I’ve been going through some old files and links and I came across this lovely open letter that someone wrote to me after the publication of my first book. It touched me then, and it touched me again today when I reread it.
THE SILENCE OF MEN: AN OPEN LETTER TO RICHARD JEFFREY NEWMAN
Just as I finished reading The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press, 2006) a new friend confided that he’d learned a secret about his father—a secret that shook the foundation on which he’d built his life. He said he wanted to write about it, but didn’t know where to start. I recommended your book. In particular, the poem “After the Funeral.”
After the Funeral
That night, again, I dreamed you were leaving,
but this time I was older, and when I walked you
through the marketplace, and you put down
your suitcase to embrace me, I drew
the silence of all the years you’d been dead to me
around my grief. I wished you gone
and you were. In photographs, I see you
feeding me, your face younger than mine now.
In one, I’m a small bundle on your shoulder,
and the flat of your palm is the world against my back,
teaching me to let go of what is useless. You
have been useless to me. You never knew
the red shepherd I threw my Frisbee for.
In my mind, I matched him stride for stride,
and when he leapt to snatch the floating disc from air,
he called to me and we sailed off, a boy
who could run with wolves, a dog with language
and the gift of flight. I named him Larry,
after you, but true names are secrets,
so I called him Joe.
The metaphorical image of the boy playing Frisbee with his “red shepherd” is poignant and heart-breaking. The poem expresses the paradoxical feelings one has about a loved one who has betrayed them, feelings one will struggle with for a lifetime. The various manifestations of these feelings are well-represented in the poems “Again” and “The Silence of Men.”
I also appreciate the tenderness the speaker shows himself in “After the Funeral,” despite the pain he’s suffered because of his father. This tenderness towards oneself allows, it seems to me, one to feel real empathy for others. In “What I Carry with Me” you write about a friendly conversation between a Sikh cabbie and his Jewish fare, and the tension that rises between them when the cabbie is told the fare’s wife is Muslim. At the end of the ride, the speaker/fare transcends the incident, saying “and because I could imagine/surviving deaths that transformed me//into him, I tipped the driver anyway,/and he said thank you/and I wished him peace.”
This empathy makes authentic your many fine persona poems in this collection, such as “Rachel’s Story” and “Ibrahim’s Story.” In the first, you write in the voice of a female Holocaust survivor, wondering how it was she lived when her daughter and son died: “I’d chosen life. Or had it chosen me?” The second poem is spoken in the voice of a Palestinian man, living in exile in Bethlehem, nostalgic for the times he shared Erev Shabbat dinners with his Jewish friends, “in the years before there was a Jewish State.”
You’ve explored varied and difficult terrain in The Silence of Men and this reader is grateful for your courage. Throughout, I was reminded of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (Paris Press, 1996), in which she wrote:
“A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response. This response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too—but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.”
As I was preparing to post this piece, I received an e-mail from the friend I recommended read your book. He had this to say: “I LOVE IT!…his ability to communicate feelings is precisely what I’m hoping to be able to do. It’s great reading.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and thinking about, your poems.