By Hilton Obenzinger
Ithuriel’s Spear, 2017
Paperback, 5 3/8” X 8 3/8,” 114pages
A brave venture into “woke” Jewish (and all kinds of other) territory, “Treyf Pesach” begins by Obenzinger sitting the reader down to explain in his typically disarming way how he has employed multiple forms and literary traditions to sell you his wares. In a time when we are reeling from a grotesque showman at the head of the world’s most disgraced settler nation, Obenzinger uses talent, humor, frank honesty, and deep searching to wring the best out of a pitch. The deceptively plain language will hook you and keep you reading. From the poet who proclaimed years ago “the day of the exquisite poet is kaput” comes a new tool and treasure to help us get through what we’ve all been going through.
Amazon Customer Review
Stalking independent bookstores in 1975, I still remember the day I pulled Hilton Obenzinger’s The Day of the Exquisite Poet is Kaput from the shelves. Perfect for Poetry for the People, the class I had just started to teach at City College of San Francisco.[i] Here was this quirky and irreverent poet saying “amen” to all of that, in Yiddish no less.
When a big white male poet came to read during my freshman year in college, I thought, “If that’s a poet, what could I possibly be?” By the time I found Kaput, I figured I was some kind of poet, and Kaput gave me a living tradition to join, and my students a way to call what we were doing together—the “not exquisite” poetry. The poetry that speaks to people in language they can understand, stories they can call their own.
And so it begins with a story. The Passover Seder, that is. Hilton Obenzinger has opened up shop on that story line twice: This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem (Momo’s Press, 1980), the first time he used poetry, stories, and other prose to critique the Jewish nation state, and now his new enterprise Treyf Pesach (Un-kosher Passover). He writes from a place that Grace Paley staked out when her alter ego Faith insisted:
“I believe in the Diaspora, not only as a fact but a tenet. I’m against Israel on technical grounds. I’m very disappointed that they decided to become a nation in my lifetime. . . Once they’re huddled in one little corner of a desert, they’re like anyone else: Frenchies, Italians, temporal nationalities, Jews have one hope only – to remain a remnant in the basement of world affairs – no I mean something else – a splinter in the toe of civilizations, a victim to aggravate the conscience.”
Obenzinger embraces his Jewish identity—not a trace of self-hating Jew here—while he pricks a bloody consciousness from the troublesome wound that Paley opens up.
He begins his second Passover venture into brave “woke” Jewish territory by sitting the reader down to explain in his typically disarming way how he has employed multiple forms and literary traditions to sell you his wares. In a time when we are reeling from a grotesque showman at the head of the world’s most disgraced settler nation, Obenzinger uses talent, humor, frank honesty, and deep searching to wring the best out of a pitch. His deceptively plain language will hook you. As Paul Auster explains, “His book strikes with all the force of an exploding bomb – because it speaks the truth.”
It’s days after the November 2016 election, and Obenzinger turns to Samuel Beckett as he gathers his first group of poems under the bitter twist of “Waiting for Trump.” God, the antichrist, whichever way you turn it, that period between election day 2016 and inauguration day came close to doing us in. “Something bubbles in the kitchen, like death…Violence has found its season.” At a truck stop, the poet spies on those he presumes have voted for the imposter and wonders what they really think. Shuffling back and forth on the highway, they prompt the poet’s likening to the playwright’s agony: Will their Trump ever come? And Audenlike – the day Hitler invaded Poland – Obenzinger sits there “uncertain and afraid.”
Christmas – or Chanukah for the few – doesn’t provide much solace. At New Year’s he word plays on “resolution” by creating a document filled with “whereas” clauses laying out the accomplishments and limits of the Obama presidency—“Whereas our president sought peace, yet launched drones, sought liberation, yet still held ground for empire and money…” and culminating in resolves that mostly praise the imperfect predecessor to the “violent bully.” How can you argue with this one? “…that the memory of [Obama’s] rule be a blessing to cherish and honor, despite his allegiance to empire, giving the people hope, even as we prepare to lay siege to the Golden Tower…” And in further “resolveds,” he refers to “the Congress of Books and Huddled Masses.” A shout out to a many-voiced literature’s ability to rescue us from despair, and Emma Lazarus’s classic call to immigrants engraved on the Statue of Liberty, its promise not tragically ironic but actually possible. Not a hallow hope but a measured manifesto. That’s Obenzinger, who finally resolves “that we will sing the blues, tell jokes, and play basketball in honor of President Barack Hussein Obama.”
Then he transports us to D.C. for the inauguration and stops to welcome us into the actual Library of Congress, which he calls “A dream above all, of knowing…” Obenzinger never loses the faith even while he records those who would shred it: “The Disney Collection of the Arts/ The Monsanto Room of Science/ The Exxon Library of Poetry and Fiction/ The Trump Tower of World History…”
In a set of three poems dated the night before the inauguration, inauguration day, and the day after, he counsels us. On the eve of, he acknowledges our various locations: “those who find comfort in these poems…those who are offended…those who don’t care…those who are afraid…those who want to have fun…those who think they know better…those who dream…those who burn in Hell…those who laugh for no reason…those who reason without laughing…those who read this [and] laugh even when we are ruled by the worst…”
On the day of, he goes solemn. It’s “The Theft Outright,” a play on Robert Frost’s poem at JFK’s inauguration, “The Gift Outright.” Unlike Frost who claimed “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” Obenzinger argues “The land was never ours before we became the land’s.” He muses on how Frost’s “plain-talk verse” drew him in all those years ago and how now he is not fooled by even the best of them, the ones we thought heroic. The heroes now, his comrades “[a]rms linked, wishing ourselves luck/Until the police drag us away by our feet.” For Obenzinger “the gift outright” was the Women’s March the day after.
Next the title section. An un-kosher Passover. What he first named when he pronounced “This Passover or the Next I will never be in Jerusalem.” For those unfamiliar with this ceremonial dinner, you need to know that the last line the family gathered around the table recites at the end of the Seder, printed in every Haggadah—the Seder text—(except those that progressive Jews have changed to phrases like “Next year in a world of freedom”) is “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
It’s no surprise Obenzinger keeps returning to the Seder meal. The story of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt reminds us that since we were once slaves, it’s our duty to help others out of slavery. Some would call that the reason for a disproportionate number of Jews speaking out against injustice, but one injustice that some Jews won’t touch is Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people. So he picks apart lines from that sacred text and turns them on their head:
“Why is this night different from all other nights? It’s not, it’s the same old story of using our pain to cause the pain of others.” And, finally, “Next year leave Jerusalem alone.”
In his “Refugee Seder” he takes another spin on the Haggadah: “Once you were strangers./ Once you were refugees./Once you were murdered./Once you fought back…Once you made justice at the heart of your being.” He digs into The Four Questions that ask why this night (this Passover night) is different from all others and answers: “You have bound others by your own hand. Set out to free them, just as you were freed.”
In this book of ritual and counter ritual, he references Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews are called to make amends to those they have harmed in the past year. And then God, in his infinite mercy, forgives us for harms done against Him. “Forgive us for swallowing shards of glass to sing broken/anthems of war/Forgive us for sitting on rooftops waiting for dust to blow into our eyes/Forgive us for allowing poverty and for blowhards and demagogues…Forgive us for our stupidity and hatred, for expulsions and occupations…” Then Obenzinger returns to the making amends potential: “We confess, we have done wrong, and we will continue/to do wrong,/But most of all we will love each other until it is time/ to wake up…”
Woken up, he turns Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday, into another Day of Atonement. An “un-kosher” Yom Kippur. “No thanks smallpox blankets…No thanks Jim Crow…No thanks ‘No Jews Allowed’…No thanks dead young black men…” But in “Giving Thanks” he creates an alternative “grace.” Nature and cities – “wilderness and urban denseness…the wonders of geysers and the marvels of subways…” Indigenous people, whose generosity and resistance in the midst of “constant theft,” stay standing. Even the settlers, who made such a mess of it despite their better intentions. The immigrants who followed them. The resisters against social oppression. Those “who sit in, who occupy…who blow whistles, who stop the lynch mob, who make beautiful art and sing songs…” With deep compassion he gives “[t]hanks to our country despite its crimes, the violations of rights and violence, despite police clubs and gasses and bullets, despite the Klan, despite the greed of plutocrats, despite the horror of endless wars, despite empire, exploitation…the poisoning of waters…”
Who but a Jewish American who believes in imagination, possibility, and the best out of each tradition can marry the forgiveness of Yom Kippur with the grace of Thanksgiving? “We are all the dinner guests, and each time the thankfulness can start again, each time we can forgive all the mistakes, we can make ourselves whole and our country whole each time we gather to eat…”
Segueing back to Seder. Charles Steckler’s eight “Seder Plates” drawings offer a bonus and a benefit. Comic to comic. They match Obenzinger’s politically left edged humor. Diane di Prima calls Obenzinger our Jonathan Swift. I’d throw in a pinch of Lenny Bruce with Steckler’s plates adding a sprig of visual relief.
And we need it since the next section reminds us of our fate. In “Legally Dead,” its title poem, he mocks papers, certificates, and borders. Later he mourns deportations, torture, massacres —“all our transgressions.” But he ends by leaping on the table for a jazz ritual chant, “Peace Comes to the World,” where
Sex is re-invented nightly.
Giant corporations turn over their profits to schools.
Rivers flow with pure water…
High schools are named after Lenny Bruce and Charlie Chapin. The Thelonius Monk School of Spiritual Mathematics opens its doors and Condoleeza Rice is the first to enroll.
Then he sobers up from his “flash” and his “vision,” but he doesn’t give up on his dream: “Sooner or later, history will kiss us on the lips.”
So, though Obenzinger always has a chuckle up his sleeve, he doesn’t veer from the grim look ahead. He concludes with 13 psalms where he manages to fire Donald Trump, and then “I Cut My Foot on a Rainbow.” Paley’s splinter? Or the supreme jester’s gesture? Final confession: “The planet’s still a wonderful place/ It just needs maintenance.”
Poetry for the People
City College of San Francisco
Collisions and Transformations: Poems (Coffee House Press)
[i] June Jordan launched a class of the same name at UC Berkeley 15 years later.
Hilton Obenzinger’s new book of poetry, Treyf Pesach, has been praised by Paul Auster, Michael Lally, and Diane di Prima among others. It is mostly occasional pieces– poems for a revised Haggadah, secular prayers, and psalms for the months since Mr. Trump became president. Obenzinger does his prophesying in long lines that are alternately outraged and humorous as he comments on politics and human follies over the last ten or fifteen years. Some of the poems are as up to date as “Dear Mr. Donald Trump,” one of 12 Psalms that end the book and says, “Due to a world that you cannot make into your own image/Due to shoddy real estate deals in the guts of refugees/We have to let you go/You’re fired.”
He typically uses everyday language in the classic American style of the New York poets and William Carlos Williams and, of course, the progenitor himself, Walt Whitman. Some of the poems have an incantatory quality and are meant to be read aloud, and indeed many have been performed. One of my favorites is a poem that was performed with a jazz ensemble that is called “Peace Comes to the World” and is full of delightful, zany imagined changes:
“Politics becomes a way to meet new people and make sense of the world, a kind of dating service and Department of Public Works rolled into one. “The suicide bomber walks into the marketplace, yanks the
string. Candies shoot out in all directions. He’s become a suicide piñata, except he forgets to die in the explosion of sweets.”
Excerpts, of course, don’t do justice to this kind of poetry that builds its effect through its long sentence-lines and heaps of images. A wonderful shorter poem called “Remembering/2011” is about how easy it is to be confused by how much you wanted something to happen in history: “Didn’t Al Gore refer to that speech in his own inaugural ten/ years ago? I can’t quite recall.” And a sweet, very long 2014 poem called “Goodbye Books” is a valediction and farewell to a long list of favorite books: “The books line up and I shake the hand of each and every /one of them.”
Charming and political, ranting and rough-edged, it’s a book to read to yourself, or read aloud to serotherapies as a substitute for the religious texts you have rejected in time when you need support.
But feel free to laugh.
From “Books for Readers Newsletter” by Meredith Sue Willis
Prayers, incantations, rants, yawps, elegies, reports from long ago and just yesterday, the poems in Hilton Obenzinger’s remarkable new book effortlessly (and powerfully) combine the public and the private, the political and the personal in ways rarely encountered on the contemporary American scene. His book strikes with all the force of an exploding bomb – because it speaks the truth.
Paul Auster, 4321, The Book of Illusions, Moon Palace, and The New York Trilogy
Treyf Pesach is a terrific book. For me it brings in particular two things that are very hard to find in recent American poetry: a sense of humor, and a sense of history – especially valuable at this moment, these two things, really.
Tom Clark, Truth Game, Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems, Beyond the Pale
Future historians of North America should place Hilton Obenzinger’s rants and proclamations among the key unfounding documents of the currently failing USA experiment in democracy, or perhaps founding documents in a new attempt—or both.
Les Gottesman, The Cases, From the Files of Victor Spoyles,
Editor-in-Chief, Omerta Publications.
Testament and testimony, Hilton Obenzinger’s Treyf Pesach embraces echoes of the Old Testament/Torah, Whitman and Dickinson, Robert Frost and Rosa Parks, incorporating all that and more into the poet’s bearing witness to the travails of our times in what one poem describes (referring to Frost) as “American plain-talk verse,” verse that refuses to be silenced, watered down, placated, compromised or ignored. One of the most timely, as well historically compelling, collections of poetry since Ed Sander’s verse histories of “America.”
Michael Lally, The Village Sonnets, Swing Theory
I have been following Hilton Obenzinger’s work with delight and astonishment for over 40 years. He is a treasure. Funny, surreal, radical — he is the American Jonathan Swift.
Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters, Loba, The Poetry Deal
The moral heartbeat of these here States, this globe; each poem a declaration, a drumbeat, Hilton, the lovely, loving friend and real voice in our midst!
Stephen Vincent, The Last 100 Days of the Presidency of Barack Obama
This thoughtful, stark, and elegant poem [“Waiting for Trump”] by Hilton Obenzinger captures the present moment with grave clarity, beautifully invoking Auden and Yeats. The last line refers to Fox News, which is on in the truck stop setting of the poem, but made me think also of the empty and disappointing denouement of Leonard Cohen’s rousing but in the end to my mind cynical song “Democracy” (“I’m neither left nor right, I’m just sitting home tonight, getting lost in that hopeless little screen”, which I think of as how Cohen’s deeply flawed politics mar his music). What I love about Hilton’s poem is how it makes me want to turn off the “hopeless little screen,” read poetry, and figure out new ways to be among Auden’s “the Just/ Exchang[ing] their messages” and how to “Show an affirming flame.” Yet, having said that, it also made me think of Abena Busia’s incredible “Testament for the first accused: Nelson Mandela for the twenty-seven years,” which describes the world pausing–and watching television to see Mandela emerge from prison on Robbin Island in 1990. Busia’s poem and Auden’s September 1, 1939, are both worth reading, most especially for their last stanzas. But read this one by Hilton first!
Robert Warrior, The World of Indigenous North America