Tag Archives: friendship

It’s a little bit Brooklyn, a little bit Lower East Side

L’Chaim and Lamentations: Stories by Craig Darch. NewSouth Books. 160 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing about Richard Slotkin’s short story collection titled Greenhorns. I take the same pleasure in sharing Craig Darch’s somewhat similar collection. Darch, a professor at Auburn University, has crafted a compact, resonant memorial to the Jewish ethos as it existed in New York City for many decades.

Though there are few time markers, the ambiance seems to suggest the 1920s through the 1950s. These decades have faded away, with their various tones of hope and disappointment. They are almost forgotten, but the author brings them back through the sensibilities of people who themselves are on a point of balance between forgetting and remembering – as well as being forgotten.

Many live lonely lives, many have fallen upon – or always had – hard times. Many have a special kind of dignity and even courage. Darch’s nostalgic heart has made their ordinariness extraordinary.

These are people surviving inside their loneliness. The world they once fully inhabited has changed around them. The corner delicatessens run by hardworking neighbor- owners have vanished or been transformed.

Darch’s seven stories are seven gems.

Craig Darch

“Sadie’s Prayer” offers two aged roommates, Sadie and Esther. They are a kind of odd couple. Esther’s temperament demands neatness and convention. She can’t understand why the good lord has given her such an annoying partner and how the Jewish housing agency brought them together. Esther cannot adjust to Sadie’ smoking, to her Communist leanings, to her messiness. Esther looks backward; her memories of life with her deceased husband are a kind of anchor. She seems to talk to him, and Sadie is crass enough to point out that “Max is reading the newspaper and having his bagels someplace else this morning.”

Esther voices her wish that she had perished with her husband, and Sadie chides her for her silliness.

Knowing that they are each guilty of making each other’s lives much more miserable than they need to be, they agree – at Sadie’s suggestion – that the each treat the other with civility. Fat chance of that happening – at least not yet. They are wired differently and most likely it is too late for them to change.

While the women’s bickering dialogue is quite humorous, and perhaps will seem familiar to many readers. We all know people like this. They are our relatives, if not necessarily our friends.

They compete about who suffers the most, who prays the most, and who taste is superior.

In a sense, one can’t live without the other, and the conclusion makes clear that Sadie knows it and knows that even in the afterlife, Esther will need a friend like Sadie.

In “Kaddish for Two” we enter the lives of Zev Abramovitch and his thirty-three-year old unmarried son, Aharon. For Zev, it’s very important that his son continue the family line and experience its joys in the traditional manner. Readers will suspect the reason for Aharon’s resistance to such conversations long before Aharon ends the useless fencing back and forth by announcing that he is gay. Darch’s credible and powerful handling of this situation, the horrors of moral blindness and disappointment that overwhelm both men, is stunning. The premise, that a Jewish man needs a son to guarantee that there is someone to say Kaddish for him, resonates both in comfortable and uncomfortable ways.

“Who’s the Old Crone” raises the issue of Jewish continuity in a different way. Three old friends are chatting and noshing at a restaurant, Schwartzman’s Nosh, run by Sybil. They see a woman they haven’t seen there before who looks down and out. She seems at once pitiful and imposing. But who are they to judge? They are the remnants of the Romanian synagogue “bankrupt and boarded up years ago.”

Indeed, they are its last rabbi, last sexton, and last cantor. They are learned and somewhat cantankerous. The sexton, Eisenberg, “could kvetch fluently in seven languages.” Nachman, the cantor, who had lost his once-glorious voice, magically gets it back. Rabbi Fiddleman holds the group together. They have nothing to do except appraise the dishwasher and overhear a (beautifully rendered) mother-daughter confrontation.

An incident in the Nosh leads the three men, each in his own way, to contemplate death. The rabbi explains that “the Torah makes no definitive statement about an afterlife.” A year passes, and they are still talking about the old crone and muttering about how after coming to Schwartzman’s for ten years, there is “never a waitress when you need one.”

These tales, and their four companions, are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes consoling, always luminously true.

This review appears in the January 2020 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

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A Memory of Roland Flint

ROLAND, SHALOM

This piece was written soon after the death of Roland Flint (January 2, 2001) and published in the March/April 2001 issue of Writer’s Carousel (The Writer’s Center, Bethesda MD). Truly, this dedicated and gifted poet was one of the most unforgettable characters that I’ve been blessed to know. Like many others who had a similar life-changing opportunity, I will never forget him.

I find it difficult to speak in a public or professional voice about Roland Flint, a man who was a dear friend to me for over thirty years as well as a poet whose work I greatly admired and respected. He was a man with a great, caring soul – and what he cared about often found its way into his work: the unseen heroism of the common man, the magnitude of pain and suffering in people’s lives, the sources of endurance that sufferers discover, the miracle of human love, the beauty of the human form at rest and in motion, the juicy sexuality of creation, and all the promises of life that vie with all the obstacles of living.

 He had such a hearty laugh, he could have so much fun hearing a joke or telling one, that it is easy to forget how close so much of his life was to tears. But the laugh was not a mere cover or compensation: it was the tonic burst of a life-force at once fierce and gentle. I think I’ll miss that laugh as much as anything. That laugh shoots through many of the poems – especially the prose poems – and we have the poems. But they are not quite the same thing.

Roland Flint as Poet Laureate of Maryland

 Roland’s dance with the goddess Fame was only partly danced when he fell ill. I don’t mean that he hadn’t been long beloved by a wide spectrum of those who love poetry, those who read it and write it. But certainly he had not yet become a household name, and his work is not exemplifying one thing or another in the anthology texts that suggest to students a writer’s importance.  I think he was getting there fast, and may get there yet. He has a big chunk of space in any anthology I ever imagine.

 What does this mean? He started late in a generation of quickstart careers. His first two books, so lovingly brought to readers by Dryad Press, did not appear until he was 37 and 41 respectively. When RESUMING GREEN, from prestigious Dial Press, put him on the map in 1983, he was thoroughly a middle-aged man. And then the Dial imprint died and with it the parent company’s interest in this fine collection. When STUBBORN appeared from the University of Illinois Press in 1990, a National Poetry Series Selection, Roland had turned a corner – at 56. I don’t think he wrote less as the years went by, but rather that he allowed less to get into print. He was a severe judge and careful editor of his own work. It was another nine years until LSU Press brought out EASY. He had a lot more in him, I’m sure.

 Though I’m grateful for these books and the PIGEON volume that came out along the way, I want more.

 I also want more of that splendid vocal instrument that he tuned to perfection when giving a reading. What a dazzling presence he was at the podium: in performing his poems, Roland always achieved star power. Some faulted him for it, and some detractors believed that his readings made the poems seem better than they were. Others, those who would read and listen and read again, discovered that the voice truly revealed what was already there. But it’s a simple matter: Roland wrote to be heard. He knew the roots of poetry are in oral tradition, and he partook of that tradition even as he crafted poems that can speak right off the page. He taught us how to hear.

 And he taught other poets how to read – deliver, if you will – their poems to listeners. Not just by his example, but through workshops and serious individual advice, he helped a great many poets do justice to their writings.

 Roland at times showed a bard’s ego. I think for him it was a healthy pride. But he could revel in the deflation of it, and that’s one thing I loved about him. It’s an old story that many people have heard, because Roland would enjoy telling it on himself. Sometime before his first book, AND MORNING, came out, Roland told me that he had written a poem for David Ignatow. This sounded, though it probably wasn’t, a bit stuffy and a bit name-droppy to me. Feigning an innocence about these literary matters while eager to exercise my wiseguy persona, I asked: does he need one? Well, at this little dig Roland cracked up. He chuckled over it for years, — decades. He offered the story back as a way of complimenting me, though the laugh was on him.

 Show me a man who can laugh at himself and in no way be belittled, and I’ll show you a man of great spirit, self-knowledge, and robust cheer.

 OK. I haven’t listed the awards, the recognitions, the magazine credits, the fellowships, and the whole rigmarole of acclaim. They sit in official bios and will be selectively placed where they need to be referenced. These are not what made Roland an impressive man to me. That he learned enough Bulgarian to translate and recite it is something I admired, but I was touched when he would offer a Hebrew phrase or blessing when he knew I was celebrating the Sabbath or a Jewish holiday.

 One thing that made him impressive – and loved – was this: when he asked how my children were doing, he actually remembered what I had told him last – though months and even years may have intervened. He knew exactly what kind of careers they were pursuing, where they were living, what kind of problems they were contending with – and he hadn’t seen them since they were kids, decades ago. Roland always listened, he always heard, and he always cared. And do you know, he had formed a bond back then that left those children knowing who he was in a way that prepared them to share my sense of great fortune in being his friend, and now to share my loss.

 Hello. Goodbye. Peace. Shalom.

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