By Ray Greenblatt
David Moolten’s poetic lines vibrate and sing. His poems are mostly in Blank Verse because storytelling is a strong poetic technique. He is a profound thinker: his topics are far reaching from the romance of Tristan to the Enola Gay to Rwanda; from Van Gogh to the 30’s Depression to Garcia Lorca; from Nijinsky to Mount Rushmore to Medusa.
I found his poems about Jewish events to be the most compelling because of my similar family background. I will concentrate on six of these poems that will highlight many of the poet’s techniques: Columbarium, Yellow Star, Story, Klezmer, Soup, and Dybbuk.
A dove is a recurring image throughout this very moving poem about children caught in the holocaust.
“Legend says doves saved the Altneu synagogue
In Prague in 1558, really
Angles in disguise who hovered cooing
Along the roof while the ghetto burned.
You can imagine the faint creak as their wings fanned
The flames away from Europe’s oldest shul
The obdurate roost of tradition.”
The Jews were saved then. Earlier in ancient Rome if a Jew died, at least he was allowed entrance into a columbarium, a room where funeral urns are stored.
But in World War II all was denied Jewry. The interned children were forced to move boxes of human ashes. “To cloud and clot the current” intensifies the gruesome task.
There never was a way to contain such truth.
Though as they scattered handfuls of gray silt
To cloud and clot the current they must
Have fluttered a little, carried in the wind
As when a flock is released and wheels
With calm restraint over a city’s spires and eaves
Before returning to its niches.”
Moolten combines the doves with the ashes both of which are in flight in their own way. The “truth” will out no matter how indirect.
The poem concludes by considering the present; the symbols of dove and columbarium continue until the end. Now living Jews will keep the memory of injustice and the possibility of hope alive.
“Perhaps when you stand
In the synagogue on a Friday night
Once the crowds disperse, listening to the past
Quietly murmured in a dead language
You are that small opening, that repository
Of memory, which is its own homing
Crossing the impossible distance like a dove,”
David Moolten’s endings are conclusive and powerful.
This poem is about life after surviving the prison camps. The Star of David, which Jews were forced to wear, gathers many metaphors about it.
“He saved it like a captured butterfly,
A medal decorating a box of yellowed black
And white snapshots, a souvenir of his first
Lost life, infernal and exquisite, a flared match
His hand could tolerate just a moment . . .
In the torah that made him
Who he was, a noxious star, a hexagram,
Petaled like a sunflower, a saffron dahlia.”
He rationalizes by seeing beauty in the star as a butterfly, medal, sunflower, dahlia. But it also stands for the pain of humiliation: “a flared match his hand could tolerate just a moment,” or “a noxious star.”
The poem infers that he has lost his wife, a greatly beloved person, in the holocaust; his life was “exquisite” but became “infernal.” She was an:
“Ordinary, singular soul, which imbued
Whatever her fingers touched, made it
Less horrific, less contemptible
Like the apple had Eve grown the tree herself.”
This yellow star with its mixed associations was his memory of her.
This poem is also about a man who has survived the holocaust. However, the horrific story he brings with him—almost too terrible for people to believe, even his own wife—becomes a character in its own right and takes over the poem.
“A story which stalks him across the slant of light
Of years like his own long shadow
On the veranda, an evil twin with a past
Who stares in their windows.”
The “story” gains all the attributes of a person.
As a crazy, the story has traveled far,
Has grown old just getting here. But at night,
The story dreams in a made-up tongue
Not unlike Yiddish, full of fustian
Moolten fittingly ties words almost opposite in import together through alliteration; how can a durable cloth be silly—can language? So many Yiddish words have been adopted into English these days because of the interplay of their vigorous sound and meaning.
The poor Story cannot stand happiness because that has not been his experience.
“Tonight, when the man hummed
In the kitchen with his wife, the story
Felt hands clapped across its ears.
Like parenthesis on a tombstone.”
What a marvelous simile; parentheses almost the last thing to be found on a tombstone
“When they ate codfish and green bananas
Fried and dipped in sauce, the story starved.
Tonight, when the man caressed her cheek,
The story staggered, struck across the face.”
The couple has moved to South America to get away from the European devastation they have suffered. Yet, the Story holds only that brutal background he is destined to reveal over and over.
This could be just a simple poem about how wonderful Klezmer music is, especially the lead violin.
“A violin is just wood and catgut but cunning
In its persuasion; no instrument comes
Closer to the human voice, such exquisite wailing,
And when a klezmer troubadour strokes his,
He almost sounds that good, tunes so forlorn
They scratch at you, so jubilant they leave you
Giddy as sparkling wine.”
The poet’s grandfather cannot help but dance to it; my Jewish grandfather played the mandolin.
“A staid man, a learned man would rise helpless
Like someone jerked around on strings in a story
By someone else. He’d nod and tap his shoe,
A whole village in his veins, hoofing
On their cloven feet, spinning and dropping
Knees bent, still kicking at the scraped-out strains.”
But Moolten knows how to add salt to the tale; the hook he knows how to often employ. The poem hinges on a Christian fiddler who got revenge on a Jew by making him dance to a frenzy.
“Dancing in the underbrush until he’s naked
And gasping, excoriated by roses.
It’s a lie of course, blood libel, a fairy tale
To tell children so they go to sleep
In fear of witches or monsters or people
Who get the better of them, mainly through lies.”
Some lovely lines cannot be overlooked. The poet describes his grandfather’s 78: “An old record, the past scarred and warped/And repeating itself.” And why do some people dance: “The breathless/Urge to celebrate what was endured.”
Like the grandfather the poet’s great aunt, like my Jewish grandmother, carries the ancient past with her. She is a “squat vat,” onomatopoeia at its most vivid.
“She treated the modern world
As her endlessly sighed-over pogrom
With its blaring appliances and disobeyed traditions,
Time alone a forced exodus, a rushed immigration
For a woman who’d spent forty years
In the same junk cramped apartment. She too
Was a leftover, a squat vat of garbled English
And malapropisms, of dire stories about boots
With a sound like cracking ribs, of towns lost
To mist and their own queer ways.”
It is food that makes this poem go; the stuff of life we cannot live without.
“She chewed us out for squandering
The wondrous carcass that one should gnaw on
Or scavenge for parts with which to engineer
The concoction she soon had stirring in a pot,
Gizzards and grease, a dab of horseradish
And kosher salt, her recipe for polite excuses
And pruning faces at what we feared more
Than cow’s tongue or chopped liver.”
“What else but bones did she have to hold onto?”
If we take this storytelling as truth, the poet’s father, from a Polish Jewish background, married a Puerto Rican Catholic woman. The grandparents thought her a dybbuk, an evil spirit.
“My grandparents performed
The exorcism, laying out the tea service
And the kugel, incredulous, confronting
My father to save him, though gently, only
In the spirit of polite conversation
Questioning what possessed him
To bring home a Puerto Rican shiksa.”
However, the young couple’s love was deep and unswerving.
“She hung on against all judgment. Her soul
Cohabited with his even as she devoutly
Wouldn’t let his hands near, her body already
His shtetl house, his shack in a field.
How soon forgotten the superstition of love,
That faith in one another strong as a God
Not yet jilted by enlightenment.”
The grandparents, still skeptical, thought the woman was only doing supernatural things to bind him to her.
What he said, bosomed his words in her accent,
A delusion of magic, of something charmed, conspired
From nothing, shawl of tomb dust, blown ash,
Burnt offering of the synagogue the world
Might not dissipate, if they only believed enough.”
The older people are still wrapped in those ancient beliefs they carried from the Old World into the Modern Age. Clashes were inevitable; my Christian mother was not accepted into the Jewish side of the family for ten years.
It is so difficult for a writer to create fresh language; poetry is the major medium through which to do so. These six poems alone out of thirty that comprise the book Primitive Mood suggest so many techniques that the poet uses in his work: of course alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, metaphor and simile but also recurring symbolism, historical reference, multiple story lines as well as sudden swerves in narrative . . . the techniques are many and so skillfully employed. Most of all I sense a deep caring for humanity in so many of these poems. It doesn’t surprise me that David Moolten is a Medical Director of the American Red Cross in Philadelphia.
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).