Knowing the Terrain

Emily Jaeger
| Reviews

A dichotomy that appears repeatedly in Two Worlds Exist is the one between Jewish and secular life, and its subtle subset, the tension between Chassidic and modern Jewry. Indeed, the struggle of balancing Jewish identity and practice with participation in the larger society has a history perhaps as long as Judaism itself. November’s book inhabits a literary tradition encompassing medieval Spanish poets such as Ibn Ezra, Shmuel Hanagid, Yiddish poets such as Kadya Molodowsky, and even Philip Roth.
While November successfully portrays complexity in his discussion of the divine source of suffering, his exploration of Jewish versus secular culture is less nuanced. November’s suggestion, in “In a City of Modern Jews,” that he would appear to a “modern Jew” as “the image of your great-grandfather coming toward you,” is a bit self-righteous, containing not only the belief that his version of Judaism is unadulterated but that modern Jewry would view him as such. What is missing is the effort, which makes earlier poems hit, to render both sides of a contentious issue or at least question his assumptions.
Ultimately, Two Worlds Exist is an ambitious project. It is an urgent wrestling match played out on the page between opposing axes. The poet doesn’t always emerge victorious, but the stakes—the most intimate moments of love and family that November shares with his reader, as he unfurls his luminous imagery—are worth fighting for.


Short term rentals. “It’s hurricane season, / and the neighbors have been half-naked / since Easter Monday,” David Blair writes in “Other C’est Moi’s,” a poem that appears at the beginning of his wickedly funny yet searingly honest third collection, Arsonville. Encompassing a wide palate of language—from “catalpa blooms” to “man boobs” in a single poem—Blair’s poems portray an urban pastoral. Attuned to the changing of seasons and at home in Market Basket or “Luau Night at the church gym,” Blair captures the strange mix of vivaciousness and decay in the local Somervillian scenery, creating a poetry that feels real.
In “Vinyl Raingear,” one of many favorites in this volume, Blair recalls a common New England phenomenon, underrepresented in the literary canon: a random warm day in the middle of winter:

…some watery Cambridge people in sudden parks have shed their Talbots
and Anne Bradstreet straight lines and fleecy bundles for sundresses
and low-riders to show their fire-fangled tattoos on lower bare backs
rule Britannia, rule the waves.

Each line break in Blair’s winding sentences feels like an adventure (and his sentences often embark from each other in wild departures, reminiscent of Lynn Hejinian’s My Life). Here, he makes an old trope, the changing of the seasons, new without a single drop of sentimentality. Blair also deftly portrays New England’s amalgamation of history and contemporary culture: Talbots and Anne Bradstreet comfortably share a sentence. Blair’s astute attention to ephemeral moments of daily life continues with the return of winter: “Some people are to their sandals as some hikers / are to bad weather in the mountains: caught out.” Such lines elicit a knowing chuckle (being one such person). Even when the joke is on the reader, there is something both refreshing and intimate in Blair’s generous attention.
Despite multiple spring and summertime poems in the collection, the scenery of Arsonville in Blair’s sardonic rendering of Somerville is rife with decay. On vacation, “cabins hide behind / the peeling billboards,” and the 1900s houses that populate the Boston area are a “freaky” reminder that “The dead are great surveillance.” Even Park Street station consists of “catacombs, a Venetian future.” These images and the frequent allusions to Rome in Arsonville are oddly reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s exploration in Little Dorrit of urban decay and the ghostly presence of London’s human history: “[Clennam] sat…looking at the dull houses opposite, and thinking, if the disembodied spirits of former inhabitants were ever conscious of them, how they must pity themselves for their old places of imprisonment.”

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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