by Matthew Lippman
Racing Form Press
Reviewed by: Neil Silberblatt
For those of my ethnicity and vintage, salami does not connote something that you would find in the supermarket’s refrigerated section – next to the pre-sliced, pre-packaged bologna or (heaven forbid) bacon. It is not something to be sandwiched between loaves of white bread, and should come nowhere near mayonnaise (unless that mayonnaise happens to be in the adjacent potato salad).
Rather, it is something that – as the sign in the window of Katz’s Deli on New York’s Lower East Side exhorted – you should send to “your boy in the army”. (Salami and army forming a rhyme which even Yeats would approve.) Somehow, the image of a soldier in a modern day foxhole receiving a care package, consisting of a salami, has always intrigued and delighted me.
It is also something which might (and did) hang in the kitchen – near the Jewish calendar with the “major” holidays highlighted – its skin wrapper slowly hardening and shrinking (mimicking the effect it would have on the eater’s arteries), and filling that room with its not so subtle flavor.
This aptly-titled poetry collection by Matthew Lippman has all the hallmarks of that meat – flavorful, scented, evocative, delicious, to be eaten slowly (washed down with Dr. Brown’s cream soda), and aimed squarely at the arteries.
As with Levy’s “Real Jewish” rye bread, one does not need to be a member of a certain tribe to enjoy this collection. But, it probably couldn’t hurt. There are certain words or phrases in the poems in this collection which would doubtless not be understood by those not conversant with the Mother Tongue (just as there are scenes in Woody Allen’s early movies which would elicit blank stares in Omaha or Oklahoma). It might not be a bad idea to have Leo Rosten’s “Joy of Yiddish” nearby or Google Translate on hold. That is not meant to dissuade you from picking up this book. To the contrary, it is meant to enhance your understanding of the treasures inside.
The poems bear the marks of a highly devout and deeply religious agnosticism as well as well as a healthy (albeit highly irreverent) sense of humor. The opening lines of Herman the Pig are evidence of both:
My pig, Herman, and me walked to synagogue.
I couldn’t hide him any longer.
I put a kippa on his pink head.
I thought that would make things easier.
He said, I know they are going to hate me.
I said, No, we are a lovin’ people. …
One does not need to know that “kippa” (pronounced kee-pah) means yarmulke – which means the thing the Pope wears on his head (when he is not being fancy shmancy) – to savor this poem, or its incongruous finale in which Herman the pig ascends “into the Hebrew alphabet of love and joy”.
The wrestling with faith – which members of our tribe have been doing since Jacob went 12 rounds with that angel – is even more evident in the poem In the Basement of the Holy House –
I sat in the synagogue
and decided not to be a Jew.
Just for a second.
I wanted to see how it felt.
It felt like the yellow traffic signal
on the corner of Sixth and Center. …
or in Half Jew Half Guy –
I have not been Jewish my whole life.
For the first half of my life I was just a half a guy.
I lived in a foxhole of television and pretzels. …
Ultimately though, the delicious poems in this collection are no more dependent on an understanding (or acceptance) of the tenets of Judaism than Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep”, Alfred Kazin’s “New York Jew”, or any of Charles Reznikoff’s or Denise Levertov’s verse. In other words – if they like good contemporary poetry or simply good writing – your friends Jack the Baptist and Rachel the agnostic (and even Jude the obscure) would love this book.
Neil Silberblatt is was born and grew up in New York City, lived for a (long) time in Connecticut, and is now a “wash ashore” on Cape Cod. He has been writing poetry since his college days. His poems have appeared in several print and online literary journals including Verse Wisconsin; Hennen’s Observer; Naugatuck River Review; Chantarelle’s Notebook; Oddball Magazine; and The Good Men Project. His work has also been included in Confluencia in the Valley: The First Five Years of Converging with Words (Naugatuck Valley Community College, 2013), an anthology of selected poetry and prose; and in University of Connecticut’s Teacher-Writer magazine. He has published two poetry collections: So Far, So Good (2012), and Present Tense (2013). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and one of his poems – Recycling Instructions – received Honorable Mention in the 2nd Annual OuterMost Poetry Contest judged by Marge Piercy. Neil is the founder of Voices of Poetry.