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Ian Thal

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Review of _Lift Off: New and Selected Poems 1961-2001_ by Herschel Silverman
by Ian Thal   

Last edited: Monday, February 24, 2003
Posted: Monday, February 24, 2003

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This review of Herschel Silverman's poetry was originally published in the December 20, 2002- January 2. 2003 edition of The Jewish Journal.

Lift Off: New and Selected Poems 1961-2001
by Herschel Silverman
Water Row Books / Long Shot Productions, 2002
189 Pages, Paperback $12.95
ISBN 0-93496374-0

Poets’ works often appear in so many places, ranging from magazines, books, broadsheets, pamphlets, and chapbooks that it is often hard for anyone but the most dedicated archivist to determine those key works that define a career. The situation can be overwhelming for a new reader with sincere interest. Herschel Silverman’s poetry has appeared in many publications, many of which are out of print or have become collectors’ items whose market prices now surprise even their author. However, for the first time reader there does exist a new collection of works spanning four decades of a career.

The book’s title, “Lift Off” comes from a series of improvisations based on word combinations found on the lift-off ribbon of the poet’s trusty electric typewriter. This ribbon is unfamiliar to many younger writers who are accustomed to typing on a computer. This ribbon, containing white ink, when struck by the typebars, could write over the mistyped black letters. Needless to say, the lift-off ribbon contains mistakes, and so Silverman redeems his mistakes every time he replaces the lift-off ribbon, creating new works, many of which are found in this collection. “Lift-off” is not a hyperbolic metaphor; it refers to a visceral act of creation just as “blowing” refers to a reed player’s improvisations and collage artist engage in “cut-ups”

Closely affiliated with the Beats, Silverman is part of a generation that liberated American poetry from both the conventions of the British Isles and those of high modernism, adopting a free style influenced by jazz and the vernacular of the neighborhood and the night. His ear for words rivals that of a musician’s ear for chords and melodic phrases. However the poetic devices that lend a musical quality to his work never take away from its descriptive power as in this passage from “Cittee Cittee Cittee IV”, which well captures any amount of time in Manhattan:

In New York ah go see Manhattan spectacle cittee
go see East village holee molee cittee cittee
see Big Apple American avant empire gridlock gentrify cittee
pyramid cittee millennium cittee renewable cittee
see cittee of worshiping churches synagogues and mosques
yes yes re in carnation cittee

The poem continues in turn to describe what is fundamentally New York, a city where Allen Ginsberg’s books sit in shop windows, Bob Dylan sang, jazz is played, Yiddish is spoken, and Lubavitchers pray.

Skillfully, Silverman uses space on the page to further express the musicality of his words in a way that seems intuitive to the reader but is rarely attempted by other writers as in this excerpt from “Timepiece” dedicated to Theodore Enslin, another poet known for his play of space and musicality:

Nothing touches humankind
with a ticking
except Time
Its hands alive
and sweeping

Silverman takes his readers through his life, one that sees him riding the train between Washington and Newark as a sailor leaving for and coming home from two wars, while decades later, he is horrified at the conduct and causes of yet another war. Silverman writes about living, be it pedaling his bicycle, or missing his wife when he is away from home or after her passing. He records his joy at connecting with his fellow poets, but the verses are never mere honorifics, they emanate from friendships and long correspondences. These are men and women joined together seeking beauty, happiness, and the divine. These poems are part of that seeking, and for those seekers, this collection is one to seek.

Ian Thal 2002

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