Which brings us to “Harpo” — November’s homage to apparently his favorite Marx Brother.
But why? Is it the curly wig Harpo wore? His “baggy trench coat of useless goods?”
Likely, the answer is in this stanza from the poem:
“And who would have known
that, after performances,
the most lighthearted of five brothers
would race to his wife and children,
instead of card games and wild women?”
November writes honestly and directly about his Jewish faith in many of the collection’s poems, but it his indirect references, such as in “Harpo,” that show how deep his affection for it goes.
“God’s Optimism” is a quick, yet moving, read. Like most good poetry books, many of its lines will cling to you, tugging at your sleeve when least expected and urging you to remember something within yourself.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)