To See with Different Eyes

A Conversation: Katerina Stoykova, David Caplan, H. L. Hix

Katerina Stoykova, How God Punishes (Broadstone Books, 2017)

David Caplan, Into My Garden (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020)

HH: When I went back to re-read these two books, one thing I noticed that I hadn’t noticed before is the presence of the question.  David’s poems often pose questions (by my count, six of the first seven poems in the book, for example, include a question); in Katerina’s book the very first page of poetry identifies erasing the questions as one of the ways God punishes, and the very last page takes the form of a Q&A.  Am I overemphasizing the presence or the importance of the question in How God Punishes and Into My Garden?

DC: I think you are right: questioning is very important to the poems of Into My Garden. Many consider life in a yeshiva, an institution devoted to the study of traditional Jewish texts. The speaker of many of the poems is both like and unlike me. He struggles to understand how he might live a life faithful to the ideas he wrestles with. In this context, questioning does not violate religious belief. It is an important part of it.

Many of the books that the speaker studies, Chassidic discourses and Talmudic tractates, involve questioning and debate. In Chassidic discourses, the leader of a Chassidic sect might raise a number of questions about a seeming anomaly in a Biblical passage. The Talmud presents generations of sages debating issues that range from the technical to the theological. In the yeshiva’s study hall, partners read and translate these texts from the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish. They pose questions to each other in order to understand what they are reading. A good question, the precise, searching raising of a telling difficulty, is highly prized. I was attracted to this environment because the concerns that drive the yeshiva students struck me as profound. Why does the soul descend into this world? Why is holiness so deeply concealed?

KS: In How God Punishes the title itself could be considered a question. Each poem in the collection silently refers to the book title and offers an aspect of the answer. Those answers, however, instead of quieting the questions, create more. I see How God Punishes as a book about the ego and its universal filters that cause us to destroy ourselves. It’s a book about learning to make different decisions and learning to see with different eyes. Despite the frightening title, the book was supposed to be ironic, if not funny at times. At least I see it as such. Questioning is important, whether the questions are implicit or explicit.

HH: Various elements of what you’re saying (e.g. that yeshiva students pose questions in order to understand, that How God Punishes is about how to decide differently and see differently…) strike me as dispositional.  Your observations start a chain of associations for me.  A month or two ago I read a book, The Scientific Attitude, in which the author, Lee McIntyre, argues that science is not characterized primarily by a method, but by an attitude of caring about evidence and being willing to change one’s understanding on the basis of evidence.  And I find myself often applying James P. Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite games, games “played for the purpose of winning” and games played “for the purpose of continuing the play.”  And (of course?) Keats’s “negative capability,” the capability of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

I’m not trying to equate those ideas, with one another or with what you’ve just said, but they all seem to me related to disposition.  Both books, Into My Garden and How God Punishes, seem amenable to description as manifesting and cultivating a disposition of openness, curiosity, flexibility, and so on.

DC: Harvey, I certainly hope my poetry shows what you call “a disposition of openness, curiosity, flexibility, and so on.” At the same time, it is useful to distinguish between a poetic method/ attitude and the Torah study that the yeshiva students practice.

My first time at yeshiva, I found myself falling behind in our study of the Talmud, a challenging dialectic text written in concise, allusive rabbinic Aramaic. I organized some extra practice study to the already long day and diligently charted the argument (the various sides, issues, etc.) between the sages that we had been studying. After several days, I was finally caught up and very eager to see how the argument we had been working through would conclude. We translated a new passage in the text until I got a phrase that roughly meant, “When Elijah comes” then the section concluded. I asked my study partner what this curious phrase meant. He said that we will know the answer to the debate we had been studying when the Messiah comes. We won’t know until then.

Of course, I found that conclusion to be frustrating at the time, but it also offers an important lesson. From a traditional Jewish perspective, to study these texts is to immerse oneself in God’s will and wisdom. It also to encounter the limits of human knowledge and wisdom. There is a limit to “playfulness” and “openness.” When a student studies a Chassidic discourse and thinks he sees a problem (a contradiction, for instance), the assumption is that the student does not understand the text; the mistake is his. That is not to say the students don’t struggle with the sacred books they read. They struggle mightily with them, but they struggle to understand the complex wisdom and make it a part of their life.

The poems in Into My Garden try to combine these two modes of inquiry: the poetic and religious. To see how they might align, of course, is also to understand how they exist in tension.

HH: Aligned, because both the poetic and the religious attempt “to encounter the limits of human knowledge and wisdom”; in tension, because they differ in how they make the attempt.  Or something like that?  (I assume we’re speaking here of healthy forms of the poetic and the religious, not more debilitated forms: advertising jingles, dogmatic fundamentalisms, and such.)  To register yet one more voice in relation to our conversation, your phrase “to encounter the limits of human knowledge and wisdom” evokes for me this sentence from Simone Weil: “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.”  Poetry and religion as animated by recognition that I am more comprehended than comprehending?

KS: Reading Into My Garden, I enjoyed walking into the world of the speaker. I did encounter both the poetic and the religious and I admire very much what David has been able to do. Inhabiting this book is like spending time in a temple. Prayers, books, constant questioning of one’s own life in an attempt to lead a life closer to God. I felt these poems close to my heart, even though I encountered words and terms foreign to me. I implicitly trusted in the intergity of the speaker to lead me from one light-filled page to another.

As for How God Punishes, my hope is that each page acts as a mirror to give the reader a permission to recognize and accept aspects of their own “flawed” humanity. My hope is that the reader feels the relief of “me too”, followed by “and that’s okay”. Often we don’t want to really know ourselves, because we’re afraid of what we might find. I want to quote a line from Into My Garden here: “Don’t be afraid. You are always afraid // of the wrong thing.

HH: And that line from David’s book reminds me, Katerina, of this aphorism from your Bird on a Window Sill: “Things look different when we do not defend ourselves from them.”  Maybe both of the modes of inquiry David identifies in Into My Garden, the poetic and the religious, are breakings-down, or at least, willing suspensions, of our normal defense mechanisms?

KS: I think so. To me, faith (in anything) implies openness. Defense mechanisms are, by their nature, closing mechanisms.

DC: I agree that faith (and the incorporation of it into one’s life) requires openness: “the will to change,” to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich. Also, faith involves grappling with its limits, with doubts, struggles, misgivings and mistakes. In this sense, lyric poetry offers an attractive means to express faith (as I conceive it) since lyric poetry most powerfully expresses an argument with itself. (In the canonical demonstration of this principle, a sonnet’s sestet often turns against the opening octave’s argument.) Katerina, one aspect of your poems I admire is their doublemindedness. Beautifully lines turn against themselves, the liveliness of their lack of resolution. “The need / to endure // and the endurance / of need // have never / made peace.”

HH: What a precise and elegant characterization of that quality in the poems.  I would never have gotten to that description, but it seems exactly right as soon as you say it.  That quality of the poems is there throughout, so the passage you cite, David, makes me think of this one, in which the second instance of being “given / everything” occurs as a replacement of, rather than an addition to, the first: “everything / you’ve ever wanted // for everything / you’ve ever had.”

Katerina’s poem makes me think of Wislawa Szymborska’s “Nothing’s a Gift,” in which the speaker identifies the terms as having “to pay for myself / with my self, / give up my life for my life,” and later in the poem says, “We call the protest against this / the soul.”  And that reminds me of David’s hypothesis (introduced with an as if) about the soul in “Chassidus by Telephone”: “as if that were the reason / the soul descended into this world, / to link arms with friends and sing.”

I don’t have a conclusion or a point here.  I’m just trying to notice what I take as connections across some of the ideas and questions at play in this conversation and in Into My Garden and How God Punishes.  Because the “moments” in our conversation so far (“learning to see with different eyes,” “To see how they [poetry and religion] might align, of course, is also to understand how they exist in tension,” and so on) do seem connected to me.  In a way that invites openness, that welcomes more answers and more questions.  That enables us to have an “argument” with one another, not in the animosity-poisoned mode of contemporary political speech but after the manner of David’s description of lyric poetry as “an argument with itself.”  (Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, and the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”)  Argument with oneself as a method of openness, a breaking-down of defense mechanisms, a form of faith.

KS: Perhaps ultimately, at the most internal level any argument is an argument with one’s self? Even if we argue with others, or our own circumstances, we would have to check in with ourselves at some point. In How God Punishes there is a moment where the speaker decides to not believe in God in order to prevent embarassment upon potential discovery that God doesn’t exist. This is the opposite of openness. This is defense. Contraction of one’s life. 

HH: Another echo for me.  Your insight here, Katerina, about openness in preference to closure, expansion in preference to contraction, calls to mind for me the words that in Middlemarch George Eliot puts into the mouth of Dorothea, as her description of “a belief of my own”: “That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”  Not that poetry or religious faith as embrace of sound doctrine achieves the opening/expanding/widening, but that poetry or religious faith as argument with oneself, as checking in with oneself, sustains the disposition toward opening/expanding/widening?

Keying in that question mark recalls for me the opening of our conversation.  I hope, and I believe, that our placing question marks sometimes where a period could have been placed is not a writerly tic the three of us happen to share, but one manifestation of an attitude we share.

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