Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poet Debra Cash's Who Knows One

Boston-based Debra Cash writes about the arts, in particular dance, and is a lecturer and design researcher. She also is a very fine poet whom I might not have "found" had I not subscribed recently to a site called The Arts Fuse.

Cash just published Who Knows One, a 50-page collection of poems, some of which, according to a cover review, are "based on stories, language, and associations with the Passover Haggadah". (The Haggadah is a Jewish religious text setting out the order of the Passover Seder, as well as the recounting of the Exodus from Egypt that comprises the main part of the Seder service. The word haggadah comes from the Hebrew for "story", from hagged "to tell".)

Neither Jewish nor deeply informed about the Jewish faith, I approached the poems in this volume as I do the work of any poet, asking, for example: Do the poems "speak" in a voice anyone might hear and understand? What makes them work? What do they reveal about how the poet uses language? After reading the volume several times, I found myself by turns awed, delighted by the unexpected way Cash gets us to "see"  (as in "The Raccoon", a marvelous poem), and wondering why I had not come across her poetry before now.

Many of the poems in Who Knows One are short; some have no more than five or six lines. The longest, the apocalyptic "The Ten Plagues of Egypt", runs to two-and-a-half pages but it is in no way over-long. Each stanza is self-contained and replete with highly evocative, even repulsive, imagery: the "river turned to blood", the "plague of frogs . . . recoiling from touch", vermin that are "the plague of the disgraced, the invisible laying claim, laying their eggs in heaps of the future", the "plague of boils. . . self-hatred pulsing through the shallow dish of skin, domes of pain finally visible", "a death of panting". These are hell-plagues,  as horrible as they are unimaginable to encounter. And then just five words bring the poem to its simple and stunningly powerful conclusion, its only possible conclusion: "That there is nothing after." 

Sometimes, Cash writes in the unmistakable voice of story-teller and may even start out saying to her listeners, "Let me tell you a story...." ("Our Taskmasters") or "It came to pass...." ("Wine, the Third Cup). In the beautifully realized three-stanza, nine-line poem "Korekh", she exposes strength and weakness, revelation and cover-up, the truth and the lie:

The scholar Hillel
took matzah and bitter herbs
and bit down.

The rabbis amended his practice
so that we smother the bitter
in the sweet.

It is still there,
but the tongue reaches out for apples. 

In some poems, Cash speaks directly as "I" or "we", part of the narrative and bound not just to remember and repeat the story but to give it its fullest meaning, as in the six rhythmically fast-moving couplets that comprise "Matzah". In a few, such as "Portal", she foretells the story and then follows it up rather harshly with what she titles a "whipping chant" that she tucks at the bottom of the page: "Where do you get off / I was only doing what was best / Can't you put it behind you".

In yet other poems, Cash confronts directly, as though wagging a guilt-inducing finger, as in "Suggestions": "Admit it. / There's still an impulse to make a deal. . . ." 

There is also in Cash's poems language that will leave you quiet and contemplative:

The only thing he remembers about his father is the yearly reciting of the plagues, spilling wine over the tablecloth, sprinkling it like a priest, the glass becoming emptier and emptier by degrees; and then the guilty treat of putting the damp finger to his lips. ("Spilling the Drops")

The book's title is taken from the title of the poem that concludes the book, and for it alone I'd consider buying this collection. After reading it, I closed the covers feeling deeply moved.

* * * * *

Cash's work has been published in a number of anthologies, including Anita Diamant's The New Jewish Wedding (original ed., Scribner, 2001; rev. paperback) and Saying Kaddish, and in Black Heart, Ivory Bones (Eos, 2000), edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. A wedding poem, "The Succah and the Huppah" originally was published in The New Jewish Wedding; Cash told me via e-mail that it has been anthologized in several books, adding, "and is all over the Web, including some audio samples from couples ceremonies. This delights and amazes me." Cash's "Briar Rose" and a previously unpublished fairy-tale poem, "Witch", can be found in Black Heart, Ivory Bones.

Who Knows One, published by Hand Over Hand Press, is available through ($7.95, plus shipping and handling) and is being carried at Grolier and Kolbo in Boston, Massachusetts, and at Israel's Book and Gift in Toronto, Canada. Three poems in the volume — "Matzah", "Grace After the Meal", and "Pour Out Your Anger"— are published in Hadassah magazine, which gave the collection a "first look". The poem "Matzah" also appears in Supplementary Seder Readings (see page 3 after accessing the pdf).

Cash's poetry collection is mentioned briefly here. The back cover of her book features Anita Diamant's glowing assessment. Of the poems in Who Knows One, Diamant says, "They do what art is supposed to do: give us a new way to see."

Other poems by Cash can be found online, including "The Mermaid Sets the Story Straight" (in The Journal of Mythic Arts), inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid"; "Briar Rose" (also in JoMA), based on the fairy tale "The Sleeping Beauty"; and a non-theistic mourners' kaddish, "Mourner's Kaddish for Everyday" (at The two poems based on fairy tales are especially wonderful. I read them several times.

Cash was a Scholar in Residence at the famed Jacob's Pillow and wrote on dance for the Boston Globe and about dance and other arts for NPR's WBUR Online Arts site. Her current writings on dance can be found at The Arts Fuse and on her blog Dancing in the Present Tense. Co-founder of the Boston Globe Freelancers Association and a member of the board of the National Havurah Committee, a network dedicated to Jewish learning and renewal, Cash also consults to arts organizations and has taught dance history at Emerson College

All poetry excerpts © 2010 by Debra Cash. All rights reserved.

Note: Debra Cash's new Website is now live. Information about readings or other events related to Who Knows One will be published on the site as they are scheduled.


Scott Sheperd said...

It is a wonderful thing you do to let people in on your discoveries. As I read your comments on Debra Cash I could see a small child saying, "Look! Look!" as he or she shares some beautiful moment. Thanks

M.L. Gallagher said...

Hi Maureen! I got so excited by this read I went off to visit Debra's blog and became ingrossed.

Like you, a real treasure!


mary said...

Fabulous...thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

i just have to say that you write the most stunning articles.

this is a piece of art.

S. Etole said...

"yes" to what Nancy said ... the comments you leave are gift, too.

jenne said...

Beautiful essay, Maureen. As I hope I've said and noted before, you are so open-hearted, and do so much to keep our genre going, as well as turning out beautiful work yourself. xJ