I won’t do it anymore. I won’t call Robert Whitehill-Bashan “the Hebrew poet from Texas.” Yes, he did grow up in Texas in an assimilated Jewish family, and his willful and solitary acquisition of Hebrew, beginning in his teens, is something of a literary miracle. And, yes, he is the one major American-born, American-residing Hebrew poet who is still active, publishing in cutting-edge literary journals and major newspapers in Israel while living in the United States. But his latest collection, Steps behorim shehorim (Tap Dancing Through Black Holes [Hakibuts Hame’uhad, 2014]), his fourth to date, should establish him once and for all as a fascinating and fertile poet, not reducible to the improbability of his origins. He is an American poet and a Hebrew poet, and his verse is a dark delight.
That said, the new collection does take us back to the Lubbock, Texas of the poet’s childhood and subsequent nightmares. It is not a trip for the faint-hearted.
In a rented Dodge Dart: a journey to the cursed place,
On the radio, requests for songs, Mexican tunes, country music,
And on the talk station Dr. Laura eats her callers alive for four hours straight.
Hanging on a barbed wire fence stuck in the sand
A human skull with a sticker stuck on the forehead
I ♥ LUBBOCK
(“Lubbock mefaseket et raglehah”)
The city brochure from the 1960s:
In Lubbock, Texas we have it all!
Rodeos with cowboys,
(“Ani hai begramafon ha’oved beyadit manuela”)
Alternating between free verse poems and rhymed quatrains, Whitehill-Bashan goes farther into the confessional realm than in his three previous collections, making explicit the traumas that lurked in the shadows of his earlier books. His parents were veritable monsters (“This family is a mental institution, / a clinical laboratory for testing the applicability of the DSM-IV psychiatric manual”), and he was sexually abused by his father, a horror he renders in rhyme.
And yet this is not a wallowing in the past, but a steady, sardonic, often darkly humorous confrontation with it. And the journey into hell leads out the other side to the sweetness of the present, and the poet’s life after Lubbock.
I sprawl on the grass in the front yard
and write poems that will not be read
in a language of which I can’t be cured.
My kids come up behind me and climb on my shoulders,
jump on my stomach.
We all laugh, roll in the leaves.
(“Shnot or misham ve’adayin ba’oto makom”)
The poet cannot entirely leave the past behind (“I’m light years from there, yet still / in the place from which I fled”) but the Hebrew language, and the love of his wife and children, have saved his soul more ably than the megachurches of Texas might have done.
Steps concludes with a group of eight poems inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper. Many writers—Joyce Carol Oates, John Hollander, and others—have paid homage to Hopper in verse. Whitehill-Bashan makes the paintings part of his own surreal dreamscapes and chains of associations. Hopper’s “Summer Evening” becomes in one poem, borrowing from the Talmud and Plato, an emblem for the Edenic male and female just before their tragic severing.
We are the primal Adam, female on one side, male on the other,
Stuck into silence and thrown into opposition,
Each of us gazing at our separate, private eternities,
In the wee hours before the betrayal,
The cunning serpent still abstract and elsewhere,
Both of us still naked.
(“Erev ehad bakayits”)
And in a poem that meditates on Hopper’s “Cape Cod Morning,” Whitehill-Bashan, with a lifetime of practice, reveals the apocalyptic smoldering within the mundane.
One day the grass will go up in flame,
And the plastic skies will melt upon her.
What will she do then?
The living room and bedroom shutters will be open,
The wood siding forever white,
And she will be tap dancing through black holes,
And the shadows of the forest will move back and forth like dental floss.
(“Boker biktsei haya’ar”)
(All translations mine.)