BEGGARS AT THE WALL by ROCHELLE RATNERJULIE R. ENSZER Reviews
Beggars at the Wall by Rochelle Ratner
(IKON, New York, 2005)
She Speaks of It:
Ratner opens Beggars at the Wall with the poem, “Trying to Speak of It.” It begins,
Israel is marrow in bone,
eats away at you
from the inside
just like her olive trees
hollowing themselves in mourning
now that the Temple’s gone. . . .
It ends, “like all the other trees, I keep my fears inside.” I’d like to keep my fears inside, but they come spilling out at moments like this. Moments when Israel is at war. I can’t write this review dispassionately amid the current crisis (which is to say, war) that is raging right now between Israel and Lebanon, amid the conflict that continues between Israel and Palestine. I cannot pretend that the world is the same as when I first read the book five weeks ago. I cannot pretend that this book is not infused with the seeds of this war. I cannot pretend that these poems feel more urgent and more vital today as they are infused with many of the views and concerns that I, an American Jew, have at this moment. It is one of the great strengths of this book, I believe, that I feel such a passionate engagement with it.
I feel like the beggar, about which Ratner writes in the poem that gives this collection its title, “They are not allowed here.” Who is allowed here? Who is allowed at the wall? Who is allowed in Israel? Ratner’s book is about that struggle: the struggle between who is in and who is out; the struggle between Israeli and Palestinian; the struggle between American Jews and Israeli Jews; the struggle between men and women; the struggle between tourists and residents. She tells us in an early poem in the collection,
I can only do
what feels right to me,
mixing tradition with tradition
as Jerusalem herself does.
Ultimately, that is what Ratner does in this book, mixes tradition and discerns what feels right.
Beggars at the Wall is divided into four sections titled consecutively: One Direction Only, Relations, The Legs of Those Around Me, and Perspective. The text is accented throughout with photographs by Ratner from her travels.
The poems of this collection are strongest when Ratner exposes her struggles through relationships as in the poem, “Rabbi Marc,” where she reveals, “he takes pictures/of the Chagall windows,/though they’ve asked us not to./On these things, Torah takes no stand.” Equally strong are the poems where Ratner uses synecdoche with items specific to Israel, such as the menorahs in “Sabbath in Jerusalem” where Ratner writes, “they are wrought iron, heavy,/but I know I must bring light home/before I’ll believe in it.” The strongest poems of this book are in the final section, Perspective. Here Ratner connects her experiences in Israel with her life in the United States and experiences in her family. Each poem in this section sings with great emotional depth and complexity.
Although the urgency of this book increased while the current situation with Israel and her neighbors spiraled into war, Beggars at the Wall is not a book for a particular historical moment. It is a book by an accomplished poet that engages intensely with what it means to be a Jew in the United States and what it means to be an American Jew visiting Israel. Through that intense engagement, Ratner’s poems emerge transcendent and sublime.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.