Where Beauty and Wisdom Merge

David Caplan is one of those poets a culture discards at its peril.

Siddur 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Siddur 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
It is not uncommon in poetry publishing for the birth and death of a book to be simultaneous occurrences. Or, if not death exactly, a kind of limbo life without the reviews and peripheral attention to sustain even modest sales and recognition.
That was more or less the fate of David Caplan’s first, and so far only, book of poetry, "In The World He Created According To His Will." Released in the spring of 2010, it received few reviews in literary journals, and in the Jewish media only a blog in the New York daily "Forward" acknowledged its birth. An ill-deserved entry into the world, and surprising for two reasons: Caplan is a contributing editor to the “Virginia Quarterly Review" and “Pleiades,” two of the most prestigious literary journals in America. He is also an observant Jew, whose poems, rare among Jewish poets, attempt to explore the broken condition of the world from the perspective of a believer in a God-centered universe.
His poem "Prayer" could as easily be titled "anti-Prayer." We bury our dead too quickly In graves too new for tombstones, Scooping dirt onto them With shovels turned upside down To show our world turned upside down.
We hurry them into the earth, Keeping the casket closed, As if we were too busy praying And had no more to say to them.
Just as “Prayer” points to everything prayer isn’t, in Caplan’s poem, "The Jews have become ordinary," the repetition of “ordinary” in four of its eight stanzas likewise signifies its opposite.
The Jews have become ordinary. Yes, ordinary as this city. At Café Hillel, smokers gossip like smokers on any sunny patio. A man cools a coffee with his breath, checking his e-mail, newspapers from whatever country he left.
The poem ends with this one line stanza: Ordinary, those who dwell in Jerusalem.
A religi ous Jew wh o inha bits two secular landscapes, American poetry and associate professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, Caplan, 42, is accustomed to navigating the ordinary/extraordinary dichotomy. In Columbus, where he lives with his wife Ana, that dichotomy is striking. Saturday, to his neighbors, means Ohio State University football, a fanatical Midwestern religion.
David Caplan is one of those poets a culture discards at its peril Where Beauty Wisdom Merge POET DAVID CAPLAN: Inhabits two secular landscapes MOLLY ULINE-OLMSTEAD, OHIO WESLEYA N UNIVERSITY books Robert Hirschfield The Jerusalem Report february 13, 2012 41 “I live a certain other lifestyle, as real to me as theirs is to them," Caplan told me. "Jews who keep Shabbos and the holidays keep a different schedule. Judaism is many things; among others a way of ordering and viewing time.”
A thought carried over into his making of poems. Like "Shacharit," which belongs to Caplan’s cycle of Jerusalem poems: The day’s first bus circles its congregation: a pharmacist bent over the counter, his head on his left arm, a few psalms behind the owner of the laundromat, who kisses his prayer book before closing it.
The white stone hardens like light.
Caplan, along with poets Eve Grubin and Yehoshua November, have quietly brought to American poetry a vibrant spiritual dimension that explores the sensibility of observant Jewish poets in the 21st century.
Grubin is a poet whose writing on the modern woman’s place in Judaism is intense, bruised and lyrical. In her 2005 book "Morning Prayer," her subjects range from the 19th century novel to dating, where the talk is about "Malamud and Rashi and forgiveness." November, for his part, crafts contemporary Hasidic narratives of spiritual longing and compassion so powerfully transparent that they can be accessed by any soul with a pulse. His book, "God’s Optimism," (2010), reviewed in the May 13 issue of The Jerusalem Report, has been the most successful of the three; it was short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry.
Cap lan’s poetry is as diff erent from the other two as theirs from each other. It is more cerebral and precise. (Caplan is the author of two scholarlybooks on poetry, "Poetic Form," and "Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form," consisting of essays on such verse forms as ghazals, rondeaus, villanelles, free verse poetry.) But he writes poems like "The Self in Jerusalem," in which deep layers of emotion surface.
Your fist against the table, wine spills like an alphabet.
So lick your fingers and slur each letter, your hands on a stranger’s shoulders, a stranger’s hand on yours: Great is your faith. Great is your faith. Great is your faith Let the self break and dance to the breaking.
Jerusalem assumes a pivotal role in Caplan’s spiritual poetics. Less mystical maybe than Grubin’s perception of the city, but a highly charged testing ground for Jewish reality in all its manifestations. Caplan balks at the way literature, especially fiction, but also poetry, depicts Orthodox Jews: “They are quaint," he told me. "They are not quite real. They are often a parable.
They are not just people.”
In Caplan’s poems, nothing is quaint, and there are no parables. Reality is hardedged, varied, seriously explored. The complexity of the poet’s Biblically-based worldview may come as a surprise to the literary secularist.
There are passages in "Poetic Form," about free verse, that offer clues to the subtleties of his thinking: "Free verse poems do not lack patterns; they are not 'free' in the sense that they lack all restrictions. (If so, they would not be poetry.) Rather, their patterns are not easily quantified." The non-Jewish themed poems in this book are many. One worth noting is "Farmers Market." Written in couplet form (stanzas of two lines each) without the traditional rhyming patterns, the poem takes the innocent activity of flower selling and throws over it a menacing shadow specific to contemporary American life.
It begins with these lines: Not a rose, no. Not a laurel vine climbing the arm cleared of hair’s distractions.
His sleeves torn as if he were in mourning, green ink accents hell’s little flames, barbed wire fastened around the biceps, the words he chose: THUG LIFE.
A Mennonite girl sells him the day’s last bouquet, twisting and flattering the small dull flowers.
A poem that begins with sharp contrast, the hint of violence (Caplan’s inclusion of the Jewish mourner’s ritual perhaps laments this violence or brokenness) and ends with a bold attempt to reconcile contradictions: Ungrateful heart, timid and compromised, why do you think you deserve more than this, more than weekend’s hard noon light, the small happiness of fruit and flowers, their careful arrangements? "Farmers Market" is a poem, like many in this volume, where beauty and wisdom merge.
It may still be too early to float that unhappy term “neglected poet” in Caplan’s case. It is always possible for books to have a second life. Hopefully, this will be so with "In The World He Created According To His Will."