“My father went to sleep in his skin in the sun-flushed morning, in the flatlined morning / That shoveled a pit into my 35th year spadeful by spadeful and the sky collapsed over Queens.”
So begins “Requiem,” the first poem in Mark Elber’s recently published “Headstone” (Passager Books, 2022). “Headstone” contains 30 of Elber’s poems, with two of them – “Headstone” and “The Ingathering of the Exiles” – running about a dozen pages each. The author is the winner of the 2022 Henry Morgenthau III Poetry Prize for a first book published by an author who is 70 years of age or older.
Elber is my friend and my colleague; he has been the rabbi at Temple Beth El, in Fall River, since July 1, 2013, and his wife, Shoshana, is the cantor.
It is no accident that the first two words in Elber’s collection of poems are “My father,” since one of the poet’s central conflicts is his need to grow into himself, to form his own unique identity, versus his need not to disappoint his father (the doctor), whose older son, Erwin, happens to be – surprise! – a doctor. In part II of the book’s title poem, “Headstone,” Elber writes:
“And I receive letters (from my father) filled with instruction / How to be someone I’m not / How to wend my way out of the clouds into a wood-paneled office, diplomas above my head / How to stop being ‘pathologically religious,’ / How to look in the mirror and not recognize myself / Stop writing poetry and start waxing the car.”
Elber’s ongoing struggle between his developing sense of self and the expectations of his now-deceased parents is made more burdensome by the fact that his father, Gerson, and his mother, Regina, are Holocaust survivors, both having fled eastward from the Nazi butchers in Poland into the relative safety of Soviet Russia, where they joined in the fight against Hitler’s maniacal aggressions.
Many of Elber’s poems are haunted by the Holocaust, the Shoah. While he found it difficult to speak with his father about the World War II years, the poet did manage to find ways to speak with his mother about the traumas they endured during the insanity of Nazi terror. In “My Mother’s Song,” Elber alludes, somewhat obliquely, to such conversations.
Toward the end of the lengthy “The Ingathering of the Exiles,” Elber confesses: “I am the six-word profession of faith (the Sh’ma), one for each million who died in vain.” And, similarly, Elber concludes “An Ode to Accents” with “The words of my parents / A living link to the world turned to ash by 1945.”
While it is not surprising that the shadow of the Shoah falls on many of Elber’s poems, what is surprising is that so much of his poetry is flooded with sunlight, as in “Red Walls,” where Elber, walking down a boardwalk with his young son, Lev, exults: “And I am leap-happy in my dark jeans.”
As a deeply committed Jew, as a congregational rabbi, Elber knows in his bones that we cannot permit the Holocaust to become our primary identity as Jews; he understands that Jewish history spreads a huge canvas of light and darkness over the millennia. Many of his poems have biblical echoes; two of them, “Avishag the Shunamite” and “Moses Took a Second Wife,” are contemporary takes on specific biblical passages.
I would be doing Elber a disservice if I did not comment on the laugh-out-loud qualities in some of his most engaging poems. Consider, for example, the comic absurdity, reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg, that defines the opening lines of “Resume”: “Somehow I was born, though my parents could never explain it – /
“Either I stepped off a train from Cracow or a conveyor belt in a milk processing plant in urban Queens – / … I was weaned on borsht.”
Or, laugh along with Elber at his self-parody in “The Ingathering of Exiles”: “I tried to exorcise my economic dependence by every which way but work.”
In a letter in the Jan. 16 issue of The New York Times, Julien Poirier, a published poet, wrote that “A poem is a process set in motion by a compulsion to sing in the teeth of death.”
Yes, many of Elber’s poems do arise out of his compulsion to sing in the teeth of death – most especially, in the teeth of the Shoah. And, at age 71, Elber is singing in the teeth of his own mortality.
But perhaps it is more appropriate to say that, in a broader sense, Elber’s poems are celebrations of the chain of our generations – all those who have gone before us, all of us who now are filled with the breath of life, and all of those who are yet to come.
Just as Elber begins his collection of poems with the words “My father,” it is altogether appropriate that the first words of the final stanza of the final poem, “The God of Surprises,” are “my son”: “my son must sense something imported from Poland beneath my Borough of Queens English an undertone of exile God stunned silent.”
Mark Elber’s “Headstone” is for sale at Books on the Square, 471 Angell St., Providence, or online at www.passagerbooks.com, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.