Editor’s Note: We initially learned about the poet Charles Bane, Jr. after we received a tip that he had been nominated as Poet Laureate of Florida. Notable as it would be for Bane to become the only Jewish Poet Laureate to ever hold this position in Florida, what really drew us to Bane was this poem:
I think when God
walked shy to Moses,
stars clustered in his hands,
he led our rabbi down
to the orchards of the heart.
The two walked near the other
and traded dreams like brothers
before sleep. They paused
afield and watched the sun,
lifted by themselves in unison,
race overhead. And Moses knew
not to disappoint this man
with faltering steps or speech.
God wept uncomprehending
of his artistry and Moses scratched
some lines in stone to honor
a beloved friend.
All too often we tend to see artistry and yiddishkeit as two separate beings that need to be united. Bane, however, is the rare example of a Jew who can combine these two forces of spirit to be one and the same. His words reflect the strength, pride, and honesty of a fully realized Jewish life, and we were honored by the opportunity to dig deeper into how he developed his worldview and how he moves his words from his heart to the page.
Altar Journal: Do you have any general guidelines for folding themes of Judaism into your work?
Charles Bane: I'm certainly proud of my Judaism and feel it affects much of my writing. I have only one set rule for myself: I only write, as in "Killing Gunther," about Jews who are empowered. I refuse to write about being Jewish under terms of personal victim-hood. Also, there are obviously many kinds of belief under the umbrella of our faith, but I think part of a poet's job is to make an implausible idea plausible, as in "B'shert," below.
I have searched in me
and without self, sensed
a cosmos fleet and shy,
changing coats in wintertime;
and I dare to hope in camouflage,
the music of me is your
reply, for there are
binary systems warming planets
like parents and I wish tonight
for you to appear as your
face was on Sinai instantly
recognized. There is smoke
and molten liquid in my eyes
and you who are destined
to be at my side
are most beautiful who
lays in boughs and cloths
of late light. I am single
written, unexpressed and
unread: turn a page to
meeting and start.
A.J. Can you elaborate on this idea of ‘making an implausible idea plausible’?
C.B. What I mean is that I think a poet has an obligation to search out the magical, the implausible and make it real. That is part of faith---sometimes the hardest part to believe. Do I, as a thinking adult, believe that Moses saw God's face? I have no idea. But a poet who is a Jew is more than just another congregant. He/she is a bard of their religion. So I sing of it.
A.J. Which Jewish writers do you identify with who may have indirectly contributed to your poetic voice?
C.B. I favor the pragmatic, like the noted historian Arthur Hertzberg,1 whose "The Jews In America" (1978) is knowing, wise and militant. Like many, I catch wisdom where I can, and usually find---in my experience---more to consider in an Orthodox environment, than Conservative or Reform. Much, much that is mystical in Judaism appeals to a poet, but it's grounded in my practicality. I'm not remotely Kabbalistic.
A.J. I find that with my own poetry -- it finds me. The formulation of a poem's wording essentially begins by writing itself and continues with my catching the words from where I continue to write the poem. However, I imagine the process of many poets to be: sitting down with an empty page and conjuring a poem on its very own.
C.B. You've perfectly described it. The poem lies waiting in the unconscious as an emotion or mood, and we make reason of it, like a dream. I very rarely revise; the poem revises itself as it’s being written. While you write, you edit. You’re peeling the outer layers until you’re left with the seed. If you revise, you take out, not add. Adding never works, ever. The whole process is from the unconscious. You don’t want it to be personal. That may sound strange, but if by writing you keep a distance from Self, then the result speaks to the many.
A.J. As Borges said, “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.”11
C.B. The unconscious preserves our cultural memory and before Jung and Freud, this was acknowledged by rabbis who insisted that every Jew, past, now and future are witnesses to Sinai. Every voice, observant or not, which expresses it’s unlocked soul contributes to the raw, almost primal early Torah that as it is written, grows more and more in poetry. We are still sublime. Often I want to shelter in the wilds of river stars, sweep their banks and fire signals beyond the boundaries of eastern dawns.
But my interior is a synagogue and there, like scratches on a pyramid or graffiti in New York, I leave marks. Our words cascade like sheep from the hills. They shoulder together beneath Sinai. We add, consciously or not, to an unfinished Torah, and are heard.
I am hungry; come soon. I looked
tonight at flames like you upon
the west and jewels winging
home. I hold you in my eyes
when I see what cannot
be stamped again. All the earth
is of a kind but for the rarities
that clamber unknowing of their
gifts on vales of purest light,
and look at the common life
of us in shade. Come beloved,
A.J. When did you first discover poetry?
C.B. It discovered me, because I was writing very mature work before I was fully aware of poetry as literature. My father sent off a poem I wrote at twelve and was published. As I studied the Western Canon, I was both intimidated and inspired. I paused at certain stops, and favorites, like Elizabeth Bishop and Anthony Hecht but I was utterly confident in finding my own voice, and I'm proud that I was never derivative.
A.J. Was there a manner in which you found your own voice besides writing -- was it something in addition to the practice of listening intently to your intuition?
C.B. That's so very difficult to answer. I just knew. I read Dylan Thomas, E.E. Cummings, Yeats and although each fills you with wonder, this other part of you is rejecting the way they speak. I can only say that I think part of the conceit of being a poet is the belief that you are saying something in the best way. This is one of my earliest poems, and I knew when it was written that I was wholly myself on paper:
My love's sweet,
dreams are where we
must meet to soothe
the ache of lonely ties,
but are they not a finer
place? What is the sun?
A common turn of flaxen
thread, scattering wastes
overhead that weather conscious
life. But at twilight, love,
all the flooring's swept,
the loom removed in lowering
steps, and a hearth of sparks is
overturned. In transit hours, I know
Did we not walk in reverie an
Eden of the evening long? Did
we not halt at an airy cataract,
and naked in rapture, press
our lips below its spill?
Do I not love you well
who carries from his sleep
an odor of stars?
A.J. Are there any particular aspects of Torah from where you've drawn that contribute to your background and poetry?
C.B. We have a gifted rabbi, Moshe Scheiner at our local Orthodox synagogue. He introduced me long ago to Adin Steinsaltz; he and I spoke for a long time. He was so humble, unassuming; and yet so wise. He was just then bringing substantial Judaism to Soviet Jews who knew nothing of Torah or their religious heritage. I spoke of my belief that Torah is living, and the proof of this in the modern poetry that arises from the unconscious, and which is never malevolent. We liked one another immensely.
A.J. What do you think it means to be an empowered Jew today?
C.B. My advice is to be proud to be a Jew. Be a good Jew. Be a good Jew whether you're observant, or an atheist. Incorporate your values of feminism and regard for differing sexual identities into your Judaism. That will make it vital. Rail against BDS, or anti-semitism in other guises. Be open to what may seem, at first, quaint. "The evil impulse (sex) builds cities," the sages wrote. They had a profound understanding of human nature. Shabbat Shalom.
A.J. Thank you Charles, Shabbat Shalom.
Artwork by Chezi Gerin
To read more of Bane’s writing, visit his website.