Introduction

jsg is chest
heart of the strings
trunk of the player
sound chamber
wood bone blood flesh
voice.

Thinking of my pieces, some of them have moments of great internal movement – a jump over an interval I would not have predicted or didn’t imagine — it is always a surprise. The next phrase is startling. It’s what my teacher Dr. R. called a mutation; it doesn’t seem to follow the previous moment, and it doesn’t feel evolutionary. It is always a surprise.

At dinner, Yossi said, “if you took a snapshot of the situation now, it would look like there’s no hope” [for peace]. I asked Father Marek the Polish priest-philosopher, “did you foresee the fall of Communism in your country? Did you feel the Wall coming down in Berlin before it came down?” He stared straight ahead and said in his English, ‘No, we had hope . . . and prayers.”

In the Haftarah from Jeremiah that week, one of the dark readings in the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, railing against “those who have strange gods . . . those who called wood my father.”

Everybody knows wood is my mother.

The piece jumps
From mi to la
Unexpected
But not impossible;

This is
Peace-making,
My teacher said to me.

jsg, usa

Begin with Sadness; small alef

We Have to Begin With Sadness

We have to begin with sadness
in the maqam
hijaz
always reserved for sad stories*

There’s plenty to be unhappy about
But

But what —

I grabbed on to a hook
Dropped mercifully from the
Sky

It settled just above my head
High enough that if I hadn’t looked

I could have missed it

I had the good sense [for once]

To grab hold of it
It was maqam hijaz

Sent to lift me up
And out

One eye laughing
One eye crying

jsg, usa
Acharei Mot; small alef poetry
Maqam Hijaz

Maqam Hijaz* D E-flat F# G

Major Rule

Rabbi Akiva told me
this is a major rule in the Torah —

love your friend as [you love]
yourself [Lev.19:18]

Re’acha – your friend –
it’s a close relation.

And there’s an extra lamed attached to re’acha
le-re’acha
we expected et the common call to the accusative

Ramban told me it was exaggerated language [haflaga]
impossible to love someone else as you love

yourself –

be real.

jsg, usa

Maqam Saba
D E half-flat F G flat

Shemini: the Mystery of Food

Kashrut or the Mystery of Food

Explaining Kosher to a twelve year old, a ten year old, and an eight year old
Or: Why Stuff Is Never Enough

This is the meat, this is the milk side.

Why?

We don’t eat the milk with the meat.

Why?

We don’t mix them, not on the counter, not in our tummies.

Why?

‘Cuz God said . . . (Thinking Rambam).

You put them off with a bent reed, but what will you tell us? (twelve years old)

That doesn’t work for me (ten years old).

Are Spaghetti-O’s kosher? (eight years old)

Look, I don’t know why. It’s the mystery of food.

The mystery of food?

Listen carefully. There is an emptiness into which we eat, it mirrors the world. A space inside. Sometimes we stuff that space with food, with drugs, with sex, with success, with money, but it’s a spiritual space. It can’t be filled with substances, no kind of food, since manna, can fill that emptiness. Manna was kind of a clue, it was food but it was spiritual food, so the regular stuff — love even, success, the gold, the cars — stuff is never enough.

Stuff is never enough?

Stuff is never enough. Only God can fill that emptiness, only spiritual things, love if it’s holy love, work if it’s holy work, only holiness. The space is reserved for holiness. Food is the hardest example, ‘cuz you got to go to the trough three times a day and to make that holy is to help all the other things in life become holy.

It’s a “chok,” a mystery place that registers only holy. Stuff is never enough. The mistake a lot of us make: into that space we stuff substances, we eat into the space, we drink we drug we sex we love we buy we live into that space, but it has nothing to do with stuff. It’s the search for meaning or substance, not food, not drink, not drugs, but God, spirit, the holiness of this and the beauty of that. It’s food, but food for the soul. It’s a hint that all things have a spiritual, non-physical base. All that sustains is unseen. And that’s what kosher is, the mystery training discipline for all holiness in life. It’s called a “chok,” the mystery training. Who gets it?

(Twelve years old): I get it.
(Ten years old): Yeah, I get it.
(Eight years old): I get it, but are Spaghetti-Os kosher?

It’s an imperfect world honey.

The Story of Heschel and King Tone-Poem

First things: Bless these words

Tone-Poem on the occasion of the Hillula
in Praise of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

It begins with language:
in the beginning
the Holy One engraved the world with 32 hidden paths of wisdom,
the 22 holy letters and ten principles.

The ten fundamentals —
about these, we will disagree
but the 22 creative tools
the building blocks the essentials
on this we can agree —
The world we create out of language.

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
what drew them together: love of justice,
the pursuit of justice.
On King’s grave these words from Micah:
What does God require of you but to do justice, to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:8].

These are the texts they cited:
the Prophets, the source of the doing also the source of the don’t,
even more primary the Exodus story,
the movement given shape in the liberation story of Exodus.

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

We might think it begins with right action
the serious resistance then the organizing idea.
We might think it beginswith the intentional act of defiance —
it begins with language,
the power of blessing
that integrates the worlds at the heart.

From the lectern of the Ebeneezer church
the beginning is in language,
to bring the right text to inspire right action,
to inspire with intention.
Careful words, understood by all masters of Kabbalah
and jazzmen who work the depth with their saxophones
pulling from the pool
to spin the sounds into ideas,
to save lives, save civilizations, save the country.

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

They met in January 1963 at a Chicago conference on religion and race.
The Prophets and the Exodus story as text for the struggle
that brought them closer.

In 1965, the march on Selma,
Heschel welcomed into the front row with Dr. King,
Ralph Bunche, Ralph Abernathy,

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

Just before the march began
in a small chapel, Heschel read Psalm 27,
God is my light and my salvation, who shall I fear? [27:1]
Dr. King brought down a teaching in three parts
on the children of Israel in the Wilderness,
the rootedness in the text of the liberation story as told in the Hebrew Bible,
it was Exodus, it was the Prophets that drew them down to the Source.

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

About Selma, King wrote to Heschel: I cannot tell you how much your presence means to us.
About Selma, Dr. King said, this was the greatest day in my life,
the most important [of all] the civil rights demonstrations.

About Selma, Heschel wrote: I felt as if I was praying with my feet.

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

Bless us all in our holy places
the meeting of two worlds
like a city joined together.

O holy God of all the worlds,
the spirit of inwardliness that authenticates
all movement all absence of movement,
enter this struggle and all struggles with holy intent,
the blessed, the holy, let it descend here, into this space,
let the occupants carry it like a blessing,
let the blessings we carry be received with our eyes closed,
dreaming.

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

Let us dream ourselves blessed,
true to the peaks
loyal to the fields
let all valleys be known as high places
concealing the deep story,

Bless these words/ Bless these words
Bless these words/ Bless these words

Bless these words
Bless these people
bless us among the huts
and other holy places.

Bless these words
Bless these words
Bless these words
Bless these words

Bless this street, this city
the moon out the back window,
the dream of peace that is trapped in a small box within.

Bless us in our going out and our coming in,
from this time forth,
and forever,

Amen.

james stone goodman

Remembering Martin Luther King jr. on April 4

Remembering Martin Luther King jr.

Invocation, April 4

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.

– Deuteronomy 32:1

Listen, O earth, to these wounds;
We have been pounded on the peaks,
elevated and alone.
Who ascends these holy mountains,
and why?

We bled all over our back packs,
descended at the penultimate moment.
Snatched away from the precipice
we descended into the valley
where we sat quietly with our eyes closed
waiting for a bus nothing loftier
and we would have remained there
if not sitting next to us was the prophet Amos
watching for the light to change.
His skepticism, as always,
was an inspiration;
The way justice rolls down like water
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

All that was holy entered through our wounds
the last place we expected.

Listen to the wounds, O earth,
pay attention to the bleeding sky
brother elements sister flesh
pay a little attention will you–
at least give ear to these words.
These wounds.

jsg, usa

April is Poetry Month parts 1 and 2

April is Poetry Month
Part 1: Poetry Will Make You Wise

“Beauty is Truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

— Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats

James Stone Goodman, poet rabbi

I heard that April is poetry month. There is some controversy in circles given over to setting specific time for something fundamental, months for specific histories, Jewish history in May Black history in February and the like. I am poetic in April, come May strictly prosaic. In June, I am grunting.

I am speaking poetry all the time now, trying. Not rhymes, some in silence even. Some singing. In many of our languages the song poem continuum is undistinguished by a boundary at all; all songs poems, all poems songs. This is the way it is in Hebrew: poem and song, same word. We are singers poets stringists and we still don’t distinguish between the word for poem and the word for song – they are same: shir, shirah, shirim.

My teacher taught me the early poetry epics of the Greeks in the same way. We learned the Homeric poems as creations of oral poets, composing with an instrument and a set of forms that they returned to, stringing together words for the telling of the epic poems that were spoken first, written later.

In all language there is music as there is poetry so we are, all of us, singing and poesying and soon we will all recognize that and meet each other in language and that will bring some sort of peace, perhaps the way we least expect. We will listen to each other better when we realize that we are speaking poetry all the time. Every month. Speaking poetry and singing even when ordering breakfast. Eggs over easy, rye toast – dry. Coffee. So beautiful.

Poetry is April month, so we are expecting an outpouring of some sort of soaring integrative healing in April that rises out of beauty (Keats come back — we are paying attention now). Beauty is truth, truth beauty, right now I can’t figure out what that means. Neither could T.S. Eliot, who was not in favor of April or July for that matter as poetry month. He preferred May (May is the kindest month, he said later on). He left us notes to explain why May was so great (school’s out for summer basically).

Written on Keats’s gravestone, in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, is this noble epitaph: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. No name no date, he was twenty-five when he died in 1821. There is something else carved there. Above the inscription is a Greek lyre with four of its eight strings broken.

When the poet died, so did the music, long before bye bye Miss American Pie. I am loving poetry of all kinds now, the poetry I hear and the poetry I do not hear, the poetry I read and the poetry that is spoken, the poetry in quartets and the poetry of broken strings. The black fire and the white fire, it is all over fire when on the page, and when spoken, it is even more combustible. The strings may be broken but the music is working working working.

There was a performer for gangsters in my hometown when I was a kid. He spoke stories in rhyme, he put his audiences into a kind of trance, even the big-mitted tough guys who sat in the speakeasies were enchanted. What was his power?

Language, poetry, music, it tamed the gangsters of Detroit and it has quieted me. I ascend into silence, call upon the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Halleluyah. I am quoting Leonard Cohen who spoke these words sitting four-sided around a table in Montreal just before Passover one year. Halleluyah means praise, the embrace of the highest, the poetry of ascent, the ascent of poetry. It’s from the Psalms, which according to the Greeks — means songs.

Know poetry and you will come to understand how religion became boring.

I am gobbling language like candy and loving the poetry I hear every day, every month. April is poetry month. Not. Every day is poetry month.

There’s a poet on television reading the news, I should go listen.

April is Poetry Month
Part 2: Poetry Will Make You Rich

Thank you Ruth Lilly (1915-2009)

It is difficult to get the news from poems
– William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

James Stone Goodman, poet rabbi

Poetry Foundation has a new building in Chicago, it’s one of only three buildings in the country dedicated to the arcane art of poetry. Still poetry is what we live for; it’s what we need from the news, though it’s difficult to get poetry from the news. One of the local news shows I see is looking for some good news because I am sure they think that will sell cars better. It’s poetry that sells cars, anyone who has read William Carlos Williams knows this. How much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, well, a car can carry so much more.

Still I am suffering every day for lack of what is found there, the news, good news anyway. I am so glad the news is lightening up and I am encouraged by the urban gardens in Detroit and other examples of colloquial goodness. Now we can all be lifted up by the news, but it’s not poetry.

Ruth Lilly, great grandchild of Colonel Eli Lilly who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, gave poetry the biggest boost in years with a gift to the Poetry Foundation (publisher of Poetry magazine) of 100 million dollars (this to a publication that wouldn’t publish her own poetry). From that gift was built the 21.5 million dollar headquarters that opened last summer on Dearborn and Superior streets in Chicago.

Poetry magazine used to pay two dollars a line for poems, but none to Ruth Lilly who submitted poem after poem under a name no one would recognize, posted from Indianapolis. That’s what I call healthy detachment. It’s all about the work, Ms. Lilly said.

Her work wasn’t up to Poetry magazine’s standard, it might have been if they knew she had her pen poised on that 100 million dollar Eli Lilly pharmaceutically pure check.

The great way is not difficult to one with no expectations, not since the 7th century third Zen Patriarch of China Sengstan has anyone demonstrated so little expectation as the philanthropic Ruth Lilly posting anonymously from Indiana. I think about her whenever my poems are rejected, the rejection part not the 100 million dollars part.

Harriet Monroe, poet (she rhymed most of the time) and onetime critic for the Chicago Tribune, founded Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1912, not long after returning from a trip to China. The motto of the magazine was Whitman’s line “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.”

In its early days, Poetry promoted the Imagists, poets such as Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound gave her the initials for purposes of poetry), T.S. Eliot, and scores of other initialists. “These poets have bowed to winds from the East,” she wrote. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by the then unknown T.S. Eliot was published in Poetry in 1915.

Poetry magazine received a face-lift with a hundred million bucks and it looks a heck of a lot better than it used to. It is a lean and dignified publication. Probably nothing published in it will bring down the Empire, it’s thirty five dollars a year which takes a chunk out of a good poet’s budget since hardly anyone can make a living as a poet these days (unless you win the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize which is $100,000, big bucks in the poetry world but still not enough to buy a decent house in San Francisco where poets once lived before Citibank).

That’s what I long for, not just a poetry month, a poetry decade, and a city of poets, and the ascendance of the poet as a guy or gal who can make an honest living taking down the priests, kings, corporations, and even the prophets with heuristic revolutionary verse.

Here I go with a lunch pail a pocket full of pencils and a coffee house to hang out in, I’m going to work — to parse the world, praise the word, squeeze it for what it means, make it mean when it doesn’t.

Ruth Lilly, you’re my hero, because you had a 100 million dollars to give away and you gave it to a magazine that hardly anyone reads featuring a form few practice, to some snobs in Chicago that wouldn’t even take your own product (poetry that is, not drugs).