"My old man was a Moishe Kapoyr if you ever saw one." Well, yes, as it happens, I did see one: my old man. How many readers will respond to those initial words of Schorb's book just as I do? I am willing to guess: most. Those who haven't felt as an insult to reason the crazy contradictions in the mind of their dad (or of their mom, as the case may be), belong to the few free from Œdipal conflict. That's why it is a powerful opening: willy-nilly, it draws you in. And what follows will not disappoint:
"Well, my old man respected
education, but, having very little, was jealous
of those who had it. He claimed fluency in five
languages, all of them Yiddish. 'Polymath,'
I said, and he said, 'I learned to count on the streets
of New York, making change from what I peddled.'"
Schorb has perfect pitch, and if the above is not proof enough, here's more:
"When I was taking my masters at Columbia,
my old man, the meshugge maven, said:
'What do you care for a super goy like Donne?
You said he was a pirate once. I bet
He would come and pull the pale and
Take the whole shtetl away with him.
And then you say, Dean of St. Paul's—
What would he care for the like of us'"
That's all part of the first poem. In the second, "Grooves of Academe," we listen to the Burnt-Out Prof, who, having spent his youth contending with his old man's meshugas, is now, as Dr. Bop, overwhelmed by the crazier meshugas of the newer generations, which is the fate of us all. His curmondgeonness is served in bitter portions like this one:
"1736: Patrick Henry was born. That was also the year
that Fahrenheit died and Hogarth produced his 'Good Samaritan."
None of these things seem to have had much 'impact,'
(now there's a word that I would ban) and,
while I wend my way through this historic traffic, toward an historic college that no longer
recognizes history as a legitimate subject,
I notice that the leaves are down and tumbling
in the wind along the road to higher learning."
Why should not old men be mad? Or as my grandmother used to say, meshuga af' toyt, crazy to death? The downfall of historical consciousness has given way to these unanimous, unbearable pretentions to moral superiority. Remember? Trust me, trust no one over thirty.
Or the portions may be more on the sweet side, wet and shiny with ironic nostalgia, caressable like a backbone arching cat, as in "Spine and Spirit," which is dedicated to Vicki, Schorb's cat:
"... The slinkiest person I ever saw
I saw at Minsky's burlesque in Newark when I was sixteen.
I think Senator Long may have met her there, backstage."
Blaze Starr appears to be the artistic name of the slinky burlesque dancer, who, in the memory of the old poet, is linked not only with Senator Long but, somehow, with Marie Curie, the physicist. This may be because the latter died of aplastic anemia, a disease of the bone marrow, hence, in particular, of the spine. Who knows. But here are the last few lines:
"i.e. Senator Long's backbone and Blaze Starr's slinky
spine: and imagine those two vertebrates going at it.
And what about Madame Curie's curious chemistry?
I must agree with Pascal. I must assert the primacy of spirit
and to hell with the backbone; but that would mean
that one must have some backbone in order to assert
the primacy of spirit, a backbreaking thought."
I'm not sure about the third line above: all of a sudden, in mitten drinnen (my grandparents speak again), without rhyme or reason, we are offered a bit of alliteration. But the rest is right and convincing.
Backbreaking though it is, the primacy of spirit, Schorb tries to give himself courage and spine in the "Ballad of the Burnt-Out Prof," almost as heart rending as that other Ballade des pendus by old Villon:
"Old Duracell, old Mazda-man
You've got to keep the light—
It's growing dim inside you
but that's no time to hide you—
there's just a chance you might
say something shedding light.
Old Candle-wick, old Burnt-Out Prof
(who calls himself the Bop)
old hairy ears and snout,
Tochis afn tish!
you gouty worn-out lout—
oh, call yourself a name, old cuss—
because you weren't the best,
and yet you know it doesn't matter,
no, not in the least."
I do not believe those last two lines above, yet I know they are true: it really doesn't matter. After my father's death at 56, we discovered a sheet of paper he had written not long before, titled, "El fósforo habla" (the match speaks). The match is lit, about to burn out —like Bop, Old Candle-wick, or like my dad —but while there's a tiny bit of flame in me (the match says) I can set the world on fire. From nihilism to terrorism, from zero to infinity.
You will enjoy this book. Like Heinrich Heine, Schorb is sad and full of fun.
Schorb's pages in Offcourse:
The Islands of Langerhans,
The Devil's Tavern, Murphy's Star, The Man Who Sold Words, and A Very Practical Nurse