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Edited by Seymour Mayne. Ottawa, Oberon Press, c1985.182pp, paper, ISBN 0-88750-576-7 (cloth) $27.95, 0-88750-577-5 (paper) $14.95.

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Tony Cosier

Volume 14 Number 2
1986 March

In this anthology, Seymour Mayne brings together the works of thirty-four Jewish poets who have made significant contributions to modern Canadian poetry. With a clear-sighted introduction and concise autobiographical notes, Mayne places these writers into a coherent context. The selections themselves carry a collective sense of urgency and craft. The major subject emphasis is on Jewish experience, whether in Canada, Europe, or Israel. Canadian experience is strongly presented in the poems by Phyllis Gotlieb. Gotlieb conveys a strong sense of character in her portraits of old men and sensitive children. She depicts the physical environment vividly. She handles symbols well, drawing emotional power from prayer shawls and legendary furniture. One of the most complex and effective symbols in the book is A.M. Klein's "Grain Elevator." In that poem, Klein combines Old Testament myth, prairie grain, and Montreal dockyard into a taut and memorable Josephdream. In dealing with European experience, the poets of this book treat the Holocaust with pathos and rage suited to the subject. A random selection of lines reveals the thrust: "The function of a Jew is to die," "For you I will be a Dachau Jew," "The real murderers all live in my street." The titles convey the same impression: "On the 25th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz," "All There is to Know About Adolf Eichmann," "The Bullet-proof Jew." Europe is clearly bad news to more Canadians than Irving Layton.

Several poems in Essential Words indicate that the contemporary Jewish Canadian poets are respectful of the mythical Holy Land. There are abundant references to such prototypes as Noah, Abraham, and Joshua. But these poets have no illusions about the contemporary Israel. Layton's "Israelis," like all men in his eyes, are fanged wolves. Nancy-Gay Rotstein describes an Israeli tour guide with "In his pocket, a Gun/on his arm, a Number/in his heart, Steel." Stanley Cooperman's "Masada" recalls his visit to the Holy Land with images of desecration and despair in a waste land where old men come to be buried.

In editing his collection, Mayne has made some unique decisions. He includes a much higher percentage of long poems than is standard. He does not shy away from poems rich in Jewish vocabulary. He contributes a packet of strong poems himself. He includes poems that juxtapose Christian images with Jewish ones. Layton's adoption of Brother Jesus is a familiar example. Most effective is Hyman Edelstein's "The Cross on the Hill," with its closing image: "The bitter wind sweeps down from the hill/And blows a frozen Jew against a pole/As if impaled." Mayne's treatment of the well known Montreal poets Klein, Layton, and Leonard Cohen is handled intelligently. He keeps his selections from their work brief enough that they do not distract from the national flavour of his collection. The poems that he does give us are dovetailed effectively. Layton's "Requiem for A.M. Klein" is close and homey. Cohen's "Teacher" sounds like Klein, his romping "Last Dance at the Four Penny" is shared specifically with Layton, but includes the whole tradition in his statement: "I say no Jew was ever lost/while we weave and billow the handkerchief/into a burning cloud/measuring all of heaven/with our stitching thumbs." Eli Mandel's "Snake Charmers" is an interesting parallel to the Four Penny piece, Mandel relates directly to "Abraham Klein, Irving, Leonard" and applies to the entire world their dream of producing "tales of the prophet and his magic horse." The poems in

Essential Words are good. The editing is excellent. Oberon Press has bound and designed the volume well. Libraries should buy it.

Tony Cosier, Confederation H.S., Nepean, Ont.
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