By Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.
Sayreville, NJ, USA

Any minority group understands that representation often comes with misrepresentation. With regard to the unknown, caricature sometimes overruns character.

There are a little over 7 billion people in the world, but only 14.6 million of them identify as Jewish; that’s 0.2% of the global population. Out of that 0.2%, the levels of Judaism vary: Hasidic, Conservative, Reformed, and other combinations or sectors. Minimum exposure brings with it a delicate presence in the world: sometimes, a misguided focus can be inevitable.

More than the lessons of the Torah or of the midrash or of the Kabbalah, what compels me to Jewish faith is its connection to poetry; its journey of survival through song. The history of the Jewish people is not, at least for me, simply about monotheistic beliefs; rather, it concerns itself with migration, with language, and with faith. That is, Judaism, for many, is more than just a religion. It exudes this sort of Platonic essence that says, “I’m here, I have suffered, but I am here.” It requires preservation through storytelling and living through grief.

Michael Mark
The first time I read Michael Mark’s poetry, I recognized instantly this essence of Jewishness, and not because of some direct claim or obvious content, rather, because of the indirect, all that lingers in the unsaid.

Take, for instance, Mark’s poem “It Means Something Different” (originally published in the Madison Review) which begins:
“When the Yahrzeit candle burns
                           in your mother’s name”

While the poem’s title fills readers with wonder (what is “it” exactly?), the opening relative clause expands the ordinary into the symbolic: the dim-lit candle a marker of memory, of a week,  a day, of the day, of the hours, 168 of them, spent in mourning.

The function of a relative clause is to deliver information, but what’s so smart about “It Means Something Different” is its reluctance to specify. It is, indeed, informative; we know that the yahrzeit candle has been burning, implying that the mourning period and the speaker’s visit is coming to an end. This fact is further indicated by the “sheets and pillow cases” stripped from the couch by the speaker, and handed over, as were the car keys, to him. The him is never clearly stated, though, and, while the poem’s grammatical structure sets itself up to deliver information, that who is specifically left unsaid.

Which is where the poem grows. We know that a mother has died. The first sentence makes that clear. Put together, the title and the first sentence can read: “It means something different when the Yahrzeit candle burns in your mother’s name.” The dramatic pause readers often take between reading the title and the first line must disappear. Because the very content of the poem connects what was before to what is now, those types of formal, poetic spaces disappear.

The narrative goes that a mother has died. A son is now leaving. A father is alone, perhaps for the first time in a very long time. Alone with no wife, with no son, with car keys and a pile of dirty sheets. Some things don’t need to be said. Departure, through all of its manifestations, reinvigorates that diasporic guilt braided throughout Jewish history.

Throughout “It Means Something Different When”, the speaker also employs the second person. Identifying as neither an “I” nor as a child (neither as a child of the mother who has passed on or as the child to the “him”). This purposeful exclusion of the first person “I” communicates the speaker’s new-found role as a motherless child. Who is he – all of the he’s within the poem – without his mother?

“It Means Something Different” ends with the image of a piece of salt resting on the speaker’s tongue. Rock salt, the salt of the earth, the taste of flavor, of liveliness. Snow blankets the ground, including the steps leading to the father’s house. Through its litany of “When”, the poem creates cinematic scenes, emphasizing that the most ordinary acts mean something different when one’s mother is no longer around.

It’s not uncommon for the women in Mark’s poetry to exude strong, fertile spirits; fertile not just in the sense that they carried children, but also in the sense that they ensure rituals and traditions survive through generations. For instance, in “Schmattas” (originally published in the Little Patuxent Review), the speaker describes how his “grandmother's rags are her photographs /from Poland, Hungary, Hell’s Kitchen in New York.”

Translated from Yiddish, schmatta means rags, and the poem summarizes the various pieces the grandmother has “saved / from the war” like “her oldest sister Anna’s scarf”,/ taken from her neck the last time they saw one another.” As the grandmother describes, “Never / I held her to my cheek again.”

A certain mystic magic surrounds the grandmother’s ability to save these remnants; in any case, she did. And because she did, she can do anything.

The speaker describes how time and time again, his grandmother schleps the shmattas “into the kitchen, to the chair” and

                           “…measures by feel, cuts, wets the thread
                           between her lips, slips it through the needle’s eye and sews

                           the tattered edges smooth—but never “like new."
                           New is a bad word, maybe the worst…”

At the poem’s close readers are told that “old is okay – better even.”

“Schmattas” reminds readers that the point is not to make things look more beautiful; the point is to let every living thing speak its truth.

This grandmother, Grandma Tillie, reappears in Mark’s poetry, often as a figure of the seamstress, the sewer, the weaver of history and tradition and family. That whom without which nothing would fit right. In “Grandma Tillie’s Thimble”, for example, the speaker explains how this “seventh child of Polish peasants” made “the clothes she wore / and us, stitch by stitch.”

It’s that interconnectedness that makes a poem. The carrying over of sound and language, as evident when Mark mimics the reversed syntax that often comes with second-language speakers; for example. “never / I held her to my cheek”, Grandma says, rather than “I would never hold her to my cheek again.” In other words, the poem keeps true to the sounds of its places and of its people.

Outside forces like war, poverty, or even death hold little power against the women in Mark’s poetry. Rather, their minds are their worst enemies. Mark’s work grapples with the moral responsibility of remembering when he approaches the subject of a mother struck with a loss of memory. In “Visiting Her in Queens Is More Enlightening than a Month in a Monastery in Tibet”, the speaker dutifully plays the role of the son the mother remembers him as, not the son he is.

During his visit with his ill mother, the speaker describes how he washes “my dish and hers. / She washes them again. I ask why. / She asks why I care.” In the distorted realm of the mother’s mind, everything the son does is undone. When he locks the door, she unlocks it. When he yearns for a French toast breakfast of yesteryear, she serves him a raw onion on a plate. When he eats the raw onion, she wonders why he cries.

Contrary to Grandma Tillie, the figure of the mother fails to remember even the most menial of tasks. In this light, how can she remember her history? Her faith? Who will be there to pass it on?

Embedded in Jewish faith is the call back, as far back, to the desert, to the mountains, to the father’s father’s father’s father and even further to when every moment of survival was a miracle. Walking around with that type of consciousness – that’s how Judaism speaks to me.

The call back is nowhere as present in Mark’s poetry than it is in “Their Blessing” (originally published in Tinderbox Poetry) which begins with a fantastical, dream-like scenario:

                           My dead grandparents from Poland,
                           Hungary, the shtetles, 9 days in the bowels 
                           of a ship, are in my pool…

From the description of the grandparents, dead, whose physical bodies are first cooped up in a ship but then unbound by gravity in the water, to the way the bowels of the ship transform into the luxury of the clean, lined pool, the scene, which happens in three lines, is transparent, skewed, prismatic, other worldly. The stanza moves quickly, forcing us to become acquainted with this unusual world, but the rest of the poem moves slowly, describing, simply, a family pool party.

The family is in the pool. The speaker is in the pool. Readers, even, are in the pool. The speaker wades through the water, narrating different family members to us as he passes by. Grandma Tillie is there in her housedress, bathing in the “sequined water.” And so is the speaker’s father’s father, who he is named after, who he never met. Still, he swims towards him with some schnapps to serve.  

We watch the great-grandfather “squint to see if its real”, the “tall palm trees”, him, “in a chair in a swimming pool / at his grandson’s house; no taxi cab to drive”, no heart attack at 46, “just the breeze from a new ocean”, and, even in his reverie, even in his imagination, the fleeting feeling that the happiness is “too much”, that guilt of joy is present.

Mark’s reflections on Judaism do not start and end in the family unit. In “Jews In the Wrong Place in San Diego” (originally published in Rattle), the speaker reflects on the Poway Synagogue shooting, which is when, on April 27, 2019, a gunman opened fire on a congregation on the last day of Passover, which also happened to fall on the Shabbos.

Not at the temple, but in a park close to it, the poem begins with the speaker getting up “from the metal bench”, looking at updates on his phone, and walking past a man. As this man and the speaker walk past one another, the stranger puts his palm to his heart and beats it. From this action, the speaker knows the man “is a Jew”, and of this assumption, or recognition, the speaker confesses:

His size his shape
                           the thin gold chain around his neck thick
                           Jew’s neck. If that’s wrong of me then
                           I’m wrong.

Continuing on, the speaker insists: “He is a Jew who knows / I am a Jew.” And while the speaker doubts the intention of the man’s palm to heart movement, he comes to recognize that it is because, yes, they are both Jewish, and they are both here. The poem ends:

                           We are at the ball field
                           at the middle school.  The wrong place
                           on Shabbos. We’re such Jews.
                           We’re still here.

Michael Mark’s poetry normalizes what it means to be Jewish, and in doing so reawakens its poetic roots. His work is unapologetically sentimental, with a speaker who openly weeps on the street, at the table with his mother, on the page. Yet, there is a distinct masculine edge, especially in the recollections of his father and grandfather. Tensions between faith, memory, joy, and ache trace the lines of each poem.

Michael Mark’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, Michigan Quarterly Review, Salamander, The Southern Review, The New York Times, The Sun, Waxwing, The Poetry Foundation's American Life in Poetry, Verse Daily. His poem “Visiting Her in Queens is More Enlightening than a Month in a Monastery in Tibet” was originally published in The Sun Magazine. He is the author of two books of stories, Toba and At the Hands of a Thief (Atheneum).



Abriana Jetté is the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling women's poetry anthology 50 Whispers
Her newest poetry anthology, Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. I, was released in February 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.