Jerusalem’s stranger

Poet Dennis Silk was an observer, holy visitor and resident ghost in the Holy City.

Dennis Silk in Abu Tor, Jerusalem in the early ‘90s (photo credit: AVIGAIL SCHIMMEL)
Dennis Silk in Abu Tor, Jerusalem in the early ‘90s
(photo credit: AVIGAIL SCHIMMEL)
 The cover photo of “A Cloud Inhaled Me” shows the mournful, ethereal face of Dennis Silk (1928-1998), hands upraised, as if imploring some unseen aggressor not to shoot.
It is the face of a poet whose home in Abu Tor, along the west-east divide in Jerusalem, was the occupied territory of hand puppets and wind-up toys, and whose poems could be bracingly playful, even his poems about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his thorny inheritance as an immigrant from the UK at age 27.
In “Commander,” originally published in his best known volume, “The Punished Land” (1980) and included here in these recently published and long-awaited “Collected Poems,” the conflict is filtered through word play: Upper lip can’t control the map of Palestine.
Nether lip slouches from the battlefield.
Whose mouth dominates the soldiers then? The young lieu— in lieu of a lip who’s the tenant? The playfulness in “Meal,” also from “Punished Land,” is darker, self-directed, almost despairing: Palestine earth in my palm eats the life line.
A Silk poem is an astonishing map of an astonishing mind. As an Israeli poet writing in English, his cultural marginality was guaranteed. (The Jerusalem Post, for whom he long wrote his “Poets Cornered” column, represented one of his rare sojourns among the mainstream.) Yet he was greatly admired by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, whose homage to him, translated from the original Hebrew, reads in part: He has to get healthy soon. He is like our bank, In which we deposited all we had in our heart.
He is like Switzerland, Filled with banks.
Already he is smoking one cigarette, Trembling a little, And as it should be with a true poet, He puts the burned matches Back into the box.
Silk died in Jerusalem of cancer. Towards the end of his life, he was put for a while in a mental hospital in Talbieh. He embodied the old prototype of the poet: proprietor of his wildly orbiting planet, with the obligatory ingredient of madness thrown in. Thanks to the perks of academia, poets are tamer these days.
“Late Days At Talbieh,” his cycle of hospitalization poems, is a bemused cocktail of sly humor and bite.
Christmas-tree of the trolley bearing pills.
Halsion-sleep, Bolvidon-sadness.
Must you yawn? Beloved snail, you unspiral and are undone.
Writing of human diminishment, the poet’s powers are undiminished. His mind may be tripped up and medicated, but his words still rise up from some hidden spring beneath dementia.
In the lines that follow he gives us what we have always relied on poetry to give – an intouchness with hope in places that kill hope: Anticipation walks out through the gate.
I’ll pick up my earlier face though undertow fetched me with that earlier so is it later? Silk had the good fortune as a poet to ascend to the literary throne of Saul Bellow who was instrumental in getting Viking to publish “The Punished Land.” In his praise of Silk, Bellow noted, “Dennis Silk is a delicious poet. Utterly natural, entirely himself, he works by a curious method.”
Stanley Moss, his American publisher, would no doubt agree. He tells the story, in his note introducing this book, of the many years he spent trying to get Silk to sign a contract for another book of his he was holding, “William the Wonder-Kid: plays, puppet plays and theatre writing.” The poet considered the whole contract-signing ceremony “unnecessary.” Finally, on one of Moss’s trips to Jerusalem, Silk acquiesced and signed. Back in New York, looking over the document, Moss saw it was signed, probably because of some wild Silk notion, “William Shapiro.”
Silk was known, in addition to his poetry, for his own unique theater productions often involving his cherished puppets and windup toys. He speaks of the germination of this art form in his preface to “William the Wonder-Kid”: “I believe that puppet theater and ‘Thing theater,’ its derivative, begin with the fetishism of childhood. Flawed red marble-talisman to take one through the Blitz; shadow of a lace curtain above the bed composing itself into a devil for the sleepless boy; theft of a handful of peanuts from a stall—one more taboo.” In that same essay, Silk writes revealingly, “I found wind-ups can carry part of the weight of an impersonal actor, if they have the right space to lean on.”
Words that hold true for the poet himself, the consummate impersonal actor in in the great majority of his poems, leaning heavily against the spaces woven into the limitless absurdity of the turning world.
It is not at all surprising that Silk would select as his soul brother Peru’s greatest poet, exile of exiles, Cesar Vallejo. Vallejo, of Indian origins, left Peru for Paris in the early 1920s to escape political persecution.
In addition to being a more committed leftist than the left-of-center Silk, he wrote in a darker, heavier timbre: (I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,/on some day I can already remember./I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—/perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.) Some of Silk’s poems, on the other hand, sound like they could work, with a bit of tweaking, as Jewish jokes: (Here is the twin/ of the man who folded a napkin/for my last good table in Brooklyn.) What the two poets shared most deeply were their vocations as hopeless transplants, artists who carved their homelands out of words (in Silk’s case, objects as well) to keep from being blown away by the coarse and subtle winds of society.
Silk writes in his poem, “The Constitutional, for the archpoet Cesar Vallejo”: What you slice crams the shadow in me.
Yes, my impossible shadow leans on your cloth.
In “Hold Fast,” his late volume of mostly American travel poems, from his trip to the US in the early eighties, alienation is transformed into a feast of sly, surreal images. The American reader is made to see what he’s been seeing all his life as if for the first time.
I vaguely bought this pineapple and did not learn its lingo.
Yet when I slice off its top-knot of a true Carib it pleads with me Habla espanol? You’ll try? T’anks.
Wherever he set himself down, Silk had the gift for colonizing idiomatically whatever was beneath his feet, or adrift in the air. Part Jewish ventriloquist, part sad clown of letters, he moved through Jerusalem as a stealth disruptor of norms.
Yet in his “Guide To Jerusalem,” he sets aside his whimsical flourishes, and writes in the black and white voice of a sober traditionalist: Here the past walks with a religious stoop at twilight, talking to itself overmuch.
And the bawling prophets are all dead; the pious in their conventicles are not consumed by any rapid fire fetched down by the former travelling angels.
No bush burns in streets narrow as doctrine.
A stranger here, poking around town, observes the only holy visitor, in border slums the five—o’clock light shining like a ghost on the washing of the poor.
Silk was Jerusalem’s stranger, observer, holy visitor and resident ghost. 