Glass Psalms by Jonathan Garfinkel

The second section of Jonathan Garfinkel’s debut collection Glass Psalms begins with a poem called “Childhood”:

There was no blood on the silver
Aspen. No trenches
beneath lupine, no brooks
Trembling with contaminated fish,
polluted memory.

There were Mercedes, cool
as Morphine. Gucci leather shoes
on the Day of Atonement. Bonbons
and Valium, stacked
high in the bowls of the neighbourhood moms….

A clear and steady gaze pervades these lines. I like its matter-of-fact tone. I like how the chilly, serpentine “oh” and “oo” sounds in the second stanza — “cool” “shoes” “Atone” “Bonbons” — score that matter-of-factness. How the long line at the end of the second stanza, with its “stacked” syllables, subtly evokes the quiet Valium fuelled excess he is speaking of. I love that touch of bitterness, which undercuts any of the sentimental or romantic notions that these sorts of childhood inventories so often succumb to. The poem ends with the sun shining through a white-carpeted living room, “blushing, / as though embarrassed by all this beauty” (27). It is not the blush of the mildly embarrassed, but the blush of the guilty, the accused. The speaker’s childhood world — Western, capitalist, complacent, mind-numbingly clean — is thoroughly digested and done with. The blush is a fire. In a collection full of burning cities and bombed out homes, the blush is — perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not — one of the books more blazing fires.

A similar tone and style is taken in the second poem “Mazra’ eh al shrqya, West Bank,” only here, on much more volatile grounds, the speaker’s detached matter-of-factness serves not to accuse anyone of complacency, but rather to praise the resiliency of the residents in the face of upheaval:

There is nothing special about this town.
The big boys hit the small boys
with sticks on their way home
from school. Workmen
slap the face of the village mongoloid.
The women make bread in the oven’s fire
and the husbands eat it, laughing.

As we see in these two poems, when Garfinkel lets the details do the talking, he is capable of painting a portrait true to the scene itself, no matter how horrible, and equal to the enormous passion and outrage one senses from Garfinkel the person.

Glass Psalms travels places other Canadian poetry books don’t, and should be commended for doing so. The central problem I found of the collection as a whole, however, is that the poems often fall prey to a reporter’s mentality. Garfinkel scrambles to collect as many images and anecdotes as he can — snapshots, sound bites, character sketches — while often abandoning the patient attention displayed in a poem like “Childhood” to how these images and anecdotes are grouped and phrased. As an example of this problem, take these lines from the first section of “Qalandya Refugee Camp: Seven Scenes”:

Here’s where I meet him,
Charlie, the old
Palestinian with throat cancer, cancer
of the leg, of the mouth.
I help him onto the bus to Ramallah. His breath smells
like yogurt past its expiry date, a thousand
tumours gone bad.

‘Call me Charlie Chaplin.’
He gambles, carouses and laughs.
I offer him a cigarette. And the warmth of our Cleopatras
gentle us for a moment.

The poem then discards Charlie to set six other poorly sketched “scenes” involving stock characters such as “The Austrian Soldier,” “The Venetian Lover,” and “Crazy Boy”—characters that, like Charlie, are never elevated above the level of scenery. This has everything to do with the slackness of the language, the seemingly arbitrary line breaks. Everything just seems so rushed. This hurriedness is made even more explicit at the end of each section, as Garfinkel tries to summarize each scene with a lyric moment of departure or epiphany: in the case of this first section:

Patience faints, cracks in the heat.

The whole lot for sale: chai, jeans, carburetors, prosthetic limbs.

‘The whole holy shebang.’

I leave Charlie, coughing at the sun.
Walk into the West Bank.

Now, a first collection is invariably going to be a mixed bag, and it would be easy to come down hard on this book’s failings because one senses there’s something genuinely at stake in the project, and I mean this as the highest sort of compliment. He makes me want to know more about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as well as the numerous other wars — past and present — and peoples — past and present — of which the poems occasionally offer glimpses. Still though, this is a book of poetry, not reportage, and I feel as though many poems rely too much on the effects of the exotic as ends in themselves. On the back cover, noted literary biographer and poet Rosemary Sullivan says of the book “…these forays into the dark of the mind are balanced by exquisitely erotic journeys into the body of the world.” Now, I won’t argue that sex and death aren’t inexorably intertwined, and that a good book will balance both; but surely a poem called “On the Way to Jedwabne” (the site of the deaths of sixteen hundred Jews in Poland during WWII) deserves better than the scant consolation of the Jewish speaker’s proximity to his travelling companion’s “Polish-Catholic heat”(20). Especially when sex itself so insistently takes the lead in this dance, and death becomes cricket-song, “the ancient/whatever buried beneath”(20).

Thankfully, and not surprisingly, given his intense interest in the 20th century’s greatest horrors, Garfinkel welcomes an open dialogue with the contemporary literary world’s most passionate poetic practitioners and intellectuals. The Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski is one of those figures. One of the more interesting poems in Glass Psalms is called “Advice from Zagajewski.” The poem stands as a kind of ars poetica. It speaks to the redeeming power of language, of ‘art’ as something that includes, but is not necessarily comprised of ‘memory’ alone, and, above all, of the importance of ‘patience.’ It is advice more easily given than practiced. I’ll close by quoting Garfinkel’s own poem in its entirety, as it expresses many of Glass Psalms shortcomings better than I ever could, while at the same time embodying its virtues. I look forward to more from this poet:

You are thinking too much
about history and war.
Too much memory
ballasting the light.

Try music. Words you’ve never
heard. The wind
at point-blank. A new
language to kite the mind.

Try baseball. A fly ball
lost in the lights. White planets
gulped whole by the sky. Try
adultery. Balloons.
A piercing on a body part
you forgot you had. Anything
to puncture your throat.

Try the everyday. A doctor’s
stethoscope. Smell of
coffee before it’s swallowed.
Wet ink or a dry page.
Bridges, or mint.

Try turning on the light,
and listening to its patience.