JULY 8, 2021
“IF I FORGET THEE, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember thee.” These lines from Psalm 137 are an oath sworn by an Israelite poet in Babylonian exile. Bidden by his captors to sing a song of Zion, he refuses, swearing to honor the city he’s lost, or else lose the ability to sing and play his harp. The psalmist implies that a song of Zion is no good in Babylon, that the soul’s confession will turn corrupt in a land of mammon and false idols.
My mother, who grew up in 1950s Israel, told me of an expression common among Jewish war refugees: “The Cossacks are coming.” You would say this with a shrug after hearing a piece of good news, to remind everyone that catastrophe lay just over the horizon. It’s a blend of Eastern European dourness and Jewish stoicism, plus the jumpiness of exile: don’t get too comfortable, they’ll change things on us again tomorrow. But to really inhabit the saying, you also need some confidence in the difference between a Jew and a Cossack, a faith that we and they are two different sorts.
Our age appears to have outgrown such oaths and sureties. Old Jerusalem (recovered, or occupied, since 1967) is now half Babylon, its web of alleyways packed with shops selling antiques and icons alongside off-brand electronics and your-favorite-baseball-team-in-Hebrew-letters on a tank top. Ancient enmities fester under the signs of a totalizing globalist culture, amid soft calls of “Hello, where are you from?” and the hustle of soldiers behind a sudden barrier. Among well-signed avenues of homecoming — Germans snapping the Via Dolorosa, Russians lining up to kneel at Golgotha, Americans circle-dancing before the Wailing Wall — a kind of ecumenical estrangement hangs in the air, a spiritual exhaustion that makes you sit down in a plastic chair and order a Coke.
The right book to pull out at that moment might be Ian Dreiblatt’s first full-length collection of poetry, forget thee. Under a title that has forgotten what the psalmist swore he would remember, the book imagines our world — the United States and its adjacent cultures — as the new Jerusalem: a place of fractured genealogies, slippery language, and simmering injustice, lorded over by the dread confetti culture of global capitalism and waiting to complete its own dissolution. The book claims that this place is also worth remembering, though it may no longer be worth its name.
Dreiblatt’s poems run on estrangement, ruminating on the present as if from a distant future, reading signs of the current culture as if they were ruins. The poems place us in the teeth of catastrophe, proposing that the 21st-century convulsions of the American body politic signal a disaster worth telling. Framing poems at the book’s beginning and end dwell directly on the catastrophe; in between, the poet converses with figures who have survived or imposed catastrophes of the past — gods and emperors, harried intellectuals, poets of all eras — and tries to share information and maybe gain some wisdom about what’s happening with us now.
Much of the book is spent giving tours of the present day to the likes of the prophet Jeremiah (in some traditions, the author of Psalm 137), Caesar Augustus, and Enheduanna of Ur, trying to translate our blank angst for these personages of deep mythic power, to convince them that our catastrophe is also interesting. To Thoth, Egyptian deity of writing and the moon, the poet insists: “we achieved so/ much […]: pinball, the / poems of Bernadette Mayer, the music of / Lonnie Johnson, frozen / pirogi, little rooms that / glide between mountains // for a little while.” Thoth isn’t impressed — “I mean I / used to be the freaking moon / but you don’t hear / me bragging about it” — and there’s no way he could be. The memorial is really for our benefit, not his.
Yet it’s not clear what these lines want from us in return. Working in a mode of alienation, the poems will reflect pieces of our culture as hieroglyphs — essentializing them, insightfully estranging them from their common meanings, or (as above) listing them without letting them reverberate. In these moments, the text becomes a Rosetta stone upon which lost worlds seek equivalences in code; the reader’s task, it seems, is to acknowledge our world among them.
The poems ring most when their voices speak with familiar inflections, revealing a kinship to the poet’s own. A familiar and pleasant (often hilarious) relief descends as the poet realizes he can actually talk to these people. In one such sequence, the prophet Jeremiah tells about his early priesthood and the invasion that sent him captive to Babylon:
we moved to the city
which is awful got
work as priests an
impossible situation we’d
be reading the most
beautiful ancient shit,
that to be in any world
is also an exile our songs the
sleeping of bridges, all this
super beautiful shit,
while they slit screaming
goats’ necks thru the
window divine right
of goat’s blood everywhere
and then bastards came
the incoherence in their
teeth an ache that
only dominion could fill
This is a living, motivated voice, recognizable both in its colloquialisms and in its style of meaning-making. Ironically mouthing a theme the book takes quite seriously (“any world is also an exile”), the voice invites participation in forget thee’s play of meaning. This invitation enacts what seems to be the book’s primary motivation — to inspire human connection — which in the framing poems speaks more literally and more urgently:
read a lot about how
social media is dividing
us into homogenous
echo chambers, making
us think ours is the only
opinion, when I ride the
train tho people are
crying all kinds of people
and I don’t know them
often don’t understand
their languages but
in tunnels underground
I know why they’re
Both in the framing poems and the mythical vignettes, the poet yearns for conversation and community, and this yearning is forget thee’s tender. But the yearning is tragically muted by the text’s push to estrange. While the poet converses winningly and productively with figments of his imagination and plays deftly on (using Osip Mandelstam’s phrase) a “keyboard of references,” he gives little grounding in his relationships with other people (whose names and utterances appear mostly out of context) or in particular life experiences. Experience appears as a ghastly totality, not as evidence which might breathe and trouble through its particularity. Such experience of estrangement (and vice versa) should be familiar to anyone reading this: subway rider, Zoom caller, newsfeeder, Insta flipper. forget thee confirms we’ve reached the other side of Beckett: unable even to hear cries of pain, we can just assume they’re there.
There is a moment in Robert Duncan’s 1959 poem “Evocation,” in which the poet confuses the onset of an actual earthquake with his own associative fancy, going so far as to blend cause with effect:
The earth shakes. Kore! Kore! (for
I was thinking of her — She
who shakes the stores of ancestral grain)
The earthquake behaves like a word, bringing associations to bear (in this case, Persephone, under a more ancient name). But the word also behaves like an earthquake, shaking the poem, jogging the text’s focus from external to internal experience. Dreiblatt’s poetry has outgrown such confidence in both exteriority and interiority, and can’t ethically offer either as grounding or consolation. His Jeremiah laments: “I […] tried to make an intimacy / between my memory / and the memory of / the world.” Duncan’s lines depend on such an intimacy. But in the world of forget thee, “it turns / out worlds don’t remember / a goddamn thing.”
Dreiblatt is trying to tell us about an earthquake, too, but this one is far off, incipient, already past, or present but still impalpable. forget thee waits nervously for its Cossacks — or tries to hear what they’re up to on the other side of the hills. The poet plays no direct part in his culture’s catastrophe, either as victim or perpetrator, and this seems a maddening estrangement. The first poem, “dunjaluče,” sets the tone with a breathless accumulation of longing and frustration, as the poet descends on a bus from rural heights, presumably back to the city:
lately when I travel in the u.s., I imagine each state is
its own country, as tho that had happened and we’d all
tho in fact survival is allocated under terms we detest and
the roads are full of holes aching
still new york state has some of the most beautiful woods
how lovely are thy tents et cetera […]
The text invites us into anxiety about a dissolving body politic and an untrustworthy language: the fragmentation of the country is reflected in the fragments of Robert Creeley and Jewish liturgy that patch the lines together. There are holes in the roads and in the text (for Creeley, it’s words themselves that are full of holes). Right away there is no ground to stand on.
In the book’s final poem, “postscript to some of the preliminaries,” Dreiblatt makes a clear ethical statement in response to the estrangement of the age, recalling the hungry, hopeful vibrations of the Occupy protests: “it was / all kinds of people / I didn’t know them but I / knew why in tunnels / underground they were / making speeches // whoever you look / out over the same harbor / as is your country. what / ever hand you find is / for holding.” These framing poems emphasize the book’s search for human connection, a thing which might only be possible in the tunnels, once you’ve thrown up any hope in authority. (An especially grim line from “dunjaluče”: “this weekend Ada said to us you’d be good to be friends with in a genocide.”) No matter what has been lost, forget thee claims, your real country is your community.
This emphasis on community, proposed in the framing poems and enacted in the vignettes, becomes disturbing when it allows a genealogy between the activist sociality of Occupy and the idea of being “friends in a genocide.” The former seems built on experience (at least the experience of observation) while the latter risks co-opting a negative capability that doesn’t belong to you. The framing poems pay respect to trial and persecution, particularly in the communist bloc (Mandelstam is a favored interlocutor), and are up front about claiming responsibility for privilege (“we try to make a book to the exact / dimensions of our complicity”), yet both the poet’s suffering and his complicity in the crimes of the moment remain potential. And this seems to be the point. The knowledge that real shit is happening, and the inability to grasp that reality outside of manufactured signs, is truly nauseating. In need of solid ground, we’re offered Coke.
Complicity is dialectical, after all. It requires someone else’s input, a foreign frame. Žižek warns: It’s at the moment you declare yourself free from ideology that you reveal your subsumption in it. But what happens when you declare yourself subsumed in ideology? Adorno claims you are not outside of it then either, not yet awake, because you are enacting an ideology of critique which assumes you need waking. (Complain all you want that Coke is delicious, it’s still delicious.) As an entreaty to perpetrators who can’t help sleeping through our crimes, forget thee is entirely of its moment. The Cossacks are us. Now what?