Jerome Rothenberg: From 'Four Books' (in progress): 'A Book of Gods'

[What follows as a kind of Christmas gift is a work I prepared for a conference on “God and Grace” in London sponsored by Cambridge and Notre Dame Universities and that I later presented at this year’s meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies in San Diego. As such, what I’m bringing together (collaging in effect) is a short essay “On God” and one of four “books” from a work in progress that assembles fragments from older poems of mine (plus a newly written coda) in which the key word “god” appears: a sign of my own dis/belief while at the same time an acknowledgement that I find the idea-of-God inescapable if too often deplorable in the only world we know. It is also, more than I ever thought, the starting point for much of what I write. The other three key words in the series of four “books” are shadows, death, and dreams.]


On God


“Eternity is in love with the productions of time,” wrote William Blake, who was our first great poet of the here and now. It is in time that I engage myself, and it is to discover or create the sense of a life that can energize the common world we share. In that energizing — that first, deceptively simple, act of poesis — something strange happens, whether to the world at large or to our sense of it. Remaining here-and-now, the world begins to lure us with a feeling, an intuition, of what the poet Robert Kelly speaks of as the not-here/not-now. Poetry, like religion, has been filled with such extraordinary manifestations (“coincidence, chance, odd happenings, large rocks, hailstorms, talking animals, two-headed cows,” and so on), but for those of us for whom poetry in some sense takes religion’s place (albeit a religion without assurances or comforts), they aren’t bound or fixed but open-ended, different (we would like to think) each time we go at them.


If this implies a yearning for what the Surrealists, say, called the “marvelous” and “wonderful,” I would be careful not to play down the risks involved — the dark side of the picture. “The world is charg’d with the grandeur of God,” begins the great sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, not as an image of transcendence but of immanence. I respond still to what he writes, but I can’t speak of God without a sense too of negation and rejection. For after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the line comes back to me distorted: “The world is charged with the terror of God,” it says.


Here I report my intuition, but it is an intuition curiously reinforced by a form of hermeneutic numerology from the tradition of Jewish kabbala. There, since every letter of the Hebrew alphabet was also a number, words whose letters added up to the same sum were treated as being in significant relation to each other. This was used, not surprisingly, to substantiate accepted “truths,” though there were times when the system (called gematria from the Greek) was used by the heretical and the heterodox to call the others into question. In following that system, then, I found that the letters in the Hebrew god-name aleph-lamed-vav-hey (eloha) add up numerically (= 42) to the Hebrew word bet-hey-lamed-hey (behalah), “terror, panic, alarm.” That they also add up to kvodi (“my glory”) only intensifies the problematic. In short, a way of making poetry. So, take it any way you choose. Where God breaks into what I write or think, it is the terror that admits him.





Here where god is light

a brown globe

hangs above

a burning hell.

Eyes turn right.

Hieronymus (my namesake)

let me lift this picture

from your hands.

I cherish walking in your circles.

Do you think the light is wet?

Forget it little father

& go home.

Return the keys to management.

When someone asks

if you believe in god

turn cautious.

There are now angels everywhere.

Never look back. 



God of the universe


you issue from my mouth.

I watch you dying.

Muscles like flowers gather

at your throat.

You shake a wrist at me.

Your watchband comes apart

& freezes.

I can see you with a babe

propped on your lap

or else a lamb.

Old man with blisters

working against time

you plunge a knife

into my book.

The babe limp as a doll

tilts forward




When we do the one plus two

the light sparks up

inside its box

& what we take from it

is an adjustment.

Here I force the water through

to flush their voices.

I make a hole down which

a foot slides

severed from its shoe.

I blow the air away

until the mirror

shows me your other face.

I call the gods to witness

& when they do

I let them die.



I believe in the magic of god                         (J. de Lima)

& in fire. Somebody

dangles a key on the steps.

From a hole in my chest

eyes stare out.

I run into a circle

of friends

little men with pale lips

& soft fingers.

I signal new forms of expression.

The way sand shapes hills

& water shapes fountains.

I am in their hands completely

helpless as a babe

unless the babe command the world

sending a stream of


back to earth.



I run from shadows

to avoid old people

maddened by God.

I follow animals

whose eyes at night

mirror my face.

Seeing myself asleep
I touch my arm.
I celebrate
new forms of sex.
I am frantic
knowing that nobody
has a way out
or a face
more marked than
I was not
born live
.                                                 (J. Holzer)



I set loose stones

in motion

one atop

the next.

I wonder

why one thief



The mist of morning

makes the scene

look blue.

From sleep I beckon.

While you stand in place

I race ahead.

I call on history

the way some call

on God.

What was begun

in anger

now brings peace.



i is a womb

a belly

something stolen

heart & hand.

i eats

& will be eaten.

i is a habitation.

i is go & good.

i is a power.

i is to God

a question.

i is willing.

i is i-am

but stands confused.

i is a name for ice.

i is an end.



I kiss every

phallus                                                (Takahashi M.)

hoping to find


I draw a needle

through my flesh

& holler.

When the clocks run down

I meet my true love.

Someone sits here

in the dark

& cuts her toenails.

The bride of Hitler

is she not

a happy dear?

I let her ride me

like a dog.



I parade for God.

I pull a tree out by the roots

uncovering a mountain.

I roll a truck

over a trail of tears

then land it in

a chuckhole.

You are near to me

& hear

the blood course through

my veins.

I raise a post & force it

deep into the soil.

There is a smell like tar

that swells my throat

a cavalcade of men at work

& grunting.




I kicked a stone &

heard the voice

of God. 

The pain ran

from my leg

to where

the body splits.

I called my fingers


The soggy smell of dirt,

the open sores,

gave little comfort.

I had kept my steps

abreast of theirs,

then turned &

cantered, closer

to their lights

in frozen motion.



I dwell among you &

I dish out dreams.

I am a little god

who brays

on impulse.

Do not hesitate to call.

Your smallest wish

is sacred to me.

Sacred too is how

I ride you, spurs

into your sides.

We have no mothers

only cows

no fathers but the wind.



Better for the mind

to empty out

in dreams,

the way a body

falls, thrown

from a passing train,


They hold a plate

between them, on its rim

a graven message:

God Is Pain.



What I sniff

is eglantine

the vapors of

which god?

I dine & rest

no closer to the truth

than yesterday.

The table sags

under the burden of

a living heart.

Birds drown in flight.

I make a replica

& stitch it

to my chest.

I stare into the god’s

eyes & see only

flecks of light.



I am that I am

the god trills. 

(He is no more a god

than I or you.)

We see his little boats

ride to the shore

& watch our fathers

like our children

muscle through the waves.

There is a cry

like anybody’s

in my throat.

There is a crowd

that fails to see

how our flesh flakes off. 

All eyes discern me

where I fall.



coda for two voices to A BOOK OF gods


The grace of god

half blinds me,

half still alive,

& cries

seeing the days foretold,

the book before us,

open shut & done.


I will live on what

the god lives,

opening my mouth

to take it in

& shitting words.

The victims lie

beside me.


A deeper image

leaves the world behind,

still deeper

where time ends

& yet another universe


absent all seeing.


Is the grace

a story told

or only whispered,

hard to know

here where the bodies

wait   the night

draws nigh?


The cruelty of god

is better known,

the brutal monarchy

against whose rule

we raise a new


sufferance left behind.


Leaving the mind

a thankful blank

privileged to escape

the blasts of privilege,

we flaunt our awkwardness

the little we have to show

tackling the void