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Wrestling with the Past

Pure Poetry, by Binnie Kirshenbaum, Simon & Schuster, $22.00

PURE POETRY IS A ROMP THROUGH the love life of one Lila Moscowitz, part-time college professor, full-time sex fiend and modern formalist poet, who “writes smut and filth in terza rima.” An endearing and at times aggravating protagonist, we meet Lila as her thirty-fifth birthday approaches, and as she looks back at a failed marriage and ahead at the prospect of growing older. Reminiscent of Isadora Wing, the lively and ribald Jewish heroine of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Lila is on a mission to assume command over her own life.

Pure Poetry is laugh out- loud hysterical, with wonderful and quirky characters (such as Lila’s cross-dressing therapist Leon, “who is a drag queen, but understated—he is a librarian of a drag queen,” her mother’s stuffed monkey Meryl, who is always at the height of fashion and travels everywhere with her owner, and the ancestral ghosts that live in Lila’s Lower East Side flat). Yet it is also a telling story of a woman grappling with herself and with the question of how to love without being consumed.

In her unwillingness to accept the desire for normalcy, for “the ordinary life” which Lila deems to be a trap, we are dragged along on a painful path of denial. We can see the honest workings of Lila’s mind, and only wish that she could too.

Hovering along the periphery of Pure Poetry are Lila’s issues of Jewish identity. The Moscowitz family changed their name to Morse, and were “the sort of Jews who underwent baptism in the blue chlorinated waters of the swimming pool at Fox Hill Country Club.” Max, the ex-husband, is a German-American, Nazi progeny, and Kirshenbaum draws heavy-handed parallels between the inevitable perversions of their marriage and those of German Jewish relations.

As the book draws to a close, though, we are left with the image and the hope that Lila will turn to face the future. After returning from a spontaneous cross-country jaunt which helps her, finally, to come to terms with Max, she creates her own quasi-Passover-birthday table, and sets out the prophet Elijah’s glass. “Year in and year out, he’s expected, only he never shows, yet they don’t give up on him. 

Janice Simsohn of Madison, Wisconsin, works in the Jewish community, leads wilderness trips, and writes.