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The Joke’s on God

Stanley Moss is either the most religiously profane or profanely religious poet around

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Moss. (Courtesy Anvil Press Poetry)

In Rejoicing: New and Collected Poems, Stanley Moss’s recently published collection, Moss quotes Baudelaire’s sly aphorism: “God is the sole being who has no need to exist in order to reign.” For more than 40 years, Moss has been addressing that sole being without worrying whether He exists or not.

The 84-year-old poet (who is also the founder of the non-profit Sheep Meadow Press, which has published Yehuda Amichai, Peter Cole, and many other renowned poets) takes on God in a number of ways and in a number of moods, quite frequently in the same poem. In the middle of “Bad Joke,” Moss talks about God’s responsibility for the disasters of history:

War is the hair on His head,
The beard He strokes when he sits in judgment.
He would never have a little fat belly like Buddha.
Looking around to the world, I say to God,
“Careful, you may just fall on your face.”
And so I move to farce.

Moss depicts the Lord of Hosts as a bloodthirsty despot whose impartiality plays out as destruction.The Almighty sits on a throne of majesty but not necessarily one of justice:

He downed all history and our yesterday’s dead.
Are His eyes on fire without tears.
Does He evacuate?

God devours His children with neither pleasure nor regret.

With the jarring question about divine hygiene (“Does He evacuate?”) the poem takes up a new problem. Moss is concerned with the way his poetry can—and cannot—talk about God. He comes by his scruples honestly; Maimonides reminds us that the Torah speaks in the language of men, and the trouble with that language is that it attempts to recreate God in our image. We make a fundamental blunder when we try to imagine God in human terms, because the very essence of God (for Jews at least) is that He transcends the human completely. This injunction against the seductions of everyday language affects the poet most of all; if you push your luck far enough, you press against the absurdities of analogy. If God eats, does He also shit?

Of course not. The Almighty doesn’t really eat, nor, for all our hopeful metaphors, does He really have a face that he can turn towards us. The attempt to lend our attributes to God leads us to both bad theology and bad jokes. The Lord does not slip on celestial banana peels. Any poem that tries to imagine divine slapstick is not a call for redemption but a farce.

You might complain here that “Bad Joke” doesn’t so much come to an end as evaporate, sacrificing its solidarity with the victims of history for a clever bit of irony. But Moss’s brief against catastrophe still stands. Its flight into metaphor might be suspect, but its protest remains the same.

Rather, Moss tempers the ferocity of “Bad Joke,” with a witty bit of self-deflation. This is typical of his worldliness, the indulgent cosmopolitanism of a man who has traveled widely and who sells paintings by the Old Masters for a living. Moss loves the excesses of ancient mythologies and admires the opulence of art. Furthermore, he does not have the sublime certainty of the believer. He is not, he tells us, a particularly religious man. But he takes pains to show us that he is a particularly Jewish poet.

In “Work Song,” Moss describes his distance from Hebrew and from ritual:

I am surprised, when close friends
Speak Hebrew, that I understand nothing.
Something in me expects to understand them
Without the least effort
As a bird knows song.
There is a language of prayers unsaid
I cannot speak.

As a poet, he wants to get it right. But to get it too right, to make the work perfect, is to butt up against the Second Commandment. So the Jewish artist has to try to get it wrong:

Unsynagogued, unschooled, but lettered,
I drag a block of uncut marble—
I have seen prayers pushed
Into the crevices of the West Wall,
Books stacked against boulders,
Ordinary men standing beside prophets and scoundrels.
I know the great stoneworkers can show the wind in marble,
Ecstasy, blood, a button left undone.

Again, the metaphoric nature of language gets the artist into trouble. How do you move from figures of speech back to the concrete practices of the Jewish world without being conned by the images you have created? Moss suggests that we imitate the ancient Jewish stonemasons who would willfully mar their work in some way. In Moss’s case, this means that the writer of “Bad Joke” has to turn his anger into vaudeville by showing how limited his poetic means truly are.

Moss therefore demonstrates his conviction that the Law requires art to turn against itself, to invest in its flaws and own up to its limitations. Moss is a master of this double play—of the phrase or a figure of speech that cuts two ways, of the joke that isn’t kidding.

Moss loves to pit his impulses against each other and for that reason (but not only for that reason), you cannot do his work justice by reading it in wisps and scraps of quotation. Here, in its entirety, is “Psalm:”

God of paper and writing, God of first and last drafts,
God of dislikes, god of everyday occasions—
He is not my servant, does not work for tips.
Under the dome of the roman Pantheon,
God in three persons carries a cross on his back
as an aging centaur, hands bound behind his back, carries Eros.
Chinese God of examinations: bloodwork, biopsy,
urine analysis, grant me the grade of fair in the study of dark holes,
fair in anus, self-knowledge, and the leaves of the vaginal.
Like the pages of a book in the vision of Ezekiel.
May I also open my mouth and read the book by eating it,
swallow its meaning. My Shepherd, let me continue to just pass
in the army of the living,
keep me from the ranks of the excellent dead.
It’s true I worshiped Aphrodite
who has driven me off with her slipper
after my worst ways pleased her.
I make noise for the Lord.
My Shepherd, I want, I want, I want.

In Moss’s remarkably carnal prayer, the idolatrous can stand next to the monotheistic, because “Psalm” transfuses the divine with the physical. Moss has no trouble placing pagan lust at the dead center of the poem because his great hunger for the book is no different from his appetite for sex. The “leaves of the vaginal” segue very easily into the leaves of Ezekiel’s book and for good reason. Moss does not want the fire of prophecy. He just wants to keep on wanting.

Rejoicing is an argument about pleasure, a meditation on both appetite and spiritual aspiration. In the end, Moss is a spectacularly pagan Jew. He is profane as only those who take their religion seriously can be.

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shlomo dror says:

kaufman’s argument is totally unconvincing to me. Moss mocks what he can’t understand–can’t understand, because he never learned with a good teacher. great artists sometimes show an exceptional mind capable of penetrating huge mysteries and mystifications, but Moss tripped on the first step. and so did Kaufman.

NachumL says:

“pit his impulses against each other”? Kaufman misses Moss completely. Moss isn’t equating God with desire, he is acknowledging his desire: God of our ancestors, if you promise rain in its season, couldn’t you at least grant me a burst of inspiration? That should be easier for You than all the goodness our people have always craved but not received. Let writing, at least, be easy.

And regarding sex, isn’t physical desire more real than God’s presence?

It isn’t that Moss “just wants to keep on wanting” – it’s that Moss (and the rest of us)wants more – more than God provides.

Elizabeth O'Neill says:

In his review of Stanley Moss’ Rejoicing, David Kaufmann mentioned that Stanley Moss is a publisher of Yehuda Amichai’s work. He might have found that Yehuda Amicahi has written this statement of Stanley Moss’ work: “This is a book of great originality. Each poem has its own original life. I return to this poetry again and again.” Marilyn Hacker, a rather distinguished Jewish poet, has written this: “Magisterial…this book is magnificent. I’ve read it several times with greater and greater pleasure. Its verbal generosity and bravura, its humanity, the quality and quantity of information which it integrates into poetry of the highest order make it a continuing delight.”

Also, Mr. Kaufmann’s reading of the last line of “Psalm” seems somewhat off. It seems to me what the poet wants is to live.

Stanley Moss says:

Dear Ms. Newhouse,

Greetings. I have just received from my publisher, Anvil, David Kaufmann’s review of my book Rejoicing that appeared in Tablet on December 23, 2009. I appreciate his efforts and yours, but I note in his review he makes a comment that was printed as if it were a line in the poem. This is what you printed:

The Almighty sits on a throne of majesty but not necessarily one of justice:
He downed all history and our yesterday’s dead.
Are His eyes on fire without tears.
Does He evacuate?

The sentence “The Almighty sits on a throne of majesty but not necessarily one of justice” is his comment, unless it fell like a snowflake from heaven. Please, at the least retract this error.

Further, Mr. Kaufmann has a right to his own reading of the poem, but the poem is an anti-war poem, a fact he does not mention. The poem is also very much informed by, but not about, the Holocaust, not mentioned. Otherwise, I appreciate Mr. Kaufmann’s efforts.

I am a notorious re-writer of my poems and I re-wrote “Bad Joke.” I hope you will re-print “Bad Joke” as part of this letter.

The poem now reads:

BAD JOKE

After a difficult illness, in letters to friends I wrote:
“Inside my vitals it was Stalingrad.”
I could have said “Waterloo, all puns intended.”
I never would have said “a holocaust inside my belly.”
Only God could have the holocaust in His belly
or, on second thought, Stalingrad inside His belly
with a million five hundred thousand dead,
among them battalions of Russian women,
everyday Russians and everyday Germans
in with the slaughtered Wehrmacht and Panzer
divisions—a few well-disciplined innocents
“On the wrong side of history” and the Volga:
Romanians, Hungarians, the Spanish Blue Division.
They say the Lord passes days and nights on battlefields,
although I doubt he spends his time by human measure.
In His belly they were starved, frozen, gassed,
shot to death, blown to pieces,
or done in by subtler vehicles of departure.
God does not digest or belch. Yesterday, His time,
He devoured men battling with stone axes and clubs,
He downed all history and our yesterday’s dead.
Are His eyes on fire without tears?
Does He evacuate? The perfect being never makes a stink.
War is the hair on His head,
the beard He strokes when He sits in judgment.
He would never have a little fat belly like Buddha.
Looking around the world, I say to God,
“Careful, you may just fall off your face.”
And so I move to farce.
I do not think anyone so far
has made a funny hat of a human god.

Faithfully,

Stanley Moss

David Pendleton says:

Kaufman has done an excellent review of a collection of poems by Moss, a profound if irreverent poet. I do beg to differ, however, with one of Kaufman’s interpretations. In Moss’s last line of his poem “Psalm” which reads

“I make noise for the Lord.
My Shepherd, I want, I want, I want.”

Kaufman as decidedly dispassionate though not indifferent reviewer opines that “Moss does not want the fire of prophecy. He just wants to keep on wanting.” A blogger suggests Moss wants more life. Both are plausible, yet they should note that the lines are no doubt a play on words. The reference to noise is from the multiple Psalms encouraging the faithful to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (found in Psalms 66, 81, and 95). And of course the final line is to be contrasted with that of the memorable Psalm 23 which specifies and promises in the King James Version of the Bible that “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” which means that all my needs are met in God. Therefore, Moss doesn’t intend to suggest that he wants God. He is not expressing his desire. Rather, he takes issue with the Psalm and warns that contra what the psalmist joyfully sings that we human beings are in hopeless circumstances and are still in great want, desperately in need of things — peace, love, security, joy, freedom from war and the ravages of Mother Nature, liberty from anxiety and violence and pain. Given the recent earthquake and widespread suffering and death in Haiti, our needs are most certainly not met, screams Moss. Whether one can concur with Moss’s pessimism is beside the point, his poetry is singularly provocative and emotive.

David Pendleton

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The Joke’s on God

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