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Menashe

I met Samuel Menashe a cold night of November 2003 in New York City. First, I was struck by the man’s charisma. There he was at the podium: tall and thin, with his long, gray hair, slowly reading his poetry with a melodious, deep, warm voice, mixing up humor with the wisdom of the person who has gone through intense life experiences. Then his poetry: it was magnificent, crystalline. I listened in awe trapped by the magic of his words. The purity and conciseness of every line was just astonishing. Each poem was a riddle that, once read, stayed floating in the air for the longest time, keeping the audience in profound silence.

I am the man / Whose name is mud / But what’s in a name / To shame one who knows / Mud does not stain / Clay he’s made of / Dust Adam became / The dust he was / Was he his name (“Adam Means Earth”)

After the reading I went talk to him. He treated me with kindness: Menashe was, on top of a great poet, a sweet and thoughtful old man. We spoke for a while. I mentioned the possibility of translating his poems. When he knew of my European roots, he spoke with nostalgia of his travels through Mediterranean Europe –Italy, Spain; the time spent in Paris completing his doctorate after serving in the U.S. Army infantry during World War II, a journey that left traces in his poetry, both in figurative and metaphorical terms.

Do no scrutinize /  A secret wound / Avert your eyes / Nothing’s to be done /         Where darkness lie / No light can come (“Warrior Wisdom”)

Menashe gave me his phone number, his address in Thompson Street in Manhattan. “Came visit me some time,” he said with his melodious, gentle voice. I said I would, of course. For Menashe had made a deep impact on me for some reason. I worked for several months in translating many of his poems into French and Spanish. I even made one of his poems a sort of secret anthem of my inner self.

At the edge / Of a world / Beyond my eyes / Beautiful / I know exile /  Is always /  Green with hope /  The river / We cannot cross / Flows forever (“Promised Land”)

At one point, I was ready to visit Menashe and share with him my work, some of which had been sent for publication overseas. Yet I never did. For one, I felt stupid calling the man out of the blue, months after our meeting: “And you are… who??!!” It was also, I think, the feeling of being with him kind of in the presence of greatness, and the embarrassment of measuring my work to his original poetry. All that stopped me: petty reasons, pitiful thinking. By 2005, I abandoned my work on Menashe’s poetry. My interests had led me then to other texts and academic pursuits.

Bones / Are mortar / For your wall / Jerusalem / Dust / Upholds / Your street          (“My Mother’s Grave”)

Menashe died August 22nd 2011—three years ago, almost to the day. I am not prone to sentimentalism and what-ifs, but I do regret deeply not getting to know Menashe. I wish I had gone visit him. I feel I missed the chance to (maybe) become friends with a fantastic poet and a great human being—a sacred combination you can scarcely find in humanity today. His poetry, though, I keep reading on and on. Some of his lines I find often crossing my mind now and then:

Pity us / By the sea / On the sands / So briefly

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