"The Book of Isaac" by Aidan Semmens. pub. Parlor Press. ISBN: 978-1602353732
These fifty-six ‘distressed sonnets’, as Semmens calls them, are constructed from the language of the poet’s ancestors, their letters and diaries, and from the FBI files, news reports and book extracts from the times they lived in. The poems form a narrative centreing around the life of Isaac Hourwich, Semmens' great-grandfather, a Russian Jew, who emigrated to America, an "economist, lawyer, journalist and socialist". Chopped and blended sentences are run together, giving the reader a sense of what's happening, but a skewed sense, and a fruitfully disorienting one; reading this book is like listening to overheard conversations, or sneaking a reading in a personal journal; as readers, we are immersed in the life of these long-dead people, thinking their thoughts and sharing their hopes and anxieties; no superior narrator condescends to them; they speak for themselves, or rather, as we read, we speak with them.
The 'note' accompanying the sonnet on page twenty-two of this book tells us:
"My grandmother was nine years old when her mother and aunt were arrested in the night and sent to Siberia. It was several years before she saw either of them again."
To write a poem that does justice to this, Semmens jettisons authorial comment and control, and gives us the raw language pertaining to the event. The poem opens:
sound of blows began the dream of Vera
threatening fancy violent unknown threats
We're presented with unclear impressions, confused, as was, no doubt, the experience:
that the voice between management and screaming, of course
she's the mother? & other more familiar yet
it is the man, those men...
still warm marked lack of Manya from the bed..."
The poem ends with the bald statement:
"police came and mother left"
This sonnet alone is an impressive achievement; but there is an equally powerful poem on the facing page which uses the same techniques but to very different effect. The poem captures the feeling of intellectual ferment among Jewish immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side:
Bialystock from London on the reading and critique of the Talmud
one workshop dealt with mass production of intellectuals
The Lower East Side brims over new people dynamically
no beer, but lectures... clubs and cafes full of the liveliest argument
The quick pace and switches of perspective are effective in capturing the heady nature of the debates, as well as the jarring experience of arriving in a new country and trying to cope with life there:
in America, the child rears the parent…
…the language is Russian
must engage with the people & to do must master their tongue
The poems tell us of workshops in East London and old Manhattan, sea voyages, dark sweatshops, and "a small house a little cottage" in England; they evoke the people's life-experiences, and allow us to share their mental processes.
The scope of these poems is epic - from European Russia to Siberia, London and New York, from the Tsarist era to the revolution and the trade union struggles of the New World. The poems collage phrases from the Talmud and from Lenin, with snatches of vernacular, news reports and other found language. The collagist technique is not new, of course; but is effective here because the choice of source materials and the fact that they encapsulate a narrative on a grand scale, from the very personal and poignant, to the cosmic, via quotations from the apocryphal Book of Esdras and other religious texts, though it should be said that one of Semmens' stated aims is to "continue and honour the post-theistic Jewish tradition" of his forebears.
There are notes at the end of the book; one for most of the sonnets, and they form a counterpoint and relief to the disjunctive texts themselves. It would have been nice to have had a more exhaustive set of references in order to give the reader an appreciation of which sources had been used; maybe the publisher could have provided an online resource to this effect.
Other reviewers, most notably Peter Riley in Fortnightly Review, have questioned Semmens' use of cut-up, and posited that it detracts from the heroic life-stories of the characters and muddies the narrative thread. Of course, these poems don't exactly tell a story; that could, and probably should, be done in prose in the form of a social history; but “The Book of Isaac” offers something different and equally necessary; in this book the reader is taken into the linguistic world of the protagonists, and thereby shares a portion of their experiences; something a more distanced prose narrative or more conventional poetic form wouldn’t do. I'd also maintain that these poems are essentially lyrical; there are beautiful and memorable phrases, and there is imagistic technique:
a strange flash of shaded helium, picture of bent light beams,
removed up to now from the dreary oppressive
of life, dreams float in air, shtetl visions of Chagall.
I'd like to hear these poems read out loud; Semmens' musical ear constructs a fitting tribute to his Jewish ancestors, to their courage, idealism and humanity.