Off the Shelf: Powerful prose poetry

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A great deal of poetry is autobiographical. For some poets, it’s necessary to know details of their life in order to understand their work. Other poets are able to transcend their lives and write poems that are both autobiographical and universal. One such poet is Irena Klepfisz, as can be seen in her new book, “Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971-2021” (Wesleyan University Press). The poems of hers that I first read in the early 1990s remain powerful and moving, while the works from other collections and her latest poetry confirms that she deserves wider recognition. 

While her poetry does transcend her life, it is also very much rooted in real-life events, making it sometimes difficult to separate the two. The work’s short biography describes Klepfisz as “a lesbian poet, essayist, political activist, Yiddishist, and a practicing secular Jew.” She was born in 1941 in the Warsaw Ghetto to a father whose heroism was at the cost of his own life. After spending part of World War II in a Polish orphanage, she was reclaimed by her mother, with the two spending the rest of the war in hiding. After the war, they lived in Sweden before moving to the United States in 1949. The war informs Klepfisz’s work, as do the Jewish values of tikkun olam – creating a better world for everyone. That means she has worked against antisemitism, racism and homophobia, in addition to promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Poems about her father’s death and how it affected her and her mother open the book. “The Widow and the Daughter” shows how his absence is felt years later, even after the war is over and they are safely in the U.S. Klepfisz notes how thoughts of the father she never really knew haunted her, writing that “the missing one / returned at night. / The missing one / was surely / the most / important / link.” His presence came between the daughter and her mother: “he would press himself between them – / hero and betrayer / legend and deserter – / so that when they sat down to eat / they could taste his ashes.” 

Her most impressive work is a series of poems called “Bashert,” which changes the meaning of the term from one’s predestined soulmate to one’s predestined destiny. The first two in the series – “These words are dedicated to those who died” and “These words are dedicated to those who survived” – end with the word bashert, showing the role luck and chance play in our lives. The poems build in raw power and leave readers pondering the choices we make in our daily lives. The next four poems in the series look at the poet’s life from “Poland, 1944: My mother walking down a road” to “Cherry Plain, 1981: I become a keeper of accounts.” That latter phrase describes many of her poems, with this last in the series again reflecting on the idea of bashert.

Another series – “From the Monkey House and Other Cages” – show Klepfisz’s ability to understand the lives of others. The poems are prefaced by the words, “The voices are those of female monkeys born and raised in a zoo” and show what happens when animals are raised in captivity. Readers will be tempted to see these poems as a metaphor for what happened to the Jews in Europe, but they also serve as a powerful reflection on humanity’s treatment of animals.

Her subject matter ranges from the political to personal; older readers will particularly enjoy her most recent poems, which focus on the reality of aging. Quoting bits and pieces from her work doesn’t do justice to the density and complexity of these works. Klepfisz offers her life much like the facets of a gem: each angle offers something new and subtly different. Anyone familiar with her poetry will definitely want to read this new collection. Those who have not experienced her work will be surprised by its drama and power.