No, not “read”: at least not “read” in the way you would read an email or a newspaper or a novel. The poems and prose-poems collected in this book draw you beneath reading to a meditation, a pause, a reflection, another pause….
And not really “Jewish spirituality”: for Chess’s spirituality, while deeply Jewish, is more deeply his own particular living of Judaism.
Take “Mezuzah,” the poem in which the book’s title appears. It looks deceptively straightforward on the page. But starting right from the epigraphs, we have to be engaged.
From Emily Dickinson we’re given “Tell all the truth but—”; followed by Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love…” In both cases we’re expected to fill in the blanks ourselves. We know that “tell it slant” completes the Dickinson line. And we know that Deuteronomy 6:5 continues with “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).
But if we read further in the Deuteronomy passage we come to God’s command to “Keep these words in your heart…and write them on the doorposts of your house” (6:6-9).
This is the commandment for the mezuzah that’s nailed slant on the doorpost of every Jewish home. Chess’s poem then follows:
For each of
the moods of
marriage the small
lies that keep
our lives whole
as we cross
the threshold, passing
the commandment to
love nailed slant
to the doorpost
That’s the entire poem. It’s so compact we hardly notice that it’s not even a grammatical sentence. Instead, it’s a conflation of loves: married love and the love God; it’s a paradox of “lies” that “keep / our lives whole”; it’s a puzzle. Is married love also “nailed slant”?
Conflation, paradox, and puzzle are characteristic of Chess’s poems. In “His Murderer and His Keeper,” he opens with: “Some days I cant remember: Am I Abel or Cain?” then tests out ways that his own identity is like Abel’s or Cain’s—or a merging of both.
The poem ends with a conflation of these two brothers and of other apparent opposites, and with the paradox that life is both punishment and gift:
Cain and Abel: it’s just a story, right? There never were two brothers, one a Christian, the other a Jew; one a body, the other a soul. One man. One man with two or 102 responses to the punishment, the gift of life.
Other poems in the book also engage biblical stories, while still others engage Jewish practices—always in unexpected and challenging ways. “Confession,” for instance, recounts an experience of Yom Kippur, the Jewish annual day of fasting and atoning for one’s sins.
I want to give you a taste of what Chess is doing in this poem, since it’s typical of much of his use of language, self-questioning, and intertwining of the personal with the political.
I rise with the congregation.
I form a fist. They form a fist. We form a fist. The fist is communal. We have sinned. The fist knocks on my chest. We have sinned. The fist knocks on their chest. We have sinned. The fist knocks on our chest. The fist knocks.
I chant, they chant, we chant:
We have sinned, betrayed, robbed, and deceived.
We have acted maliciously (the fist knocks), violently (the fist knocks.) Violently? Was I among the masked settlers who set fire to a tool shed in the village, the shed used to store tools for building a water reservoir to serve a few villages in the West Bank?
The settlers: are they my people? Are we one, the settlers and me? My heart hardens.
I look up from my confession. A few rows in front of me, closer to the ark, closer to the Torah, a congregant whose views on Israel I think I know. In his eyes, am I trouble, am I traitor? I see him. My heart hardens. Does his heart harden when he sees me? “We have been obstinate.” Our fists knock.
Enacting the Yom Kippur service in this way (and these are only small excerpts of the poem), Chess brings us into it, into himself, into his complex experience.
Chess can be playful, too, with his topics. Here’s some of “Dear Time” (ellipses here are the poet’s):
I can’t get away from you.
You are strapped to my wrist. You are in my pocket. You quietly command the corner of the screen, you are broadcast on every station, you are…
A constant reminder: I’m almost out of you. I must hurry to finish… What if I run out of you (or is it the other way around, what if you run out of me?) before I finish… finish what? This sentence? This life?
You are a problem. Are you the problem?
What shall I call you?
What shall I call you who never respond to my sighs, my pleas?
But you go by a hundred names: Game Time, Show Time, Face Time, Down Time, Overtime, Outta time,
Hard time, Air Time, Party Time, Closing Time…
Whether playful or pounding his chest, Richard Chess is always alert to the manifold meanings inherent in each moment of his life, each instant of his written lines.
For me, reading Chess’s work is like simultaneously meditating and doing strenuous mental exercises. I love the unusual conflation.
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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.