BLESS THIS GARDEN A Review of Stone Shekhina, Poems by Enid Dame

Copyright 2002 by Enid Dame
ISBN 1-886124-02-10 $9.95

Three Mile Harbor (publisher)
Antje Katcher, Editor
Post Office Box 1951
East Hampton, N.Y. 11937

Note, prelude to the text of this collection:
“...the Shekhina...stood for an independent, feminine divine entity prompted by her compassionate nature to argue with God in defense of man.” —Raphael Patai, quoted by Enid Dame

Enid Dame’s argument with God was the gentlest we ever knew. Stone Shekhina, most recent of Dame’s seven collections, is full of memorable characters, most of them constructed out of Biblical texts, apocryphal study, and the poet’s amazing imagination. Her strong poems, her unsentimental view of Biblical horrors, and her powerful wit, face us to the mysteries of the Infinite and the terrible realities of our world. Yet her work is an absolute celebration– of history, of quotidian life, and of language, the Word, its power — to remake the world, to enlarge wonder, to make deep sense, and to honor love. Enid expanded the “story” of our lives by moving us into history, and by bringing history forward – hilariously – into the present. As the Old Testament Miriam says, (according to Enid’s telling):

“We are all, all the children in the story.
A nation of children sits down at the tables
for the time it takes to revisit the story,
which changes as we move through our lives,
which changes us as we move through it together...” (p.60, from “Miriam’s Seders”) (underline mine)

Dame’s poems embody paradox —pre-history and the present simultaneous, traditional learning and revolutionary attitudes in synchrony; cynicism and hopefulness, furious criticism and great love, all cohering. Enid was a life-long rebel, and yet her voice —in person as on the page— was always full of appreciative humor, tinged with surprise. She produced work reflective of exactly who she was: outraged, yet open-hearted, proud but uniquely generous; critical yet loving. Never judgmental, the poet found herself merged into the world she recreated.

The very concepts Enid started with are hilarious: that Noah had a spunky daughter who could speak to us; that Lilith has an on-going life through centuries and speaks to us; that Jephthah’s Daughter could sing both praise and lament before her sacrifice; that Miriam can be critical of her tribesmen, or family...
Then come the blazing details, suddenly making the stories immediate, as they mix exotic silliness with old-fashioned nostalgia: Enid has Noah’s daughter answer some ridiculous rabbinical questions about the Ark, so she tells about her mother : “I see her in the tiny, sweaty kitchen/ chopping up pieces of seaweed/ making soup out of salt water and discarded shells/ (Meat was forbidden, of course.)/ A spider monkey hung by its tail over her improvised stove...” She goes on in admiration, “My mother spoke
animal language./ Not all the dialects—just a few./ Leopard and llama were her favorite./ She could also
hoot like an owl...” (p.19) “How was the Ark lighted?” the final section of this poem begins, “It
wasn’t. It was a dark, musky cave./ At night I’d crawl in on my mother’s side of the bunk./ She’d sing songs to me in her throat./ I made her tell me stories...” And finally, “Beside us, Father snored./ She held me. Her heart bet along with the ocean’s./ At these times, the dark Ark felt safe./ At these times/ I wanted the forty days to go on forever.” (p.20)

The characters are “real” for us: we will keep Noah’s daughter among us, wistfully dreaming of her cozy days beside her mother on the Ark; and we will know “Miriam’s Water,” as if she had truly offered it to the poet in High Falls, New York. (pp.5-6) We will know Esther’s triumph and Dina’s ironic secret, bitter yet marvelous. With her typical witty slant, Enid taught us how Eve must have wanted to protect Adam from an accusing God; hers were singers! Through “Miriam’s Seders” we understand the feminist re-invention of ancient religion: “On the desert/ we cemented our relationship/ with the God we never saw— / a bit like learning to lean against the air./ If you do it correctly, you’ll never fall/ spinning, dizzy, into inner space,/... No, you’ll learn how to pick up your bags/ and keep moving.” (p.58)

Stone Shekhina is centered on the Noah story— from the points of view of Noah’s children, the familiar myth becomes eerily relevant to modern conditions, modern mentalities. It includes a long portrayal of Noah’s wife: “Excerpts from Naamah’s Journal”uses an authentically detailed narrative style— to move from bread-making to rape, survival, despair, and prayer—not a prayer to “the God he won’t let me speak to” but to the ocean itself.(p.29) In “Japeth,” the youngest son speaks, centuries later: “I was the boy on the boat/ but then the world turned over./ Today I’m the man in the house. / It’s a large box, but I keep it powered... / My sons are doing well: one’s in banking/ one’s in computers one’s in media./ They hunt together on weekends.”(p.41) And he protests about revealing the past: “My daughter keeps trying to interview me/ for her oral history project./ ...Why should I spill my guts about/ Pop’s drinking problem Mom’s suicide / her obsession with animals his compulsion to save the world? / Sure, we were a dysfunctional family... Does the world really need/ another sad story?... Don’t stir up old waters./ You’ll give yourself nightmares.” And the poem goes on into more eerie territory of the mind.

Noah’s daughter, completely imagined by the poet, as real as any 20c girl, becomes a central spokes-person in this series; but many impressive women speak as part of the human circle. We suffer with Jephtha’s (unnamed) daughter, stunned by her father’s inscrutable cruelty, her love of the detailed world—foods, music, and dance, knowing “This is/ the last night on the mountain./ He let me breathe the air/ for two months before he’ll cut it off/ forever. Something’s wrong here./ But I can’t name it.”(p.62) We can!

We are given glimpses of pre-history, swiftly updated with contemporary references. In “Eve, Much Later,” the first woman talks to us: “I could handle/ losing the Garden” and “losing the lover/ who raced to me across rivers...” and losing her own body “(supple and full of teeth)/ that had shaped me for years,/ even losing the children/ I pushed out of it... without a rulebook.” But her great lament is for the snake, “...the friend of my mind the playmate/ whose wit flashed and kindled my own.” In wit was the excitement: “Words were the way we touched/ steel hitting flint...” (p.17-18)

Perhaps 20th Century social changes have clarified women’s rightful equality, taking her partnering with the first principle of Intelligence (wonderfully) for granted; but to go back into the “Beginning,” to the woman in The Garden (whom some would still call culpable!), to let her declare herself—“We
were the world’s doctors/ its scientists its comedians”—this is the revolutionary genius of Enid Dame. And then, to have The Woman declare that where she lives “now”(eons later), she has learned to find and use knowledge, but has no “friend to help me/ stand back and observe it, / play with it label it/ make jokes at its expense...” To have such a companion is the wish of many (still isolated) intellectual woman. To examine the world is also, of course, the work of an artist. And “(even if jokes change nothing)” as Eve adds, one nevertheless sees and speaks and laughs and goes on--- perseverence essential to an ars poetica, as to the life spirit of Enid Dame. If Eve is forever intrigued by the snake, then intelligence is the primary force, male and female, both. Here we have it with a woman’s sharp wit, and woman’s powerful laughter. Who has celebrated these qualities so deliciously before?

“The Family on the Boat, a meditation in 3 parts,” also speaks for the contemporary artist:

“We had brains dreams energy
arrogance enough
to believe we contained the world
as the Ark contained us.” (p.34)

And so they were saved. In a toast to her parents, Noah’s daughter thanks them for their wisdom, saying “We are the children / who came through the Flood alive/ and went on to do other things.” And so does Enid survive, for us, and—if “Arks” will be built, and if we can receive the wisdom given—so do we.

Stone Shekhina is informed by scholarship, as well as by Dame’s life of political involvement and her sharp views. Years ago, Dame became a student of Jewish myths and traditions; her work is rooted in her midrashic interpretation of Biblical texts. Mystic commentators and modern historians—such as Raphael Patai and Elaine Pagels—are also her sources.

At the same time, she became expert in craft: her language is precise, she captures nuance and inflection; her lines move in a unique “music of (her own) ordinary speech.” And she is the master of many (open and closed) forms, notably the sestina. Hearing her read was always a rich surprise: Enid’s jubilant amusement sang through. One can “hear” her on the page, in her earlier, more confessional work, then in the persona poems of the Lilith series, and throughout Stone Shekhina, the most recent collection.

Noah’s Ark is the center of this book; and laughter is its leitmotif. Sarah reports on her conversation with the Angel who announced her coming pregnancy.(“Sarah and the Angel,” pp.45-57) “Laughter sprang out of me/ like water escaping a faucet/ or steam in a boiling pot/ wriggling its lid off. / I choked, `Me, a mother?/ My good man,/ I’m 90 years old,/ Don’t be ridiculous.’” The angel chides her for giggling. She explains her life of hardships and ironies—hypocritical parents and a husband “who speaks to a God... who makes nothing easy for us.” With a funny aside about how she frustrated the King of Egypt... whose “royal member withdrew/ then went hard as an eggplant.” Then Sarah concludes, “So now we are old my lover/ is too weak to enter me/ (with his fine new circumcised penis)./ I am too dry to receive him...” and compares their bodies to dried fruits. Then she asks the young angel (in a shtetl inflection),“‘What’s wrong?/ You couldn’t find anyone else?’” She finally makes the Angel laugh, and feels triumphant: “Our boundaries dissolved.” Sarah declares, just as Enid dissolves boundaries between past and present, myth and reality, the powerful and the humble. “And I felt power surge through me,/ a Jewish comedienne/ finding her audience!” The Angel chides her again for laughing. “I pulled myself upright. ‘No/ My life is no joke./ But jokes help me live it.’” Midrashic inventions are the substance of Dame’s work. Vivid personae are its flesh. Sophisticated linguistic form is its medium. And laughter is its key.

Dame’s genius shows clearly in how she merges legendary and contemporary references: Noah’s daughter again, after history has moved forward and Noah has become a souvenir-shop legend:
“I want to shout,/ ‘This isn’t my father!/ He wasn’t a blue-eyed saint.../He didn’t wear a neat bathrobe/ or mystical smile./ He was a small angry man...” and time becomes “today”:

“Today, after years
of dry silence
I want to tell his story...
I want to release a memory
clear and fierce as a flame
or a bird over falling waters
of this father who built a boat
around the unruly world
and carried it off to safety

not for business or pleasure
or entrance to heaven.

Because it had to be done.
Because it was what he could do.” (“Free-Lance World-Saver,” p.23)

So...the poet-as-daughter preserves Noah, yes, but the extended metaphor incorporates something of a father who might have lived in “real” time(cf., section #4 and Enid’s earlier work for direct glimpses), and the father/men we dream of; ours, would that they could build a boat “around the unruly world...”! The poem moves so deeply that a reader finds herself wanting to believe that my father also did what “had to be done,” and my forefathers, and now, who? Who will “carry (this world) off to safety”? Through the simple old story, opened and re-constituted here, Dame raises the most complex questions of our lives, because she loves the terrible world. And the animals and the people in it.

There is an ironic vein in Dame’s work — embedded in historic paradox. Laughter connects grief and survival. In “Sarah: The Place Beyond Laughter,” the great poem on bitter endurance, Dame teaches the uses of laughter. Here, in a special version of pre-history, Sarah speaks in a modern voice: “I made two kings laugh./ They didn’t walk off in a huff./ They didn’t reach for their weapons” and “Like a blind woman relying/ on her nimble, seeing fingers, / I felt my way around a world/ ruled first by my father’s gods.../ then by my husband’s invisible Voice...”(p.52) Protest enters Sarah’s meditations: “But now, husband, you’ve brought us to a place/ where words turn to stones,/ and laughter turns poison...” Isaac —whose name means “laughter” (I learned from Enid)— is brought to the rock by his father. It happens suddenly in the poem, as in the world such an event always does; and the poem speaks for what is seen: “A knife deflects light ...” Then the poet steps back to comment: “Maybe some other beings/ observing from the bleachers/ somewhere out among the cooling stars/ would find this amusing.” But then she speaks as the mother: “...I try to heal/ the stunned boy you brought home/ with words I don’t believe in.../ How can I live with you now?” The murderous patriarch, in the name of his faith, has brought the woman to a place where “The earth is drained of quick blood.” It is “a place beyond laughter.” Dame has always taken us forward, into our frightening present, by moving, laughing, praying, digging deep into the past.

This incredible poem is what I chose to read, last year, at an anti-war reading in Morristown, NJ(not far from George Washington’s headquarters). Enid was thrilled to learn what a powerful meaning her work has in our time. She herself had participated in many such rallies, over decades, but the modest poet does not always know that she is saying exactly—as a great writer, not a rhetoritician—what we all need.

Enid has been known for her midrashic work, but she has also been expert at satire—as in the whimsical characterizations of personae in “Jerusalem Syndrome” (based on actual cases), people who imagine themselves as ancient figures, but whom the poet sees with modernized quirks: “...And at the Western Wall,/ Miriam’s tambourine trails purple streamers/ (did she buy it in San Francisco?)/ Aaron’s sporting/ six rings in each ear,/ a gold six-point star in his tongue...” From whimsical to mordant, her satire levels at contemporary behavior at the same time that it finds amusement in Biblical figures: in “The Family on the Boat”, one of Noah’s sons speaks: “We were the family with visions and values./ They were time-wasters greedy larcenous mundane./ They drank beer while we fought for a more tender world./ They played cards while we mended stray animals’ bones./ They talked about winning the lottery./ We talked to God.” (p.33)

Through Enid’s inventions, Bible characters are fleshed, familiar humans, riddled with yearnings, sexuality, memories, trickiness, and the endurance celebrated through the speaker/poet. In honesty and in laughter, their power to survive is what the poet illuminates, and what she assures for us in the daring breadth of her work. Dame’s readers will remember Lilith, who—in an earlier book announced “kicked myself out of paradise...” and explained her discontent: “ was/ always safe there/ but safety// wasn’t enough...” ; who sustained her fondness for her sexist husband Adam, who teamed up against her with “the god he carried around in his pocket...” Eventually, Dame’s Lilith developed a sisterly relationship with Eve, and influenced centuries of history with her flamboyant sexuality. In Stone Shekhina, finally, we find Lilith and Eve, in parallel stanzas, “Looking for a Mother” ( “Poem for 2 Voices,” p.14). Eve resolves the search: “I couldn’t find my mother/ in the world outside/ with all its rocks and lightning./ So I stopped looking./ I did another thing:/ I turned into a mother—/ ... I made myself the woman/ I wanted most to meet...” Enid Dame cleverly provides the words for Eve, here; and—as throughout her wise poems—she speaks for all searching women (including herself.)

Dame confronted sexism in religion: “All Grandmother’s stories/ were turned into stone. Something was trapped in translation.”(from the title poem, p.32) And she liberated the truth. By the time she has gathered her women (and men) to emerge under the blessings of the Shekhina, Lilith has become Enid’s model. The final poem is directed to her:

“Lilith, I don’t cut my grass/ as you never cut your hair./ I picture you in my backyard/ where it’s always cool and ferny, / where jewelweeds grow taller than trees, where wild berries tangle/... Lilith, you smell like the earth/ and marigolds and mulchy leaves...”(p.66) Here is a celebration of earth from a bold critic of convention.

Dame had surely found her garden, “Where roses sag and break their waters, / tomatoes offer up their juices,/ slugs die dreamily in beerbowls, / you dip your toes in green mud.” (p.67) She rejects the power lawn-mower the neighbors want to buy her, “How can I tell them/ I’m terrified of power?/ There’s too much let loose in the world./ It’s one gift I don’t need.” And with a little joke on the Messiah, who will come as another form of authority— “...carrying a squirtgun filled with chemicals./ No room for weeds in his world.”— the poem ends by asking Lilith to “bless this garden/ while both of us/ still use it.” Like her gutsy Lilith, Enid Dame knew how to see(-and-resist) the evils of power in this world, and how to bless.

To say that we miss Enid among us is only part of the story. We miss the great-hearted friend and companion, but how we also miss what would have been her on-going work. Dame’s modern lines bring us to a deeper reality than ancient worshipers might have known, to personal and cultural “truth.” We will not find another poet who moves so purely against the odds of canonical imperatives, and against instances of human cruelty, but never preaching. We do have the poems, to reread endlessly; they keep us steady, intelligent, awake— as the Biblical scribes would have us, but tempered also with healthy skepticism, and with the sympathetic laughter of recognition.
Enid’s personality shines through - modestly yet surely. And she is smiling broadly, as she did whenever she was reading her marvelous poems.

In “Foreword: Jerusalem Syndrome” Enid opens her book with a description of the crazed, atavistic people of the Holy City’s streets, and comes to questions about them: Are they truly mad? Struck by the sun?/ Show-offs, Drop-outs? Postmodernists/ literally entering the texts/ so they can re-write them?/” (that’s the midrashic work, isn’t it!) “Or is it God they’re after...?”

But where, Shekhina, are you?
I had hoped to see you here...
I should have known:
you’re still in exile,
perhaps in upstate New York
working quietly in a back room
of a Health Food Co-operative.
I see you sorting tomatoes
remembering they were once called Love Apples...
You dreamily hold a tomato
against your cheek skin to skin
waiting for summer to pass through Jerusalem.

If I could believe for a moment—as I do when I’m reading—I’d know that Enid is with you, Shekhina,
in upstate New York, watching the world, loving her man and her readers, knowing her goddess, knowing what she has planted; knowing that summer is coming.

Dame was also a college teacher (of writing and literature), most recently at NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology). And she was a critic, editor, and publisher. She was deeply pleased to work on BRIDGES, A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends. She had been a poetry editor there for several yeasrs and was very proud to make her contribution in those important pages.

For over twenty years she and her husband Donald Lev produced Home Planet News, a widely read journal of poetry, commentaries and reviews. From Brooklyn, it reaches throughout the New York metropolitan region (and beyond), recognizing a wide range of writers, investigating literary and political events (no separations made between these). Dame and Lev became part of a community in upstate NY as well, with readings and festivals there, parallel to their tradition of great marathon readings at the old Cedar Tavern Roof Garden in the Village. They gathered both academic and proletarian writers, of many styles and concerns. Common threads have always been social protest and wry contemp for the smug and the settled. Their undaunted passion for the ideals of the (now almost mythical) Sixties created a receptive center and expressive outlet for writers and readers who might have despaired over lost worlds. Enid’s poetry carries the impulse of protest, with unique wit, and the passion of outcry, with undaunted sympathy.


Madeline Tiger