For a lot of contemporary poets, the main and only subject is the self: its moods, its observations, its dreams, and its urges. These poets apparently are following Walt Whitman’s admonition in “Song of Myself” that the poet sing the song of the self. We see such songs pretty much everywhere, in print creative writing journals and in online ones, in new journals and established ones. Such poems seem to be the dominant form today. We read about poets having dreams about their fathers and mothers, watching campfires, going to friends’ funerals, finding seashells, eating dinner with their daughters and granddaughters. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with such poems. I’ve written them myself and would be happy to email them to anyone reading this.
Poetry in part exists to explore the self. Poets write poems to discover what they are writing about and what they think about the things they are writing about. I don’t know what that melon sitting on the table means to me until I try to set it down, until I write about it.
Contemporary poets seem obsessed with singing the song of the self. They seem to have forgotten Whitman’s other admonition in “Song of Myself”—that poets sing the songs of others also, those who don’t have a voice or the wherewithal to sing with it. We see this in those sections of “The Song of Myself” where he celebrates others: husbands and wives, farmers and hunters, laughers and weepers.
Poet Charles Adés Fishman has never forgotten Whitman’s second admonition. In his long and successful career he has written about Holocaust survivors; high school students attending proms in Freehold, NJ; the last speaker of a dying language; and the victims of Hiroshima. Fishman is a poet who listens to others’ songs as much as he listens to his own.
We see this clearly in his latest book, In the Language of Women. In its first poem, “Sisters, The Water is on Fire,” he signals his intent in words evoking Whitman’s own poetry, his bardic voice and openness to others :
Sisters of all nations, this poem is for you. I see that now, as flames of the night sky stream out above me. . . . Sisters, I give my voice to your memories, to honor them. I give my words to the music of all you wish to say.
Fishman’s poems give voice to a variety of women from different historical periods, cultures, and places. Some like Catherine of Sienna and Georgia O’Keefe are well-known, but most, like Natalie Pasca, a friend of Charles Fishman, are not. If one opens the book expecting only to find stories of a certain kind, celebrating for example the empowerment of women, one would be surprised. Fishman is a much better poet and observer than that. Take for instance the poem, “Diwali Morning,” one of two in the book celebrating the life of his friend Lathan Mohan. Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, and the poem focuses on her memories of how the day was celebrated:
On Diwali morning
her childhood returns: dew
on the burnt grass, birds in flight
singing, pampering by her aunts,
the rustling of new dresses,
delectable meals and sweets
prepared under Grandma’s guidance.
The memories here move toward the joy she feels on that day and her sense of specialness, her knowledge that she is “the victory of light over darkness” and the “most beautiful child in the universe.” Fishman captures the magic of youth in language that is clear and resonant, images that are crisp and universal.
The poems that follow, focusing on other women and other lives, unite real life (sometimes mundane) concerns with moments of heightened luminescence. We read about women going to concerts, holding cats, having childhood fights with their siblings, sledding, shopping, dreaming of marriage, falling asleep with their children, getting lost in the woods at night, swimming, riding busses, watching husbands die, traveling to strange places, learning to write, listening to children cry, visiting Dachau, and cooking with basil, dill, and turmeric.
And often these concerns move subtly toward the spiritual and toward illumination, the sorts of whispers of truth and revelation that for all their quietness seem truer than the big moments of revelation that you see in writers like Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Mary Oliver. This is probably what speaks to me the most in these excellent poems, the quiet search for meaning, truth, and joy that Charles Adés Fishman offers in In the Language of Women.
Charles Adés Fishman won the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association's Long Island Poet of the Year Award (2006) and the 2007 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. His books include Mortal Companions (Pleasure Dome Press, 1977), The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech UP, 1989), an American Library Association Outstanding Book of the Year that was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Time Being Books, 2007). His most recent poetry collections are Country of Memory (Uccelli Press) and 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications), both 2004, and Chopin's Piano (Time Being Books, 2006). He is currently poetry editor of Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal For Holocaust Educators and consultant in poetry to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
John Guzlowski is published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Exquisite Corpse and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/