Benjamin Hollander, 1952–2016

Benjamin Hollander, August 2016, at Piccolo Forno, North Beach, San Francisco. P
Benjamin Hollander, August 2016, at Piccolo Forno, North Beach, San Francisco. Photo by Norma Cole.

Editorial note: Joshua Schuster and Steve Dickison have shared the following remembrance of Benjamin Hollander, and we are grateful for the opportunity to publish it in Jacket2.

Benjamin Hollander passed away from brain cancer on November 21, 2016. Ben — Benjamin Barry Hollander, called Barry by his family — was born in Haifa, Israel, August 26, 1952. His mother and father were both refugees from Germany. He immigrated, with his parents and his brother Gad, the younger of two older brothers, to New York City (briefly to Brooklyn, then to Jamaica, Queens) in 1958. In 1978, with his wife, Rosemary Manzo, Ben moved to San Francisco, where he lived and raised his family — and where he passed away this month. Over the past three decades, after earning a master's degree at San Francisco State University, he taught English, writing, and critical thinking primarily at Chabot College, across the Bay from San Francisco, in Hayward, California. Among other courses one he revisited at several local schools focused on Holocaust literature, extending that term to include the war on Bosnian Muslims. With David Levi Strauss, he coedited the last several issues of
Acts (including A Book of Correspondences for Jack Spicer), the literary magazine associated with New College of California and its Poetics Program of the 1980s. Although Ben had no formal affiliation with New College, a number of poets at and around the school would become his friends and collaborators.

Here are Ben’s book publications: 

Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France (editor; ACTS, 1988)
How to Read, too (Leech Books, 1992)
The Book of Who Are Was (Sun and Moon, 1997)
Levinas and the Police, Part 1 (Chax Press, 2001)
Vigilance (Beyond Baroque, 2004)
Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli (Parrhesia Press, 2004)
In the House Un-American (Clockroot Books, 2013)
Memoir American (Punctum Books, 2013)
Letters for Olson (editor; Spuyten Duyvil, 2016)
forthcoming: The Letters of Carla, the letter b., A Mystery in Poetry, With a Foreword by the Future Guardian of the Letters, and An Afterword by Benjamin Hollander (Chax Press, 2017) 

These books are filled with poems, prose, dialogues, quotes, plays, philosophical reflections, polemics, and memories. One thread that unifies all these books is that each contains correspondences — real and imagined correspondences, letters that turned into poems and then back into letter-poems. Ben thought of his poems as absorbing and being absorbed by a variety of voices, personae, friends, translators, and as-yet-unknown readers. Poetry as exchange, commentary, collaboration, communitarianism, wandering among wanderers, destining, addressing — all this in the sweetness of a formal language sent back and forth among us. Here “I” am. 

Ben always sought to bring his and others’ poetry to his conversations, to make poetry and conversation share the same table. Friends would sit with Ben in his favorite cafés in San Francisco for hours — the Italian and Central American café workers in North Beach were friends as well, and brought him as close, he said, as he could get to New York — and follow discussion with him as it flowed from course to course. Ben loved to write in these cafés, where he thrived among the sounds, smells, and floating dialogues of the world.

Ben used poetry to pursue his own sense of the contemporary as always both a little in tune and out of tune with the actual world. He enjoyed telling about how his first major book of poetry, The Book of Who Are Was, actually was published in a shorter form in French translation as Le Livre de qui sont était (Un bureau sur l’Atlantique/Éditions Créaphis, 1997) six months before the English edition appeared. That made Ben a French poet who was not a French poet, but not quite a good old American poet either. To double the irony, his poetry had appeared in Emmanuel Hocquard’s French-language anthology Tout le monde se ressemble (P.O.L., 1995) — Michael Palmer, Keith Waldrop, and Ben being the three Americans presented therein. Ben felt like the strange subject tense of his title, a person “who are was.” Those who live now, but also live in the was of now. 

With this book, Ben beckoned himself and the reader with these beautiful lines:

At one point
I would like to come in (here)

and open the book
and be opened in the book. (23)

Later in this book, one encounters Ben’s poem “Ohne Aba / Sabra” — this poem without father and without fatherland, mixing German, Hebrew, and English, is so powerful it cannot be put down. The poem speaks of the raveling and unraveling of Ben’s family history; it opens you as you open it. 

now you are not disappeared — spirit
now you are freed — smoke
now you are not freed — ruach
now you are disappeared — rauch (77)

Here “ruach” is Hebrew for “spirit” and “rauch” is German for smoke. Only through these difficult, primal ambivalent words could Ben place what was “starred with remembrance” (106): the very words of his family name.

Ben’s subsequent book of poetry, Vigilance, was based around his long poem “Levinas and the Police.” French poets, as the work appeared in France in translation, became convinced that he was writing the poème policier, a “detective poem,” a new genre unto itself. Here the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s exploration of an otherwise than being combined with the way the police could profile anyone deemed other, especially anyone marked by racial otherness. The poem opens with a kind of lure: “Without question / to be / Put into question” (40). But this ends up being a setup for the figure of “Lt.” who proceeds to put into question the mere being of others: 

Listen, Lt.

What do you Know

but Know this:




one man

“backed up against it”













Being (54)

In this long poem, the words are up against the wall. Ben wanted to think of Levinas outside the philosopher’s own intellectual comfort zone: a Levinas of the streets, who might be picked up and carded by the police. Ben understood Levinas to have presented ethics as both the exposure of the face of the other and the sense of having one’s own being ruptured or exposed by the other. “Levinas and the Police” works through such exposures, within the exposure of language. The “Lt.” encounters a number of potential suspects and indigents, and these lyrical subjects all are caught up in the gyre of being and exposing.

As he put together Vigilance, Ben also completed the remarkable, one-of-a-kind, multigenre missive Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli. This book should be carried as standard issue in the knapsack of every Israeli soldier and every Palestinian radical. The book is a plea, a guide, a tragicomedy, a madcap performance of shtick, and a heartfelt entreaty to Palestinians and Israelis to listen, understand, and offer creative space to each other. Yet Ben would not presume to proffer any simple statement of reconciliation, as if anyone was listening for it. So he began, as Israelis often do, with argumentation, only this time he lays the tracks for the argument to lead to oneself:

First Question: What do you know about the Middle East?

Second Question: What do you want to know, really?

First Answer:  James Baldwin says: “One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief” (The Fire Next Time)

Meaning, perhaps, one has to argue with one’s own. (10)

Even arguing with yourself, Ben knew, would cause a little bit of self-displacement. It might be just enough to begin to shift into conversation. Or, Ben wrote, it could end up like the old Marx Brothers skit in Duck Soup (1933), where Groucho Marx plays a head of state who, about to be introduced to a foreign ambassador, starts playing out an argument with himself. Marx imagines the ambassador might refuse his handshake, and such an insult should never go unpunished, so this means war! — before the ambassador has even stepped through the door. In the face of insistently tragic and oppositional address “on the ground,” what could one say now? Here Ben kept going with comedy and self-argument and stitched these together with other memories, anecdotes, and stories. With these, he felt, one could begin to piece together out of the fragments some rituals of truce.

First Ritual of Truce: “To imagine our words as acts: rituals of truce with which to develop trust before ‘develop[ing] argument in order to speak’” (20). At least, because one’s words are never only one’s own, such words can be shared.

Ben was not sure where exactly the words of his book might take him — that was partly the point. He knew he was already being distanced from what Israel had become: “I am with you, I am of you, and I am moving away” (14). Yet, like Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, two of his heroic antiheroes, he sought to write between the melancholies and messianisms that circled around “the Jewish question.” He summed up the book feeling that the arguments he’d heard from all sides might be both “absolutely right and absolutely wrong” (132). 

“I’m curious,” he asked, “what happens in the future when Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, exist no more as questions?”

“Be curious,” he answered, “the future always gives birth to more questions.” (131)

Ben greeted the tumult of questions and genres and personae in his own work with gusto. He dove into writing a pair of works — In the House Un-American and Memoir American — that exfoliated his sense of the tradition of being an American un-American. And he continued his conversations, in cafés and especially in polemic letters and appreciative essays he wrote in favor of an America made up of different ages, fables, and margins. He offered his own writings as more margins and fables for the next generation of readers “who are was.”

The fabulistic, in the writing Ben completed during his last year, took him into a region of heteronymic writing, entertaining and exploring the possibilities that can occur when the proper name as seriously playful ruse or mask accompanies the authors — who just maybe could be cut loose, imaginally, from those marks and modes of being and doing that identity and conditioning stamped into them — toward new kinds of works, books still to come and yet to be received. The work of the present points both to that work we inherit and to the work to come.

Ben began The Book of Who Are Was with his poem “Translations,” which opens in italics: 

What he overhears is the underbrush. What he
overhears in translation tears in this underbrush:

lemon grass or cloth, neither lemon grass nor cloth
under that music, or no one under that music by itself.

One poet that Ben so often overheard in translation was Paul Celan, to whom he devoted many essays, poems, and an edited volume he called Translating Tradition. Celan once declared that he thought of poems as like a handshake, and also like a message sent in a bottle. The poem reaches out, extends itself, is set afloat in search of a reader, but it may not know who the reader will end up being, or if indeed the poem will reach any shore at all.

We would like to put one more message in a bottle for Ben. It is a poem by Celan that Josh sent to him just before his death. Here is the poem:

I pilot you behind the world,

there you are with yourself, unflinching,


the starlings take a survey of death,

the reeds sign a warning to stone, you have


for this evening.[1

In an email correspondence, here is what Ben wrote back: Just too gorgeous, thank you.

— Joshua Schuster and Steve Dickison

1. Paul Celan, Last Poems, translated by Katherine Washburn and Margret Guillemin (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 173.

Ben Hollander on PennSound