Nov 23 2022
Poetry review – AMUSING THE ANGELS: Charles Rammelkamp admires Stewart Florsheim’s skill at holding opposites in tension
While filled with the sadness of the cruelty of the Holocaust and its effect on his own family Stewart Florsheim’s Amusing the Angels is also uplifting in its vision of life as worth living. The collection opens with a sort of prelude, a revisionist consideration of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a poem called “A Breezy Time of Day.” The conventional view is that the pair is evicted in shame and guilt for having disobeyed, their heads bowed in humiliation as they embark on a life of hardship and pain. In Florsheim’s poem, however, the two are consumed with curiosity and a hunger for life and yes, for knowledge. “They will find that time is the enemy,” it’s true, and they will experience loss and sorrow, but they leave the Garden with a kind of optimism. “They will never turn back.”
Amusing the Angels is divided into three parts, all prefaced with quotations that highlight the contradictory intermixing of good and bad. Part one is prefaced by Louise Glück’s line from her Winter Recipes: “I could hear the clock ticking, presumably alluding to the passage of time while in fact annulling it.” Part two is introduced by David Diop: “God’s truth, each thing carries its opposite within.” Michael Parker’s observation at the start of the third part is even more emphatic: “Remember that the light and the dark are the same.” This paradox is at the heart of Florsheim’s poems. Nothing comes unmixed.
“A Breezy Time of Day” is an ekphrastic poem inspired by Mark Chagall’s painting, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise. Over a dozen of Florsheim’s poems are based on paintings, by artists ranging from Amedeo Modigliani and Anders Zorn to Camille Pissarro and Edouard Vuillard. They, too, depict the ambiguous nature of experience. “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” for instance, begins:
At the museum, the woman behind me remarks how much the girl looks like Scarlett Johansson and I begin to imagine that the book and movie came first, a modern-day Vermeer so taken by Scarlett that he decides to make the painting.
How like the Taoist story about Lao Tzu dreaming he is a butterfly, only to wake up and wonder if he is really a butterfly dreaming he is Lao Tzu. (Who really posed for the artist? Vermeer’s daughter Maria, or Scarlett Johansson?)
Memory and dreams blend throughout the book. The collection opens with “Narrating the Stones,” a poem that takes place in Frankfurt in 2022, at the installation of the Stolpersteine, concrete blocks, about 4 inches square, laid into the pavement in various German cities, commemorating victims of the Holocaust, among whom Florsheim counts his grandparents and uncle. The half dozen poems that follow likewise allude to the horror of the Nazi death program, including the tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis, on which his great-uncle was a passenger, the ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust that was turned away in Havana and by the United States and returned to Europe.
Other poems highlight the importance of family, as Florsheim shows his mother’s decline from ALS in “Learning to Dance,” “Mother’s Phone Book,” “Source,” “The Day After Mother Dies.” But these poems contrast with others about his daughter’s growth, the bad and the good mixing inextricably. In “My Eight-Year-Old Is Learning Cursive” he describes her excitement learning a new skill, the sense of accomplishment that infects her father as well, the words themselves
becoming art forms, some so full of life they become what they represent – a dog, a tulip, a butterfly. I watch her at her desk, her thoughts trying to keep up with the strokes
Dreams mix with memory. The poem, “Assent,” begins, “I try to surface from sleep but dreams are my quicksand.” Poems like “Prophecies,” in which his mother reappears, “Among Men” and “Hourglass,” to a name just a few feature dream-like vignettes that feel half-submerged in the speaker’s consciousness. The poem, “In a Dream” reads:
I come face-to-face with a tiger. My eyes trace the perfect stripes that lead to his eyes, black jades that contain me in their frozen center. When I blink, the dream is not over, but the tiger is gone.
How like life. Maybe next time the dream is over but the tiger remains. Maybe he will realize he is a butterfly?
Florsheim’s poems are deeply Jewish. In several poems, he invokes the Zohar, the allegorical text central to the Kabballah, the basis of the mystical Jewish traditions. “Coming to Prayer” includes an epigraph from Deuteronomy. “Diaspora,” “Tel Aviv Promenade” and “Jerusalem” are set in Israel. So is “Here I Am,” which alludes to Abraham when God commands the sacrifice of Isaac. The poem concludes:
It’s Shavuot, so there’s a drawing of Moses with a long beard, standing next to a burning bush. Moses stumbles over his words, but in the Book of Exodus he’s clear when he responds to God, Hineni, the three syllables rising from his breath, quivering.
Amusing the Angels ends where it begins in “Ushering at the San Francisco Opera.” The San Francisco Opera may not actually be the Garden of Eden, and the usher/speaker may not be Adam, but he does become self-conscious when a friend mentions having seen him naked at the community swimming pool. It’s a good-natured greeting, and everybody around chuckles; soon, all the patrons are talking about their exercise routines. “As the lights dim,” Florsheim writes, closing the curtain on this heartbreaking yet inspiring collection of poems on a scene of civilized camaraderie, the triathlete whom he has just shown to her seat stretches her arms and “listens to Carmen sing sweetly about love, / the rebellious bird that no one can tame.” The angels are surely charmed.