Exploring Human Pain

Poet Philip Schultz’s latest work embarks on a transparent odyssey of an American Jewish life.

311_Philip Schultz (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Philip Schultz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IN “THE GOD OF LONELINESS,” Philip Schultz’s seventh volume of poetry, there is an elegy to his close friend, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
The poem, “I Remember,” begins with the lines:
I remember walking you home so you could walk me home/
so I could walk you halfway back, until, finally,/
you walked one block to finish a last story like a blessing.
The image of friendship as a pilgrimage of steps taken in circular bliss in defiance of time is an example of Schultz’s poetry of emotional wholeheartedness. “Kishka poets” was how Amichai described the two of them, a term sure to provoke scornful eye-rolling among those who hold that serious poetry must inhabit an energy field of opaque beauty.
The poems in “Loneliness,” culled from his six previous volumes, together with some new poems, comprise a transparent odyssey of an American Jewish life (Schultz is 65) that begins with the poet’s exilic sensibility:
This room is reserved for wandering Jews./ Around me, in other rooms, suitcases whine/like animals shut up for the night
Those archetypal lines are from the first poem, “For The Wandering Jews,” of Schultz’s first book, “Like Wings,” published by Penguin in 1978. Ecumenically, the very next poem, “The Artist & His Mother: After Arshile Gorky,” is about a wandering Armenian survivor of the 20th century’s first genocide.
Schultz’s journeys in these poems primarily pass through the gates of family, but he is accompanied by fellow poets like Joseph Brodsky and William Dickey. Unlike Amichai, whose poems of friends, father, fathers of friends, lovers merge with Israel’s wars, Schultz’s poems connect fleetingly, albeit forcefully, with the seminal events of post-war America.
Vietnam is only touched upon. (I didn’t fight for my country, Vietnam came and went/ while I continued washing my face as if nothing happened.) Iraq too.
The long poem, “Souls Over Harlem,” is a lamentation on an African-American driven to mass murder by racial alienation. As there is no such thing in America as a national poet, Schultz is not obliged to address national issues like what it means to be an American in these days of abstract perpetual wars.
Many of Schultz’s family poems (he is a native of Rochester, New York), especially those from his 2004 volume “Living In the Past,” are narratives that careen with tribal dementia. Think Fellini hijacking an American Jewish family, with a touch of Rube Goldberg thrown in.
Mother locks me and grandma in the toilet until uncle stops/pulverizing the door because one of the cashiers at the Paramount/looked at him funny and he pulled the curtain shut on Humphrey Bogart/and the bus driver didn’t say hello again.
The landscape of American poetry is scarred with poems of calamitous fathers. (The poet Bob Hicok puts it this way: whole anthologies of poems that begin, my father never or those that end, and he was as silent as a carp).
Schultz’s father, calamitous in his own way, is remembered by his son with tender exasperation. In “Lines to a Jewish Cossack,” about Isaac Babel, the poet cites their commonality of paternal disgrace, so hard for a son to forgive.
In the case of the Russian author, it was seeing his father groveling before a mounted Cossack. In his own case: My father died broken of purse & spirit/ & failure is a demeaning debt.
Schultz’s writing about his Russian-born father, who arrived in America with the proverbial borrowed suit and the immigrant’s Bible of illusions, travels across hills of absurdity that weep, spit laughter. When he died, the family had to borrow money from people he owed money to in order to bury him. That was because his business ventures included: a parking lot that raised geese,/ a motel that raffled honeymoons,/ a bowling alley with roving mariachis.
(Ironically, Schultz won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Failure,” whose title poem is about his father.)
But the poet digs beneath Samuel Schulz’s worldly ruin to excavate his life essence. In “For My Father,” the last poem in his 1978 collection “Like Wings,” he writes: he’d rub his chin’s hard fur on my cheek/ and tell stories. And from the same poem: his eyes still look at me out of mirrors & I hear him kicking/ the coal burner to life & can taste the peanut salt on his hands.
FOR A POET WHOSE PRIMARY SUBJECT WOULD SEEM to be human pain, Schultz is well-served by his conversational style in which pain becomes part of a narrative flow that draws the reader close, at times poking him in the ribs with paradoxes.
In the book’s title poem, “The God of Loneliness,” the poet finds himself in Toys“R”Us with a father waiting to buy an electronic game for his boy back from Iraq. (“I am not worried, he’ll snap out of it/ he’s earned his rest.”)
In the intersecting galaxies of a Long Island toy store and a foreign war, paradox is the bridge that closes distances. This is a kind of Amichai-ish poem in the way it touches upon the solitude that war creates, the lonely borders it builds between fathers and sons.
A small number of poems in this book touch upon religious Judaism. They range from the comical and dismissive to the deeply felt and reflective. The tumblers of the faith in Rochester, like his tutor, the aptly named Rabbi Runes, who spits phlegm into his sink, and his own father, intent on throwing him the biggest bar mitzva party since Moses heard voices, belong to the first category. Even Maimonides falls into Schultz’s manic orbit through no fault of his own. The poet saddles him with the intrusive absurdities of modern life, wondering in over-the-top riffs how the great rabbi would deal with callers claiming to have found his phone number in an S & M newsletter, or inviting him to attend a World’s End benefit.
Yet Schultz can write lines that place him among the Jewish Psalmists of our time:
Mother’s Yahrzeit is on the sixth day of Av 5758./
Praise the living light and sing the name,/
her secret private name, in no one’s ear but mine./
Praise the evening of the day before the endless night.
“Yom Kippur,” sober and stripped down like “Mother’s Yahrzeit,” moves with a gentle skepticism. The repeated phrase “you are asked to” points to an objectified atoner:
You are asked to believe in the spark/
of your divinity, in the purity/
of the words of your mouth/
and the memories of your heart.
The deep mystery of the day is pointed to. The poet sings quietly of this mystery.
Schultz introduces his book with a quote from Pascal: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”
His poems concern themselves mightily with death, wretchedness, and ignorance. A large number of them do make the reader happy – if nothing else, for their naked honesty, their wonderfully demented generosity.
His poems may not be known to many outside the world of poetry, but they deserve to be. The poetry of Philip Schultz belongs on people’s lips.