By Martin Berman-Gorvine
Contemporary poetry on Jewish religious subjects is rare in America outside the pages of specialized Jewish publications. Thus, Peg Duthie’s delightful new collection Measured Extravagance (Upper Rubber Boot Books) is doubly welcome.
Full disclosure: Peg and I attended the University of Chicago together, and she was a regular contributor to a student poetry magazine I founded and edited. That was more than twenty years ago, and her poetic gifts have if anything expanded and deepened over time.
Measured Extravagance contains only 35 poems, which in olden times would have made it a “chapbook.” Since it is available only in e-book format, I suppose we must call it an “e-chapbook.” There are disadvantages to this format, especially for a poet who makes such artful use of line and stanza breaks as Duthie does, and I found myself printing the whole thing out for a better view of what she was up to
For example, in the seasonably appropriate “Kol Nidre,” Duthie makes her line-breaks occasions for building suspense and the dropping of small surprises:
… Sloppy work,
she tells Him. I can’t love anyone
proud of setting me up to fail.
The poem captures perfectly the ambivalence of the modern American Jew estranged from her religion and yet still tied to the tradition through ambiguous, dubious emotional bonds:
…Yet, the years
she pretended the holidays weren’t hers,
she felt like an incomplete book, like a spine
losing its glue, pages dropping away
before their time.
“Shehechianu,” titled after the prayer recited to thank God for “enabling us” to live to see a holiday or other special occasion, explores the disjuncture between religious experience and modern hyper-secularism, and whether there is any spiritual value to be found in the latter:
after its prayers
leave me more restless than at rest,
I walk past clusters of clubgoers,
of people in line for shows, for seats
in small booths and at narrow tables.
am not waiting
to be served
I am here
to be moved
by how you are holding your breath.
A minor epiphany, to be sure, and perhaps an unsatisfying one. There is more raw emotional power in the poem “In Memory Of,” where no religious comfort seems to be available to comfort the mourner:
My aunt hanged herself, but her children
told the press she’d overdosed on pills.
It was in fact pills for the boyfriend of
my then best friend…
There are cautious experiments with form and rhyme, notably in the smudged villanelle “Schrödinger’s Top Hat” (a form I have experimented with myself). Peg is a poet we must hope to hear more from.