SP is pleased to present a second essay from Poets on Growth: An Anthology of Poetry and Craft (Math Paper Press, 2015), edited by Peter LaBerg and Talin Tahajian. (Read the first essay by Timothy Liu here.) The essay “Writing the God of Women” by Rachel Mennies speaks eloquently about poetry’s power to restore our past to us. Following the essay, a poem by the poet, which negotiates the shifting territory between law and love.
Writing the God of Women
by Rachel Mennies
My identity as a poet and my identity as a Jew first grew on parallel tracks. As a child, I read from the Torah with awe and hunger: the animal smell of the parchment and its thick-inked Hebrew characters looked like primordial poems, but I didn’t see them as poems until much later in life, as I started to write about Judaism more explicitly. My first love was this God’s mysticism. I read of He who spared Isaac, who took Jacob to Rachel; I read of the God who salt-pillared Sodom, who brought the floods to Noah. I worshipped the Haggadah, the text that sets the order for Passover seder and tells the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. I held these stories against our own family mythologies—included among them my family’s escape from Nazi Germany and their immigation to and assimilation in Philadelphia—as they both rang with epic bigness. Their weight underpinned my entire childhood.
From the time I could read, text of God or no, I wrote, and with the confident earnestness of a young writer encouraged by her family to do so. My mother—perhaps this writer’s biggest fan—still keeps my “early work,” as she calls it, in Tupperware boxes in an upstairs closet. Some of this work is so early that it’s written in crayon. As I grew older and switched to pens, I kept journals in middle and high school and felt a deep catharsis in the writing- out of my teenage years. (Was it Art that drove this particular engine of angst? Hell no. It was boys. Always boys.) I found myself writing poetry most consistently in college, where I signed up for workshops and eventually applied to graduate school. Here, in the development of my writing-self, I see a straight and upward track: one without breaks, one with determinism and curiosity at its foundation.
My path to Jewish adulthood, by contrast, fragmented just as my poetry-self started to form most coherently. In high school, I watched during confirmation class as our synagogue’s new rabbi placed his hand on a student’s leg, above the knee, as she answered a question he’d posed about the midrash. In the confirmation ceremony of the class above mine, I watched that same hand travel underneath the long hair of a confirmee to her bare shoulders, in front of a full congregation, just as this student readied to embrace the presence of God in her adult life. As a grown woman, I now understand these abuses were the fault of this man, from whom I thankfully only endured a few too-long hugs and a grazed arm or two during class; at the time, however, I blamed this betrayal on God. I left the synagogue, ceased my confirmation training mid-stream, and spent years without stepping foot in another place of worship. I felt radically and suddenly secularized. Hearing, a year later, that this rabbi left our community for good—after more accusations came to light—did nothing for my severed faith.
In rebuilding this broken path during college, I found the only tool that worked was poetry. Once I started writing about Judaism, about my family’s stories, I felt Jewish again— if not dogmatically, at least historically. I felt connected, originated. I remembered the old stories suddenly and all at once—as one might realize, hearing the first strands of a song play from a speaker, that she already knows the words. Sometimes, as I wrote assignments for my college workshops, I’d open the Tanakh for reference and see, once again, the Hebrew script that I’d slowly learned how to read as a child. I read these stories in new contexts; I allowed myself to question what I read, to confront my lost faith and, instead of coaxing it back, I wrote the lost and (maybe) found together.
My first book, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards (from which the accompanying poems come), works to place the Old Testament God of Men in high-friction contexts and reconsiders some of the liturgy’s arguments about the role of women in Judaism. The poems tell a sort-of-true version of my family history and track that history to the present day: to me, the poems’ speaker, a sort-of-me. I wrote this collection over about five years, beginning with this sort-of-conversion/sort-of-return I experienced to Judaism while in college, and later in graduate school. The collection remembers the angry heat of abuse, of a wrong-placed hand—because forgetting, the Old Testament God tells us, is a lie—but they also remember the warm peace of a childhood spent watching my mother braid challah, spent singing the minor-key lilt and lull of Hebrew prayers.
Even though I’m no longer explicitly writing poems about faith or God or Judaism, having turned to other subjects, I can still sense the weight I felt in my early childhood returning to my shoulders, can feel it remaining. I can tell it’s a Jewish weight because it feels like the weight of history.
Eating Animals Without Faces
by Rachel Mennies
The Kashrut teaches us: eat only from what we can stare
straight in the eye, mix it with nothing, feel its throat between two prayerful
hands. What we hide from is evil: boiled alive, shell-entombed
and silent. The mussel, bland and fat as a tongue—or the scallop, the clam,
the conch, storied for its powers of arousal. All the ocean flotsam
of the world, culled onto the sand in giant purges, the sea prepared
to answer our strange urges, all sorts of basal hungers. What we seek
alone at night stays hungry, always hungry, your chest
against my back, rocking like a lost boat in a storm. Your face
roots at the nape of my neck, all animal, impossible to see.
Reprinted by permissions of author, editors, and publisher, the essay “Writing the God of Women” first appeared in Poets on Growth: An Anthology of Poetry and Craft, edited by Peter LaBerg and Talin Tahajian (Math Paper Press, 2015). The poem “Eating Animals Without Faces” is collected in The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards by Rachel Mennies (Texas Tech University Press, 2014).
Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, winner of the 2013 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry, and the chapbook No Silence in the Fields. Her poetry has appeared in Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, Black Warrior Review, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, and elsewhere, and has been reprinted at Poetry Daily. Since 2015, Mennies serves as the series editor of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry at Texas Tech University Press. She teaches writing at Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of AGNI’s editorial staff.