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Preparation for Prayer

Occasionally, a first book of poetry comes out which offers a sensibility and vision that are entirely unprecedented. Eve Grubin‘s debut collection of poems. Morning Prayer (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005, $12.95), is that kind of momentous book. Grubin, an observant Jew, is currently a fellow at New York’s Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. Her poems read like prayers, or “the preparation for prayer,” as she says in the first line of her title poem, which then goes on to define the essence of prayer: “Less the body, than voice, breath, gaze. // It’s not faith, it’s faltering.”

Grubin’s poems return to that faltering often, and it is what makes her work so complex and compelling. Her poems don’t describe spiritual yearning so much as wrestle with the desire to reach a state of yearning. For every declaration or image in her poems, she poses a question, sometimes several. In “Wild,” she tells that “The rabbi said to me: ‘You be the wild one,'” to which Grubin responds, “What is a wild woman? If you shave/ your head, are you wild? Is rebellion wild?” The way the questions spiral invites the reader to return and read each line again—always a sign of a great poem.

Seasoned poet Jane Hirshfield‘s new collection After (Harper Collins, 2006, $23.95) also addresses spirituality, though from a perspective more Zen than Jewish. As in her previous five books, Hirschfield combines meditation with vivid imagery, nimbly working the two together to convey complicated emotions with refreshing clarity. In “Burlap Sack,” she writes, “A person is full of sorrow/ the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand./ We say, ‘Hand me the sack,’/ but we get the weight.” Here, as in other poems, Hirschfield uses the physical to address the metaphysical, which in this poem—and in most of the collection—revolves around an exploration of sorrow.

Some moments in the book are more playful and irreverent, like the ending of the affecting poem “Study of Melon & Insect.” Here, Hirschfield compares the misshapen melon and insect featured in the painting to the two halves “of a long and unlikely marriage met on a park bench—// Six decades, and still I sometimes find him a stranger/ the old woman pretends to complain.” Unexpected turns like these in Hirschfield’s poems, coupled with her deft way of juxtaposing imagery and meditation, are what have made her such a prominent and enduring figure in contemporary American poetry.

Another well-known poet, Maxine Kumin, recently published her fifteenth book, Jack and Other New Poems (Norton, 2005, $23.95), at the age of 80. This new collection returns to familiar territory, with poems about Kumin’s New Hampshire horse farm interspersed with poems reflecting on social causes. Of the overtly political poems, the most vivid are those written as dramatic monologues, which seem to take their subjects further than those written from Kumin’s own point of view. This is particularly true of “The Rapist Speaks: A Prison Interview,” one of the most chilling poems in the book, which ends abruptly; “Got enough? Take your notes and go home.”

As in earlier books, Kumin’s poems about the ethical decisions involved in farm life are made larger by their juxtaposition with poems on larger social realities. At certain moments in the collection, these two veins of writing come together, as in “Women and Horses,” which begins with an epigraph from Theodor Adorno, “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric,” and ends with Kumin’s call to “see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel,/ as a meadow over which women and horses wander”