On January 14, 1963, at the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a talk titled “Religion and Race.” He began by remarking that it was Moses and the Pharoah who participated in “the first conference on religion and race” when Moses demanded that the Pharoh let his people go.” Heschel goes on to contend that “the outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end.”
Framing the Civil Rights movement within this quasi-historical (Judeo-Christian) context allows Heschel to draw a clear line between the very moment in which he is speaking to his audience and everything that has come before. This demarcation is key to one of Heschel’s main declarations, “History has made us all neighbors” (https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/heschel-religion-and-race-speech-text/), which serves as the epigraph to “Neighbors I,” the first poem, in Daniel Biegelson’s first full-length book of poems On Being Neighbors.
What resonates in this epigraph is the notion that we have been—and still are— moved by forces outside us, more powerful than us, and indifferent to us as individuals. Yet what complicates this idea is that some of our worst human tendencies have had a collective hand in shaping carving out this new space even as history has delivered us to it. Heschel recognizes this and goes on to exclaim that “The age of moral mediocrity and complacency has run out. This is a time for radical commitment, for radical action.” (https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/heschel-religion-and-race-speech-text/). And so, despite the forces that render us powerlessness, somewhere in our humanity remains the obligation, and power, to take responsibility for our actions.
The Neighbors poems (I – XI) are very much the spiritual and emotional foundation of the book in as much as the speaker in the “Neighbors” poems occupies and contends with the complications that arise for individuals who strive to act whilst caught up in forces often so vast that any their agency seems nonexistent.
All eleven are prose poems comprised of a challenging intermixture of syntactically and grammatically sound lines interspersed with half-formed, fragmented sentences, phrases, and words.
Take, for example, this passage from Neighbors I:
..... Redact silence since silence is impossible. Also a cymbal. / See. A symbol. Replace symbol with synapse. Move on to arrive at the synagogue. Because / I believe I am angered by the slightest hiss. Imagine a parade drumming around the town / square. The brick-and-mortar courthouse with a hint of roman tracery. See the angles. From / various angles. Above. Treeward. Though the legs. The limbs. The thrown pink and blue / bubblegum scattering under lawn chairs. Scrambling. Redact stained glass. As a child entering / to see swastikas spray-painted on the ark. Now again. Plagued. And plagued by continuity. Layer upon layer. Bewildering specificity subsumed by synchronicity. A ritual. We chronicle. (3)
Present in this sequence is the clear recollection of the speaker as a child walking into a synagogue to find the ark defaced, as well as the accompanying detail that build to that experience. And on one hand the phrases and fragments of sentences– “Also a cymbal. / See. A Symbol.......See the angles. From various angles. Above. Treeward.” – can easily be read as fragments of physical and emotional detail contextualizing the central situation.
But in another sense, the faltering, fragmented elements of language represent an important kind of experience integral to the space the “Neighbors” poems occupy. These fragments emerge as the speaker works to clarify and conceptualize their own world, as their world is infiltrated by external forces.
The relationship between the speaker and their surrounding world is very much at issue in the “Neighbors” poems, and it not altogether redundant to point out that language plays a significant role in the way in which the speaker contends with this relationship.
The speaker in the “Neighbors” poems is enmeshed in an ongoing project, the groundwork for which is laid in one of the three epigraphs for the book as a whole:
“...mind’s claim to independence announces its claim to domination.”
This quotation is from Theodore Adorno’s essay “Dialectical Epilegomena.” The idea that Adorno posits, at least at that moment, is that through its ability to describe, conceptualize, and categorize the world around it, the mind comes to assume its independence from the world. That is, the mind creates for itself a distinct relationship between its subjectivity and everything around it, which in turn it can objectify through a linguistic domination.
This assumption is self-sustaining and rationalizing to the extent that, Adorno suggests, the mind learns to disregard anything that disturbs or destabilizes the concepts and categories through which it arranges and maintains its “control” over the world. Adorno argues however, that this relationship, constructed by the subject, is not authentic or even the case and that the subject not only remains an object in the world (and to others) but runs the risk of losing the ability to see and understand itself as an object in the world.
In the “Neighbors” poems, the speaker is aware of this tenuous relationship between them and the world, and in fact, through one of the more significant tropes in the book, actively engages in tinkering with those relationships.
Throughout the “Neighbors” poems, the speaker works to replace “.... subject with object. Object with Subject...” (43), or object with object, subject with subject, thing with idea, etc. All eleven of the “Neighbors” poems, in fact, begin with and are driven by the speaker’s project of replacement.
Replace glass heart with scalpel. Words become a cudgel. Call for rain. Glisten. Close up. / Magnify a leaf until the drop brims with color. Replace leaf with wind. Every June we lose / limbs to straight-line winds—elm, maple, oak, ash, etc., etc. They come knocking at night. / Redact redundancy. Extinguish the list. Insert space. Remove the catalog. Remove, stack, / and mulch the dead wood. Map my internal geography. I am a bowl of cold plums. Would / you have one. (“Neighbors III” 20)
Replace husband with wife. Wife with husband. The kids are always. Seemingly. In our bed. / Use knees to raise a tent. A cocoon of floodlit sheets. For metamorphosis. A cave of deep bearing. / For hibernation. Later. In their car seats. Your son. Your daughter. Share pretzels. / Share goldfish. (Neighbors IX 67)
In these passages, we can see the speaker’s aims, which are at once methodological and frantic. It’s as if the speaker understands in some way that navigating this new space requires a new way of conceptualizing, and therefore knowing the world. But where to start? And how? These poems are compelling because each reconfiguration produces its own outcome and its value to the speaker often remains unsaid.
Equally important here is the ambiguity of the action. Is “Replace glass heart with scalpel” narration or direction? Are we privy to the speaker’s internal monolog, a “thinking through” some scene or situation? Is the speaker asking a neighbor, or the reader to enact these switches?
It might just be a de facto societal effort, as well. Often, whatever newfound significance the speaker finds folds the other—or even the reader—into it. For example: in the sequence above, from “Neighbors IX” we see the narration turn from “The kids are always. Seemingly / In our bed.” To “in their car / seats. Your son. Your daughter. The proximity with which “Your son. Your daughter” appear “in their car / seats” to that of the speaker’s children “In our bed.” is indicative of the hazards and obligations of world where we have been placed so close to others. When the time comes to provide shelter, will we know it? When the time comes, will we do so? Will we have the power to do so?
Another significant element of this project lies in the fact that no other poems in the book engage with it. Nevertheless, the speaker maintains a heightened sensitivity to the way relationships between the individual and the world are created, destroyed, and otherwise in flux. There is, however, a difference in tone in these poems because of the frequency with which the speaker stands in for the poet. In this capacity, the speaker cultivates a more reflective, confessional voice. As such, these poems are more visceral than they are “methodological.” In them, the speaker struggles to come to terms with “.... the wound / of disagreement with the open flesh / of the world.” (24)
Take for instance this moment, in the poem “The Metaphorical Heart,”
My son stops putting together
a puzzle of the solar system to pronounce
I’m really stumped today.
Then asks What does stumped mean. Confused.
Stymied. What does confused mean.
For weeks, I couldn’t read or watch TV
after the photograph
boy on the beach
face down in the shallow surf
arms to his side and knees
tucked slightly under
the way a three-year-old who still
toddles in stilted balancing steps sleeps
bright red t-shirt and sneakers
hair neatly combed by the water. (22)
Resounding in these lines is the disruption of a small, but meaningful moment in the speaker’s life by the image —world-famous by now— of the drowned Syrian child washed up on that beach off Bodrum, Turkey. In this moment, we see the poet confronted with the notion that there is meaning we give the world, and meaning the world gives us.
Carrying equal weight is the ambiguity of the disruption itself: is it the image that disturbs the speaker or the circumstances that culminate in what the photo has captured? Not at all mutually exclusive, these interpretations work to frame out an uncomfortably human sliding scale that speaks to our mind’s endeavors to turn away from that which disturbs our conception of the world, and the extent to which can do so. And what are we to do with what we cannot turn away from, but are powerless to affect? And what of all the many traces of images and experiences, memories, words, and ideas, that nest in us, haunt us or edify us?
Above we see the speaker concede one’s own language is not always enough. In the “Neighbors” poems we see the speaker rearranging the relationships—subject, object; object, subject—of the people, places, and things around them to re(create) the space around them.
Biegelson also turns to others, as all artists must. But he does so through a stylistic move that outwardly signals the intertextuality, inspiration, and homage, lending additional substance and additional voices to the poems. Noted in the margins of the book, in a visible, but unobtrusive light gray text, are the names of individuals whose words or ideas are quoted, paraphrased, alluded to, or in some other way interwoven into the poems.
The “physical” presence of these artists, writers, and musicians, fills space that is otherwise often empty, and further extends the concept of neighbor, while adding to the substance of the poems by making explicit an integral element of the poetic process.
But in a certain sense, these names, visible on the page, along with the epigraphs, which are numerous, speak to the limitations of any individual poetic endeavor when turning toward human conditions such as that of the drowned child. Are we moving forward by drawing on the works of others, or plugging holes and patching fences?
The image of the drowned boy is a moment wherein the speaker concedes their language might not have the capability to construct meaning they want or need. And so, who wouldn’t turn to others? Then again, the human condition that leads to such an image might yield no meaning for anyone, anywhere, poetically, or otherwise.
To the boy, the poet laments, but readily admits “.... I can’t speak / for you. And really. ‘All I ever wanted / was to paint sunlight on the side of a barn.’” (23)
The confession regarding “sunlight on the side of a barn” refers to the painter Edward Hopper’s reflection on the sum of his artistic aims in works such as Summer Interior and A Woman in the Sun that most would agree depict very raw, vulnerable human moments. The light in these painting “is a compositional device Hopper loved to use in his mature work to depict the
indomitable light of nature breaking into the human world of a room.” Hopper is quoted as saying “‘I guess I’m not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.’” (http://www.artcyclopedia.com/feature-hopper.html)
The speaker’s calling on Hopper’s declaration speaks to one of the fundamental questions raised in the book: “Do we experience the same violence. From the inside out. The outside in. Save it and store it and feed it to each other. Wildly or gently as poison. At the same table. (21). In the presence of the drowned child, it seems likely that the speaker has an answer.
Elsewhere, there are fewer answers: “.... We are / liminal and how much do we really know / and how much do we refuse to know....” (65), is a sentiment echoed throughout the book.
And whether history has made us all neighbors, or our own individual violence and distrust, and hope, and radical action has made it so, we see the speaker inhabit that space wholeheartedly, if not for themselves, than for others. The speaker turns, once more to Heschel: “‘who is the you before whom I / am I.’” (48).
And so on goes the speaker in search of those answers:
And speaking of which, I wore /
my Met’s cap into Royal’s country
For each one of us must start somewhere, somehow.
David Carillo lives in West Hartford, Connecticut with his wife and two sons.