Christine Meilicke, 'Burrowing In, Digging Out': Digging out Rose Drachler

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Rose Drachler’s virtual disappearance in death is one of those inevitable but disturbing realities that confronts a number of heroic & gifted artists. Her presence in her final years, as Christine Meilicke testifies, was important for many of us — not only the Jewish poets among us, as stressed by Meilicke, but many others as well. John Ashbery wrote of her: “Rose Drachler’s poems are strong and sweet, firm and quirky, but this oddness soon comes to be perceived by the reader as a new canon.” And my own assessment in a preface to her posthumous collected poems is one from which I wouldn’t back away, even now, a quarter of a century past her death: “Her book — like all poem-books since Whitman brought the message home — is the life, the song of herself created in the work. ‘My own,’ she says, ‘I do not conceal / Or deny what I am’: a Jewish woman into her late 60s: who has been (for how long?) like those secret wise men in each generation, one of the thirty-six poets whose work stays hidden in the world.” Several of her poems will reappear shortly on Poems and Poetics, while the full text of  Burrowing In, Digging Out can still be found on Karl Young’s Light & Dust website by clicking here. Christine Meilicke’s assessment follows, reposted from the Blogger version of Poems and Poetics, February 1, 2010. (J.R.)]

“Do you have any books by Rose Drachler?” I ask the book dealer in a New York second-hand bookshop that is known for its immense collection. “Rose what?” “Drachler.” “Never heard of her.” Nevertheless, I go to the bookshelf and scrutinize all poetry under the rubric “D.” Nothing there. Suddenly I notice a book behind the row. There is more! I move the first row only to find what I was looking for — The Collected Poems of Rose Drachler besides a number of other forgotten books.

For most Jewish poets, the name Rose Drachler does not ring a bell. In literature circles, she was probably never known except by a small group of avant-garde poets and writers in the ’70s and ’80s, such as, Charles Doria, Jackson Mac Low, David Meltzer, Charlie Morrow, Rochelle Ratner, Armand Schwerner Diane and Jerome Rothenberg, as well as John Yau and John Ashbery. They encouraged her writing and published it wherever they could.

Drachler wrote in a variety of styles that demonstrate her awareness of innovative, contemporary poetry. Some of her poems are composed in a prose style, while others are lyrical (in fact, they are reminiscent of Rilke or Yeats). Some poems appropriate Jewish texts, while others deal with purely personal subjects. Certainly, the poet’s far-ranging experimentation deserves attention.

I first saw a poem by Drachler in Rothenberg’s anthology A Big Jewish Book. It was a very weird poem about ritual counting:

The counting made
The corners
Of the building

One and one
Two and one

I have never forgotten the strangeness of this piece and found it repeated over and over again when I read her work. Drachler’s poems are lucid on the surface, but complex and opaque if one really tries to comprehend them. The poet pays a lot of attention to detail and makes use of an excruciatingly precise language. To invoke the specificity of her materials, she takes particular care to name plants, animals, and places correctly. Whether she writes about ritual prescriptions or about her garden, she never becomes vague. Yet she is always mysterious:

Touched I ooze
Sticky, I dry rubbery
A nuisance, exposed to air

As sowthistle, Brimstone-wart
Sunspurge, North American scelpius
Videlicet milkweed

To appreciate these poems on plants and animals, we need to feel with them. We need to “feel ourselves into” an old cat, an inchworm, a llama, a dog, a shark, an oak tree woodbine, or shrubbery, as they evoke emotions or symbolize certain states of being. Imagine, for instance, the “Llama:”

It looks far along its nose but sees best
Does not appreciate companionship other
Than llamas.

Perhaps the serenity of Drachler’s poems results from such introspection and her highly reflective character. In his preface to The Collected Poems, Rothenberg calls her “a genuine kabbalist: a poet whose work is totally comprehensible — & totally mysterious.” It was the mystical side of her poetry that fascinated a group of young American-Jewish poets who were deeply involved with kabbalah and with making their own canon of Jewish writing.

Surprisingly, Drachler only began to publish poetry when she was in her sixties. Her first publisher was a young poet — David Meltzer, the editor of the kabbalistic magazine Tree and publisher of Tree Books. Drachler’s first books were two chapbooks, Burrowing In, Digging Out (1974) and The Choice (1977).

To Meltzer and his friends, Drachler personified a riddle full of contradictions: On the one hand, Drachler was an orthodox woman steeped in tradition (her father was a rabbi), on the other, she was an innovative poet open to new thoughts. Besides poetry, she read philosophical and historical literature as well as literary criticism. Her unconventional and original thinking is revealed in her correspondence with her peers as well as in her diary. The following passage from her journal demonstrates the breath and depth of her reflections. Drachler writes about her difficulties in gaining insight from the torah service and then goes on to think about the role of inspiration:

Sometimes a passage will glow up new and sharp, jump out of the run of loaded, time-filling custom. Even so there is a good, calm feeling of accomplishment, even on the least inspired Saturday. Inspired! Breath, full of breath. When a passage is strongly felt I perceive a change in my breathing. I breathe more shallowly and much less. [...] When I used to come to the unwanted and premature ending of one of my pregnancies, after a number of such occurrences, I learned how, by slow deep breathing, I could help the inevitable [...] Breathing, too, is related to orgasm. Incorrect breathing can impede its oncoming. In certain societies where the focus is on these natural accomplishments it may be that instruction in breath-control is part of the secret learning of adolescents.

Her interest in anthropology and archeology connects Drachler with the Jewish poets of the ethnopoetics movement. Their common goal was to try to find meaning by forging a link with the past. Drachler finds continuity by writing poems on natural history as well as prehistoric and archaic themes. But she also dwells on her own ancestral history — the history of the Jews from biblical times onwards. Her poetic imagination is captured by midrashim about the patriarchs and prophets. Other poems deal with the biblical history of the temple, and the captivity, exile, and return of the Israelites as well as the coming of the messiah. To avoid sentimentality, Drachler undercuts the solemnity of her subjects with fantastic images: she envisions the messiah wearing “an Italian silk / suit cut in the latest mode / and drive a fine, white sports.”

However, other poems are permeated by a sense of melancholy and a feeling of loss, for the temple is no longer there. The past of the Jewish people needs to be consciously repossessed — through prayer, ritual, and meditation. Thus, Drachler tries to come to terms with the modern condition: “We cannot see that wall [of the temple] / Those curtains, that time.” Here Drachler’s consciousness meets with that of her young Jewish supporters, who likewise attempt to reappropriate Jewish tradition, yet often in a much less observant way. In an unpublished letter to Rothenberg, Drachler suggests to the Jewish avant-garde poet that he should translate “the impossible, stuffy, Latinate translations in the Siddur” into strong contemporary poetry.

Meanwhile, Drachler continued to write her own liturgical poetry. In these Jewish poems, she meditates on the texts of the Jewish prayer book or the weekly torah portion; she ponders the sacred and anthropological significance of ancient sacrificial and purification rituals. Their purpose is to invoke a sense of the sacred and the numinous. Several poems conclude with a scene of deep awe, with “[h]alf a shudder.” They summon the God of Hiob and the Psalms: “The blast of His nostrils breaks the windows of the sky / He sends hail, snow, vapors, stormy winds obeying His word.”

Incidentally, Drachler perfectly fulfills Cynthia Ozick’s requirements for an American Jewish literature as voiced in her essay “Toward a New Yiddish”: “[Liturgical literature] is meant not to have only a private voice. Liturgy has a choral voice, a communal voice: the echo of the voice of the Lord of History. Poetry shuns judgment and memory and seizes the moment.” Ozick’s definition of Jewish literature in terms of liturgy may be criticized for being too narrow, but it certainly fits Drachler’s work, which strives to transcend the confines of the poet’s individual life by merging her into the chain of tradition.

Many of Drachler’s poems reveal that as an observant Jew, she feels a sense of duty toward the God of Israel. Yet this loyalty is threatened by the experience of history, especially the Holocaust. Drachler elaborates a story by Emmanuel Levinas in her powerful poem “We Love Him Absent.” The sardonic tone of this piece expresses the persistence of faith. The grandmother — a woman! — battles with God, but continues to believe in justice; she strives to live a just life, even if God himself seems unjust:

She scrubs away suffering sent by a veiled and
distant God. She renounces all beneficial manifestations.
God does not triumph except as tidiness.

That is her conscience, to bring order from chaos.
She is Jewish because that is what she insists on being
a daily follower of order. The suffering of the just for
justice makes her Jewish. God does not love her.
She loves God. There is no tenderness here.
They are not equals. There is no sentimentality.

That strain of defiance against God makes Drachler’s poetry impressive and memorable.  Rebellion and doubt, even bitterness, are balanced out by faith, obedience, and acceptance. Meltzer comments [in an email correspondence]: “The ‘control’ in her poetry was the ambix for her deep ‘out of control’ knowing.”

Some of these contradictions and paradoxes vouch for Drachler’s appeal to the poets of the Jewish counterculture, who published in Meltzer’s journal Tree. No simple affirmations. Nevertheless, she was a natural kabbalist and a feminist, who applied her visonary imagination to ancient archetypes and symbols. Many of her poems portray the feeling of being overwhelmed by some spiritual or natural power — by God, by inspiration, by strong passions, or by water — waves, rain, and tears: “rising and swelling / we drown to be born.” Drachler’s poems fuse the spiritual and the sensuous:

In the tunnel
Light is haloed
Sound dissolved
The skin of separation
Is softened

Thought approaches
Airy and bright
Soft but pervasive
It penetrates rock

Reading Drachler’s poems is like meditating. Each poem deserves attention and elaboration; each poem can be read over and over again. Drachler reveals and conceals at the same time. In fact, concealment and obscurity run through her life. The poet and her husband, the book artist Jacob Drachler, lived a quiet and withdrawn life in a gated community (Seagate in Brooklyn). Drachler regularly went to synagogue, but she did not really belong to any local literary scene and often felt isolated. Out of this loneliness, Drachler created poems and shared them with young poets who admired her poetry and her wisdom. Thus Rothenberg writes in the preface to her poems: “The voice is quiet, not insistent, yet the poet’s wildness sounds beneath it.” It was that wildness and passion that enabled Drachler to have close friendships with poets twenty or thirty years her juniors.

Despite Meltzer’s sustained endeavors to familiarize the poetry world with Drachler’s work, she has been almost completely forgotten. This is surprising as the quality of her writing surpasses much of the poetry featured in Jewish journals and anthologies today. Was it Drachler’s pious modesty (tsni’ut in Hebrew) and her tendency toward self-deprecation that prevented her from advancing her own work? Or was this oversight motivated by the fact that she associated with the noncanonized avant-garde?

For the small group of admirers who continue to cite her as influential on their own writing, she represented a “poet’s poet.” Her marginality appealed to the poets of the Jewish counterculture. When Drachler died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 71, she was greatly missed by everyone who knew her. The Collected Poems were published one year later as a kind of last tribute to her. However, neither this assemblage of poems nor the fact that she briefly studied with John Ashbery, who thought highly of her writing, seems to have sufficed to popularize her poetry. Drachler envisioned herself in an image that still is an apt description of a role in Jewish literary culture: “In the sea, far out. I am alone with a gull.”