Thomas Fink

A Review of David Lehman's Yeshiva Boys
Yeshiva Boys
Scribner, November 2009
Hardcover, 112 pages
ISBN-13: 9781439136171

Throughout his career, David Lehman has been a witty poet. The editor of an early critical anthology on John Ashbery and a book on the New York School’s first generation, Lehman is extremely adept at taking formal and enunciative strategies from the New York School and carving out a space for his own cosmopolitan Jewish humor. However, if one goes through a book like Yeshiva Boys, David Lehman’s seventh book of poetry, too quickly, s/he runs the risk of noticing only cleverness and aesthetic sleights of hand. A more careful and painstaking reading process will indicate that Lehman is deeply concerned with formidably large subject matter. His humor in poems like “Curse” (30), “The Will to Live” (40), “French Movie” (55), “Existentialism” (57), and the book’s long title-poem is an adjunct to his seriousness. Two poems, “Hymn to Man” and “God: A Sestina,” should thoroughly illustrate my contention.

Giving men and women close to equal coverage, “Hymn to Man” does not glorify its subject. This parody of biblical language combined with a multiple choice test may well signify an ironic song of frustration:

         Therefore, let’s praise man, the animal that plans his next infidelity
before completing the one at hand, in this or some other city.

         Man is the mammal that blames his mother and curses his father.

         And in that case, what is woman?

         Woman is man with a few things added and a few things taken away.

         Man is (choose one) more or less afraid of death than any other

         Man (a) talks more (b) listens more than any other mammal.

         Man exists (a) to fulfill the divine command (b) to affirm his own
existence (c) for no good reason (d) for no reason, good or bad.

         And in that case, what is woman?

         Woman is the mother of man and the daughter of woman and the
sister that rescued the boy in the rushes and the unsatisfied wife in a
remote province, Manitoba or Alberta, the deceived wife too busy to
notice or the undeceived wife who pretends not to notice or the wife who
stiffens her husband’s resolve or none of these or all, muse or concubine,
nun or hausfrau. (16-7)

The cataloging of these rigid characterizations can have various effects on different readers. Masculinist males will affirm much of what is reported, finding “infidelity” and mother-bashing reasonable and female disenchantment unfair. On the other hand, many men and women who are disenchanted with male dominance will perceive a substantial portion of the catalogue as lamentably, frustratingly, and maddeningly realistic evidence for hard determinism borne out by many centuries of egregious inequality. Still others will believe that Lehman intends his level of generalization targeting men and/or women to be read ironically, to beckon the reader to supply counterexamples and more complex analytic configurations.

Another perspective would focus on the multiple-choice items as evidence of the exhaustion of thinking in the unresolved conflict of competing paradigms. Women who stereotype men think that the latter “talk more,” whereas men who generalize vastly about women think that they “listen more” to women than the other way around. The verbal “battle of the sexes” cannot seem to move beyond its sad impasse. Further, the reduction of “woman” to a sound-byte or image-byte in a narrative anchored too often by her identification with a male figure advances no understanding of female or human complexity, much less the feminist aim of fostering equality. Calling “woman” either “heroine” or “heroin” reflects entrapment in the binary of idealization and debasement, and the sexualization of epistemological aphorisms maintains the polarizing gridlock: “Man thinks man as a category embraces woman. Woman believes woman contains man” (17). The “embrace” of being subsumed is hardly a “loving” gesture that women want, nor do men wish to equate “containment” in the womb prior to birth or its temporary synecdochal equivalent during intercourse with an overall loss of autonomy. The last six sentences in what can be considered either a monostich poem or prose-poem mouth stereotypes in ways that bend them enough to make ironic instabilities of generalized thinking more palpable:

         Man is the only animal who thinks he is the only animal.

         Woman is the only animal who thinks.

         Woman is the part of man that beholds the paragon of the animals
and calls it a quintessence of dust.

         Man is the it in that sentence.

         Woman is it.

         Man writes down a secret. This way he can keep his secret and still
impart it to another. Woman is that other. (17)

“Man’s” “animal” self-image and the idea of woman as thinking animal reverses central components of Western philosophical/theological history (associating reason with man and emotion with woman). I recall Carol Gilligan’s eighties forays into the ethics of gender psychology: if patriarchal culture has taught men to think abstractly, egotistically, and competitively, and if women have been socialized to think connectedly and empathically, one judgment is that real thinking involves the latter rather than the former. However, in the third sentence, “woman is the part of man” is problematic, because, even if she has a Hamlet-like insight about the vanity and ultimate destructiveness of traditional male animality (“it” or id) that grasps for power and neglects compassionate reasoning, “woman” is seen here either as an othered subset of the human (represented as male) or is like a rib taken from an Adam. On the other hand, the speaker may be referring to a female aspect within a male psyche that contains an understanding of the foolishness of male egotism.

In the penultimate line, “woman” is the target (a different “it”) to be tagged in a children’s game, a victim of men’s reifying tendencies. But could the last sentence indicate that such targeting may involve man’s communication of a secret—rather than just a secretion—to a sentient other? The binary of keeping/imparting can have different sets of significance. Is man selfishly manipulating one who, he feels, will receive but not understand his secret, or is he striving for the intimacy of revelation to one who not only comprehends but has the grace and sensitivity to keep a confidence? The speaker of that last sentence could be masculinist, feminist, nonaligned, or undecided, and this indeterminate closure further destabilizes the already tenuous authority of the poem’s prior aphorisms.

The sestina is a form that Lehman employs a great deal in this book and in When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), his prior collection. The form, of course, deals in repetition, which sometimes signifies the imaginative refreshment of ringing changes on the selfsame but also suggests being stuck, the repetition of old problems without hope of solution. “God: A Sestina” works beautifully as a meditation with these qualities because the figure of “God” is taken both literally and figuratively in various ways—as monotheists tend to do—and the different uses make trouble for one another. The sestina begins:

in the splendor of his absence
cajoled argued
refused to believe
the news denied
it was a hoax. (69)

While even the most religious Judeo-Christians believe that God does not display a bodily form or speak to human beings and, in this sense, is “absent” from the world, human beings use tropes that construct him as present (if somewhere else) and as having human qualities, and they often do so to gain power for themselves and their ideas. Atheists who consider God a mere idea would call this trope personification, but Lehman does not record his own belief or disbelief. Instead, he inserts the figure of God into a narrative in which his alleged omnipotence seems to be disabled by a structure of human authority:

Call off the hoax,
he said. You can’t copyright God.
The judge denied
The appeal. The absence
of evidence argued
for ambiguity. Yet you believe.

Though God is represented as protesting against a “hoax,” probably the denial of some belief that he cherishes and the idea that a mortal can “copyright” him, a human judge can plausibly reject his passionate “appeal” to “call off the hoax,” because human beings do “copyright” texts that present ideas about God. These ideas are a substitute for a supposed presence that is posited but infinitely deferred, but this does not lessen their worldly force. In fact, if one believes in the concept of “free will,” God would not bother to protest any human behavior. In the face of an “ambiguity” between assertions of faith in “the absence/ of” empirical “evidence” and an empiricist dismissal of faith, a consistency in arguments of European philosophers since the pagan Greeks and until the late Romantics sustains monotheistic belief:

In what do you believe?
In the value of a hoax.
It’s as philosophers have long argued
concerning the existence of God.
The consensus is his absence
will go on. Motion to dismiss denied.

But some things can’t be denied.
The inventive power of belief,
in the void left by the absence
of divinity, can hatch a hoax
overnight while the shadow of God
slips in and out of learned argument.

The doctrine of “absence” as a persistent non-appearance and not as an assumption of non-existence or merely fictitious “existence” (“hoax”) benefits from an enduring “consensus” supported in sophisticated ways. “The inventive power of belief” posits the representation of absence as an absent presence or present absence. Figuration reflects the believer trying to fill the “void” of his/her desire. God’s “shadow” indicates (in)substantial evidence of presence constituted by imagistic language, similar to the auditory gesture of the earlier ventriloquism making God “speak,” though his absence from human arenas precludes it. The most complex part of the sestina’s conceptual play occurs in the last two sestets and the envoi:

After hours of argument
the priests defy rather than deify,
and God
escapes the belief-
system, reduced to a hoax,
a feat of rhetoric disguising the absence

that surrounds us as if the absence
were real as air and not fake as an argument
no one wins because it was a hoax
and because the debaters claimed deniability
for themselves and banishment for believers
in the old wrathful all-knowing God

One theory: God enjoyed a clever hoax
but denied planning his absence in advance
and argued for a suspension of disbelief. (70)

“The priests” seem to be negative theologians; they “defy” all human arguments about what their faith tells them are the deity’s absolutely ineffable features. Such defiance of human understanding offers no platform for deification, and so “the belief-/ system” suddenly cannot provide a foundation for faith. However, even the demystification of the system as “hoax” itself does not end belief but entails another “feat of rhetoric”: God is figured as “escaping”—intact beyond his disappearance—and his absence is not advertised as Nietzschean death or non-existence but as substantive absence, “real as air,” or the presence/absence of a gas.

Although Lehman has penned a book critiquing the politics of deconstruction, especially that of Paul de Man, he marshals a deconstructive insistence upon the figurative basis for a theological move that its perpetrators might deny. Indeed, “the debaters’” act of claiming “deniability” paradoxically immunizes them against criticism: at once, they admit their fallibility and implicitly articulate the credo of God’s infallibility. Of course, they “banish” those who hold fast to the Old Testament image of the “wrathful” Jehovah and do not transfer allegiance to the merciful Jesus, and this exposes their authoritarianism.

Not surprisingly, the depiction of God as worldly agent returns when the speaker trots out “one” last “theory,” which bundles together God’s aesthetic predilection, puzzling lack of design—how can one not plan his/her “absence in advance” unless that absence is death?—and instructive argument about how to surmount “disbelief,” which would not be a problem if he spoke directly to potential believers. Following so much intricate spinning of uncertainty out of colliding pseudo-certainties, reception of this final sentence already creaks under the burden of skeptical questions. It also testifies to a serious fascination with theological theory-building amid “the absence/ of evidence.”

Thomas Fink is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk P, 2008) and two books of criticism. Two chapbooks appeared in 2009, Generic Whistle-Stop (Portable Press at Yo Yo Labs) and Yinglish Strophes 1-19 (Truck Books). He is the co-author of Autopsy Turvy (Meritage P, 2010), a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason. He is the co-editor of a 2007 critical anthology on David Shapiro's poetry. Fink's paintings hang in various collections.

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