by Burt Kimmelman
The poetry of Enid Dame (1943-2003) is well known in certain circles of readers and writers; her work has been prized among feminists, and among people involved in Jewish cultural studies and Scriptural studies. For more than twenty years she co-published, along with her husband the poet Donald Lev, the literary tabloid Home Planet News, and she enjoyed an avid following among poets and writers who published there. She and Lev lived in New York City, where they organized countless readings, and near Woodstock in upstate New York, from where Home Planet News emanated. Late in her life, having lost their apartment in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, she and Lev moved to New Jersey, where she taught for many years at Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Along with being a poet and publisher, Dame was a serious scholar of ancient Jewish texts. A great deal of her mature poetry delves into them and comes away from that delving with startling lyrics that both provide insight into Jewish roots and stake out a feminist position within the otherwise misogynistic ancient Jewish impulse. She developed a form of poetry that she called a modern-day midrash—themidrash being a comparative interpretation of Scripture. As Tsaurah Litzky has said, Dame “would often visit ancient biblical figures, and bring them breathing, vibrant, into modern life.” More than this, Dame “wrote about being a woman and being a Jew embracing a religion that does not celebrate woman as thinker.”
In this light consider what Dame does with the character of Lilith, who Jewish folklore holds to have been Adam’s first wife; Lilith refused to obey Adam and therefore was banished from the Garden of Eden. Dame fleshes her out, portraying her as a bold, idiosyncratic, and full-fledged woman with a resonant voice. One of Dame’s books, titled Lilith and Her Demons, begins with a poem in the voice of Lilith:
kicked myself out of paradise
left a hole in the morning
no note no goodbye
In these and the lines that follow, Lilith is palpable and strongly self-determined, and possibly has little patience with the doctrinaire. And yet, as Madeline Tiger has commented, “Dame’s argument with God was the gentlest we ever knew.” Implied in this remark is the idea that Dame was interested in pointing out a fundamental problem in a culture that holds little value for women; yet Dame was a loving critic, albeit uncompromising. “Lilith” ends:
I work in New Jersey
take art lessons
live with a cabdriver
he says: baby
what I like about you
is your sense of humor
I cry in the bathroom
and the man and the god
I couldn’t live with
Lilith in Dame’s hands is not a figure of diatribe; rather, she is a sensitive and strong woman who stands as a rebuke to a phallocentric culture and religion.
Dame’s poems concern themselves with great questions, questions that have occupied human thought for thousands of years, and have provided a basis for self-discovery. What is so remarkable about them, however, is that they are presented without any sort of pomp or pretense—even when, perhaps especially when, they address confounding Scriptural issues. There is an intimacy in Dame’s poems; they have the ring of natural speech, and they ground themselves in the objects and events of the everyday. Although her work is of great stature, it is marked by an easy eloquence. In keeping with her ability to create a language of breezy contemporaneity, Dame establishes in her poems a fundamental tension between the modern and quotidian, on the one hand, and the ancient and monumental, on the other; this tension can be the source of exquisite humor, and it is always striking, as well as shrewd and wise. What Dame’s work does that is most memorable, in any case—whether it is concerned with biblical questions or past events, or is simply focused on a present moment—is to situate and then dissect universally human concerns, concerns that are endearingly presented within a domestic context. I believe that Dame’s love of the domestic, and especially what I will call householdry, evident in “Lilith” and elsewhere, is the key to comprehending her entire poetic life and oeuvre.
Although Dame’s work exists on a human scale, it does not deny the grandeur of the divine. Her poems, therefore—comforting as they are in their air of the familiar—are disarming. Indeed, we are never quite prepared for the depth of a Dame insight, established as it is within the most natural or ordinary of circumstances. Consider, for example, “Untenanted,” a poem eulogizing Dame’s father, which takes advantage of a typical cityscape, begins in the past, and ends in a concrete, moving present. The poem opens with Dame’s persona recalling how she contemplated her father’s dead body soon after his passing, probably in a hospital:
your uninhabited body,
I kept thinking,
“The building is still there.”
I could picture it: the five-floor Bronx walk-up
where memory started, for you.
The poem moves through time and details of her father’s childhood neighborhood, only to shift to a more recent past when the speaker is a grown woman; then Dame relies on an objective correlative—comparing the ocean and her father—to suggest how the speaker saw him when they were both adults:
One wet spring,
you came to see me.
I showed you the ocean at the end of my block.
We stood and watched it, a caged animal,
shrunken, grey, talking to itself.
A police car crawled down the boardwalk,
rain-battered, slow as an insect.
“The city is dying,” you said.
There is a lingering, unavoidable sadness here, as the daughter contemplates the father in his aging. And there is a succinct, gritty resolution of this sadness in the poem’s closing lines:
When you were dying, in another city, I was in the next room,
on the phone, arguing with a nurse.
She didn’t believe what was happening.
And when I touched you
you felt hard, untenanted,
a brick wall
still holding in the sun.
(from Anything You Don’t See)
If nothing else, Dame is utterly clear-eyed, but she is also compassionate. And her work never strains for an idea or feeling; rather, to read Dame is to be in a conversation with someone you know, in which the ease, the friendliness, with which the conversation is carried on, puts us off our guard. In the end we may find ourselves crying out for help, to be saved, in that we have been so drawn into the speaker’s (and our own) existential plight. Such is the nature of fate, a theme underlying virtually all of Dame’s work: that it transpires without our being able to prepare for it, to turn it if even obliquely from its direction, as time unfolds.
At the heart of Dame’s understanding of fate lies her vexed relationship with her mother, which manifests in the poems’ commentary on or depictions of her, and more subtly in Dame’s depicted relationship with Lev. Dame’s poems can be very funny—most obviously in her many midrashic pieces, in which epic Scriptural issues are taken up with the greatest casualness and in the diction of modernity—just as they can be suddenly devastating in recognizing the darkness in human nature, or at times the light therein; either way they are couched in the quotidian. This writerly strategy allows us to see that what can seem distant or cerebral, usually within the Jewish textual tradition, can become immediate and inescapable. Thus it is that Dame’s descriptions of males—mates or fathers—can be read as Lev stand-ins, and very often these men are presented in juxtaposition to some mother figure.
References to mothers and motherhood abound in Dame’s poems, often in recreated Scriptural settings whose biblical aura is unavoidable, for instance in dramatic monologues like the “Lilith” section of the poem “Looking for a Mother,” which begins
I never knew my mother.
We never spoke.
I knew my father’s name
but never hers.
The grasses whisper.
The owl moans faintly.
The owl is never silent:
it creaks and hums and scratches.
Is one of these her voice?
(from Stone Shekhina)
Likewise, here is “Day 20,” a section of “Excerpts from Naamah’s Journal”:
The rain beats on the wood
like my mother’s voice pounding pounding:
Bad girl bad girl bad girl
Look at this mess! Look at your life!
You live in a sty you’ll never get clean.
Dirty girl! Dirty! Dirty!
My mother treated her bread dough
like a recalcitrant prisoner
or child something that had to be punished
her hard palm pounding pounding it down
until it yielded sweetness.
My philosophy was different!
I tried to work with the dough
as if we were partners colleagues
comrades in a pleasant enterprise.
Of course, we weren’t equals:
the bread, eventually, got eaten.
I told myself this was what it wanted.
(from Stone Shekhina)
And yet, when it comes time for Dame’s rendezvous and showdown with her actual mother, that crucial rapprochement occurs in Dame’s own, contemporaneous, unfussy kitchen. Dame confronts her mother there, and seems to forgive her for her unfair treatment, although she honors the differences between them. Dame’s speaker is smart enough to know not to deny her love for her mother in a powerful poem of tormented reconciliation called “Yahrzeit,” named after the memory candle lit on the anniversary of a family member’s death:
The yahrzeit flame
is beating its wings in a cup
on the edge of my kitchen sink.
Its stealthy gold shadow
breathing along the wall
suddenly terrifies me:
like finding a bird in my bedroom
still alive pulsating nervous,
changing the shape of the day.
No intruder is ever harmless.
And, Mother, I’ve got you cornered,
fierce memory pacing your glass cage,
houseguest with nowhere to go.
I’ll lock myself in alongside you.
Today, we’ll remind each other
of old connections, old journeys,
from muddy, sincere Indiana
to ragged-edged Brooklyn
with all its stray cats, its ecstatic
(from Anything You Don’t See)
In Lev’s volume Grief, made up of poems about Dame’s dying of cancer and aftermath, we find this uncomplicated, touching remembrance, in the title poem: “I helped you bathe, / grateful for the intimacy, / then we held hands, / we even joked . . .” (from Grief). This poem—this whole collection—is the appropriate counterpart to the letters to Lev and the poems of this period Dame wrote not long before her demise, when she had traveled to California for hyperthermia treatments in a last-ditch effort to be cured, writings Lev collected in the volume he titled Where Is the Woman. These inscriptions, these attestations, document Dame’s arrival at a stage of serenity in her relationship with her mother, if not also in her struggle with her fatal disease. Time and again, she paints a picture of domestic order, and this picture is consoling, but in these very late writings it seems Dame has achieved the ideal human connection with her husband, and thereby, through their relationship, some peace. Her poem “Missing” concludes:
This is a missing-Don letter. Here,
I count the pills myself
imagining you sitting across from me:
your voice your face your hands
opening a bottle,
breaking the stillness of the morning.
We talk of poetry or friends or shopping
over bread cheese almond butter
fresh blueberries in season.
Because food is a benediction
because sharing food is a sacrament
because shared language is a morning prayer
because I miss the tabernacle
in which our love increases,
it is difficult to eat alone
in this place of healing.
(from Where Is the Woman)
Now, compare this passage with Lev’s poem “Scene from a Marriage”:
Two tipsy piles of books
At the edge of the dresser,
Her reading glasses tucked
In between them.
On my side,
An even tipsier pile
Threatens from the night table.
(from Yesterday’s News)
A similar take on householdry can be seen in this stanza from “The Idea of a House” (another of Dame’s California poems):
The idea of a bedroom
under a slanting roof
pillows piled high bright-squared afghan
tower of books on the floor,
long nights read into mornings
waiting for a familiar tread on the stairs;
waiting to be joined.
In this poem, Dame expands Lev’s conceit, memorializing the domestic routine she shares with her husband:
The idea of two people
working in separate rooms;
one is fastening down words in wax,
one is cuttling garlic
tomatoes basil sorrel if it’s spring,
spinach if it’s winter,
building the soup
they will eat together, later
meeting at the table.
The poem concludes with the sense of her unvarnished hope:
The idea of a house
even when the house is sold
even when the lives lived there,
and newcomers move in.
They will unpack new words vegetables
They will remodel the kitchen.
They will add another chapter
to the house’s biography.
They will set up new routines
to sustain them in the shadows
we leave behind.
(from Where Is the Woman)
Overall, Dame turns to the scene of domesticity most regularly because this is what she came to prize most in her life. And in her last poems and letters, as well as in some of Lev’s poems of that period and shortly thereafter, we find the domestic—householdry—memorialized. It is within this householdry, furthermore, that Dame establishes with her mate what we can imagine to be her solving of the pain of her relationship with her mother, and we see her triumph in her relationship to Lev.
As I have suggested, Dame is known widely for the remarkable, insightful humor that holds many of her poems together. Tiger has commented that Dame “expanded the ‘story’ of our lives by moving us into history, and by bringing history forward—hilariously—into the present.” Tiger goes on to point out that “there is an ironic vein in Dame’s work—embedded in historic paradox. Laughter connects grief and survival.” All the same, what I find most important in Dame’s work is her ultimate reconciliation of a kind of argument with the world, which can take the form of a coming to terms with her mother; this repeated scenario is drawn in the sharpest of perspectives. Here, for example, is “Fruit Cellar”:
Bury your memories
like jars in a fruit cellar.
Let them mount high on the shelves.
Let them wait.
Dark jewels in their cold nests
they will keep.
Unbottle them later,
if you can find that town,
if you can find that house.
If anything is left from that time,
break in. Smash windows,
lower yourself to the bottom.
Reach for a memory. Crack one.
Take what you need.
Now hold your mother
lingeringly on your tongue.
Her fruit is still alive.
It tastes as it always did:
Heavy resonant edgy.
It makes you think of old coats
worn in another country.
Think of your mother preserving.
Think of your mother destroying.
Her stove: old companion,
turned against herself,
turned into an enemy,
that time she turned on the gas.
the oven refused to cooperate.
Thirty years later,
she didn’t need help to die.
Swallow this memory quickly.
The fruit cellar’s silence
It’s a presence,
like a woman’s disappointment
stored too long.
It can turn fruit sour,
(from Anything You Don’t See)
Still, more subtly, it is Dame’s love of the daily living in a household that tells us of this reconciling, which especially manifests in the caring descriptions of the husband in a number of poems, such as in the dramatic monologue “Eve.” Here, the speaker’s mate’s “snores are comforting / as radiator steam. / My body is / the only home / he hasn’t had to leave.”(from Stone Shekhina)
Dame’s last poems complete this picture. In the first portion of her very late poem “Returned” (presumably “returned” from California and her concluding attempt to be rid of her disease), she writes:
This is my kitchen. I am safe here.
The utensils fit themselves to my hand.
This blue-speckled pot is an old friend.
It awaits my pleasures.
The flame-red casserole with its cracked side,
its burned-black bottom;
the quirky veteran propane stove
are ready for new ventures.
Here I can drink green jasmine tea
at five AM and feel night drowse itself to daylight,
the leaves outside are rusty at their edges,
a sign of coming fall.
The radio moves from BBC to Mozart.
My mug is brightly colored:
a yellow large-eyed cat
contemplates orange fish,
while my real cat, fast and black, leaps on the table,
scraps of cobwebs in his whiskers.
No one can say he’s in the wrong place.
Everything is right here:
the garlic with its buds snuggled like buttocks,
the ripening avocado,
the battered yard-sale colander,
the square tiles left by a former owner—
I kept them as they seemed so useful,
though I seldom use them.
(from Home Planet News)
Many a person has come to realize the comforts a house, a home, and the daily routines of domesticity afford. Very few, on the other hand, have ever been able to speak eloquently in celebration of this domesticity without glorifying it through soaring rhetoric—and thereby falling short of the goal, insofar as householdry can only really be captured, arguably, in language that does not grandly proclaim its occasion. Dame’s language works magnificently but without recourse to the magnificent, even when she is involving herself in Scripture. And Dame’s poems are a graceful, gentle, and insightful critique of a culture in which daughters struggle to separate from their mothers and live with and around their husbands, finding a way to make a world of their own. The arena of their struggle is often the kitchen or the bedroom. But Dame is wise enough not to allow for disagreement to end in bitterness. Her work is supremely intelligent and lyrical, yet it is so easygoing and wryly comical that a reader might miss the depths of knowing contained in it. The title of one of her books, Anything You Don’t See, is an alert to the reader: If you do not see it in her poems then look again—it is all there, unassuming and waiting to be found. As she warns us in a poem from this collection, which describes a ride through Brooklyn in an elevated subway car, “Anything you don’t see / will come back to haunt you.”
Dame, Enid. Anything You Don’t See. Albuquerque, NM: West End Press, 1992.
_____. “Dream at the Start of a Bad Year.” Home Planet News 50 [Vol. 12, No. 4] (Spring 2004): 14.
_____. Lilith and Her Demons. Merrick, NY: Cross-Cultural Communications, 1986.
_____. “Returned.” Home Planet News 50 [Vol. 12, No. 4] (Spring 2004): 13.
_____. Stone Shekhina. East Hampton, NY: Three Mile Harbor, 2002.
_____. Where is the Woman?: Letters and Poems from California, July & August 2003. New York: Shivastan Publishing,
Lev, Donald. Grief: Poems by Donald Lev. Staten Island, NY: Bardpress / Ten Penny Players, 2006.
_____. Yesterday’s News: Poems 1998-2001. Claryville, NY: Red Hill OUTLOUDBOOKS, 2002.
Litzky, Tsaurah. “Enid Dame 1943-2003.” The Newark Review (March 2009).
Tiger, Madeline. “Bless This Garden: A Review of Stone Shekhina, Poems by Enid Dame.” The Newark Review (March 2004), http://web.njit.edu/~newrev/enid/reviews/garden.html.