Book Review: The Golem Verses (Diane R. Wiener)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Golems are not rare in literary work. One thinks of the all-consuming golem of Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers or Marge Piercy's use of the golem as a way of exploring the nature of what it is to be human in He, She, and It. Diane Wiener's The Golem Verses, however, may be the first book of poetry in which a golem takes center stage. Wiener's golem is not brought into being because of its strength and power; it has no destructive tendencies other than to shatter the images of our everyday perspectives. It is, rather, a stand in for Wiener's imagination: "Golems can take you anywhere, make you think nearly anything."
Unlike traditional golems, Wiener's Golem has the power of speech. In fact, it is just the power to use words combined with the "releasers of cosmic time, space and imagination" that allows Wiener the overlapping identities of poet and golem, freeing her from some of the expected constraints of poetry books. As Golem jolts Wiener from place to place in random, non-sequitor travels that collapse time and space, the golem metaphor also frees Wiener to move by association through a poem without the need for transition. It also provides a structure that frees her from having to build a sustained narrative in which every poem has a specific place. Instead, threaded by images of Golem's quixotic movements, Wiener is also able to sustain a feeling of picaresque adventure. Perhaps in the spirit of freedom from restraint, the poet does not try to direct readers towards any specific interpretation of a poem by giving it a title. Instead she merely provides numbers to separate the poems, beginning with "Verse 1."
Although The Golem Verses centers around flights of fancy that allow readers to dive into the book at almost any point and find enjoyment in individual poems, it would be a mistake not to read the first few poems in sequence. "Verse 1" and "Verse 2" in particular are almost a prerequisite to the thorough enjoyment of the remainder of the poems. I quote "Verse 1" in full here, because it establishes the premise of the book and sets out some of the main concerns that will be occurring throughout.
Watching octopus kites
Unlike traditional golems, Wiener's Golem is not born of mud or earth but originates in the mind. Although "Verse 2" tells us "I no longer eat chicken soup," the poet's use of the golem is not just a metaphor plucked at random but part of her "undead heritage." Her Jewish past is something she cannot free herself from. Phrases like "this vagabond shtetl heart" signal both the language and historical legacy that she draws from throughout the book. All the same, the readers are given notice that the book will be about poetry – not just any poetry but a poetry constructed from the materials of one's own experience.
Wiener's Golem is more than the classical muse summoning imagination. It is more like the genie of an uncorked bottle, but even with the symbols erased from its head, Golem is never totally free. "Golem and I become one subject, comrades twinned" the narrator says after allowing the golem into her life. Untethered imagination is impossible. It is always tied to the corporeal and historical. But Wiener's Golem allows her to give free reign to possibilities.
The Golem Verses is divided into three increasingly smaller sections and the majority of the first and largest part (61 poems) is taken up with exploring these various possibilities. One of my favorite images comes at the beginning of "Verse 9":
Golem becomes a flour sifter,
In addition to the marvelous figure this presents, it is one of the many occasions in the book where just a few lines provides for deeper level of reflection. One of the virtues of this volume is that because Wiener always makes the reader stretch for associations – sometimes beyond their grasp – she is almost never in danger of platitudes, even when the questions she explores are the age-old ones that every person reading the book likely entertains. The idea of the sifter as a winnower removing the chaff of existence in an attempt to reveal what we are at our essence is one that is likely to resonate with readers, drawing in associations from the New Testament camel passing through the eye of a needle to Descartes' meditations.
A sense of movement pervades the book's first section with poems beginning in lines like "Let's go for a ride," "Golem and I take to the sky," and "Balancing me, first on your shoulders, Golem/ we race through the thicket." The poems pass among roller coasters, juke boxes, book collections, cooking sessions, and lapis moths. All of this works to create a sense of expanding and exploding imagination. At the same time, the poems are not universally upbeat or celebratory. Almost all have an undercurrent of searching, of the incomprehensibility and fragility of life.
In the two remaining sections of the book, "Golem, Twilight" and "Golem Daffodils," the poems become fewer and denser. "Golem, Twilight" signals a shift in tenor. As befits the section's title, the poems edge towards darkness. The inclusion of a much larger proportion of prose poems helps to contribute to this slowing down and contrasts with the language of the first section. The penultimate poem of the section "Golem, Twilight 38" reads almost like a koan.
Absence sits at fathomless breakfast.
The six poems included in "Golem Daffodils" are even more enigmatic, most almost telegraphic, pared down to nouns, verbs and adjectives. Golem seems no longer an actor, but a reference. As the book readies to close, both questions about the point of life and the point of this final section seem to converge. In lines reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, "Golem Daffodils 5" asserts:
The point of it all is not to ask about the point,
Given the author's position as director of Syracuse University's Disability Cultural Center, it is natural to ask what The Golem Verses has to say to disability literature. Very few of the poems mention disability. As a subject, it resides in an unobtrusive handful of references to using a cane or limping. While this could be interpreted as Wiener's assertion that one can be a writer with a disability without always having to write about it, I think that her interest lies elsewhere. Wiener ends her introductory "Note to the Reader " with the words, "If she [Golem] is disabled, which is debatable, her disablement is an accepted part of her wild identities and honest labors." She prefaces this by telling the reader that in the past golems have been pictured as voiceless, speechless and even unintelligent. These words could just as well describe the situation of many disabled people, particularly those on the autism spectrum who might have unique talents and ways of viewing or interacting with the world. Through the eyes of Golem and her use of associative rather than lock-step logic, Wiener asks us to consider alternative ways of being in the world. That, surely, is one goal of disability literature.
The Golem Verses is a remarkable first book of poetry. While at times Wiener may be throwing her reader ropes that they cannot quite grab onto, it is an invigorating and satisfying read nevertheless. It is also a book that they will want to continuously return to. Nine Mile Press, new itself, deserves credit for taking a chance and making The Golem Verses one of its first publications. It is a chance that deserves to be well rewarded.
Title: The Golem Verses