Knowing the Terrain

Emily Jaeger
| Reviews

At the center of this compass, perhaps, is suffering. For example, in the title poem, November conveys the pain that he and his wife feel when a school refuses to accept their deaf daughter. While he questions the actions of the principal, “the oven of what one human does to another,” most of the poem is given to a deeper exploration of suffering itself and reckoning with the traditional Jewish perspective that suffering, like all other elements of creation, has its origin in the divine. Employing the language of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, November writes,

Two worlds exist:
The higher hidden one
and our earthly realm.


That which appears tragic
slides down, unmitigated,
from the hidden realm—
a higher, unlimited good
this world cannot hold.
So the mystics explain suffering
if all comes from above,
from where no evil descends.

Is this something one tells another
who is suffering?


Here, November demonstrates what the best poems of this book accomplish. By inserting a simple question, “Is this something one tells another / who is suffering?” he performs a fine balancing act between revering tradition and subverting the definitiveness of tradition. The question suggests that tradition here is not entirely satisfactory, yet the amount of space tradition occupies on the page suggests its power. With these subtle rhetorical moves, November is able to point toward the gray areas between two opposing worlds.
November’s straightforward and deceptively simple language only heightens both the urgency and intimacy of these poems—giving the impression that he is racing against the clock, against the ephemerality of life, just to set the words down in the only way he knows how, as in his tender illustration of life with his deaf child: “From the bathroom, I heard the loud buzz/ of an electric toothbrush/ she didn’t realize she’d left running.” Or the awed memory of his courtship days:

Because I was young and you were beautiful,
I did not say, This is just a physical body nourishing itself.
And I did not say, Perhaps this is the other half of my soul.
I made a decision with a young man’s body,
and my soul continues to thank me.

Additionally, the accessibility of November’s language opens the text for those who might not be as versed in Jewish tradition (he also includes a short glossary in the back) and Jewish audiences less familiar with poetry.

Emily Jaeger is the author of the chapbook The Evolution of Parasites (Sibling Rivalry Press) illustrated by Robin Levine. Her poems have appeared in Four Way ReviewTriQuarterly, and The Offing among others. After completing her MFA at UMass Boston, Emily will be the 2017/2018 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Poetry at Colgate University. She has also received fellowships from Literary Lambda, TENT, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize.

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