Volume 22, Number 32 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 18 - 24, 2009
Caught in a candid moment: Samuel Menashe
Thompson Street poet finally gets his due
Compositions are ‘compressed, crystallized, evocative and lyrical’
BY STEPHEN WOLF
We love downtown because the streets have names; bend and angle unrestrained by any orderly, practical grid — where broad, numbered avenues narrow or, like Fifth, cease altogether. Downtown, the city is more condensed; concentrated; intensified.
The city began here, layered with those people and with their stories which came before us — until so many streets and lots have a story to tell or treasures nearly neglected under the city’s mighty surge uptown. One of our most neglected, precious treasures — who only recently has received the recognition he so rightly deserves — is poet Samuel Menashe.
He composes — it is inaccurate to think that Samuel “writes” nor does he actually read his poems so much as recites them in a clear, soft, elegant voice — at a small wooden desk set before a window looking over rooftops to the east. Though he writes them down at the desk (in longhand since his trim, stylish Avanti typewriter broke a decade ago and he can’t find where to have it fixed), he creates the poem throughout the days and nights, the language of it never letting go of him as he trudges the city streets or sits in the park, revising and refining until each poem is a polished, well-honed gem of precision and concision.
Language is his material as stone is to a sculptor, and he’s been composing this way (save for the broken Avanti) since, unforeseen, waking one morning sixty years ago with a poem in his head.
Though he had wanted to be a writer, he imagined himself merely a correspondent and nothing — this is his word — as “exalted” as a poet; but to that conception he has remained true despite privations and, until recently, relative neglect at least in his own country.
Published, acclaimed, and anthologized in England for decades, Samuel Menashe is the first recipient of The Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters Award (2004). As a result, in 2005, his collection “New and Selected Poems” was released by the American Poets Project and published by the prestigious Library of America. The arduous road has not embittered him, and he has accepted the prize and praise with his characteristic graciousness and gratitude.
Samuel is nearly 85, lean and lively — and though his breath is a little weakened, his legs are quite strong from climbing, for fifty years now, the same five flights to his floor-through apartment on Thompson Street “Where the bathtub stands / Upon cat feet” in the kitchen. Like the tenant, the apartment is in need of some repair; abundant with books on bowed shelves and tottering stacks upon the wooden floors beneath the dim blessing of a painting he bought of the Angel of the Waters from Bethesda Fountain in Central Park — where on many mild days he sits on a bench overlooking the reservoir.
At a casual, disinterested glance, we’d never think this old man with bright, kind eyes and a full head of hair long and white ever fought at the Battle of the Bulge — the largest and bloodiest conflict for Americans in World War II — anymore than we could imagine that he was composing in his mind exquisite poems: compressed, crystallized, evocative, symbolic, and lyrical.
In the poems of Samuel Menashe, like music and the best of poetry, everything is needed. Nothing is wasted. There is no excess, and each word resonates with a meaning about the most essential concerns of the human heart: living and dying, the past and the present, memories, loss, fragility, endurance, and above all the preciousness and sacredness of life itself. What is most traditional in poetry but rare today is that his poems often have a rhyme scheme however subtle and delicate, at times internal, at other times end rhyme, and sometimes even both in the same poem as in his “Salt and Pepper.”
Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest —
Age seasons me
Gives me zest —
I am a sage
In the making
“Rhyme seems natural to me,” Samuel wrote in the introductory essay to “New and Selected Poems.” “There is a lot of rhyme, unnoticed, in ordinary speech,” and his poems play and dance with it (“A pot poured out / Fulfills its spout”) often revealing with inventive wonder the simplest things (as in his poem “To Open”: “Spokes slide / Upon a pole / Inside / The parasol”) and do so even while rich with wisdom (“Beauty makes me sad / Makes me grieve / I see what I must leave”). He is also the most spiritual of poets, his work and life suffused with something akin to religious experience abundant with biblical allusions yet presented Zen-like, where deepest meanings are revealed with the lightest of touch. With a reference to Psalm 149 (“Let them sing for joy upon their beds”), he composed “Hallelujah:”
Eyes open to praise
The play of light
Upon the ceiling —
While still abed raise
The roof this morning
Rejoice as you please
Your Maker who made
This day while you slept,
Who gives grace and ease,
Whose promise is kept.
Samuel Menashe is not the only wonderful, neglected poet — only the first to be so recognized; and though “better late than never” is a tired and rather heartless homely, there is some comfort and a grudging sense of fair play that finally this recognition happened at all. But if it hadn’t, if the hefty check and published volume never came, Samuel would still compose beautiful, insightful, deceptively simple poems that enlighten, entertain, and enrich our lives, and — like the old sage he is — he would think no more of it, for “At my age, more than ever,” Samuel wrote, “one thinks of death. Of course, as a survivor of an infantry company, I was marked by death for life when I was nineteen. In the first days after the war, I thought each day was the last. I was amazed by the aplomb of those who spoke of what they would do next summer. Later, each day was the only day. Usually, I could give the day its due, live in the present, but I had no foresight for a future. Perhaps it is why I am still in the flat which I moved when I was thirty-one years old.”
While Samuel watches the morning sky above the tenements downtown and finally records what for days he has composed in his mind, we are grateful and very lucky for the treasures he has given us from a small wooden desk five stories above a downtown street.