“I mean, how many people write poems about Wilmington Avenue?” Karen Shenfeld doesn’t need to answer her own rhetorical and self-referencing question. The response is plain: she does, and particularly well.
Karen Shenfeld [Rosalie Bellefontaine photo]
Her religiously, biblically and Holocaust-tinged poems have won plaudits for their tenderness, beauty and power.
In her newest volume, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish (Guernica Editions), a number of the verses are loving paeans to Bathurst Manor, the Toronto Jewish suburb of prefab bungalows, manicured lawns and no shortage of synagogues.
In the hands of a less sensitive writer, “the Manor,” as many of its current and former inhabitants call it, could be the subject of derision. After all, poetry and bland, postwar suburbia have rarely been yoked successfully.
But Shenfeld has a soft spot for the neighbourhood where she was raised.
“I think that for me and kids of my generation, growing up there, it was a kind of utopia,” the poet tells me over cups of latté in the Little Italy neighbourhood she’s called home for 26 years. “I didn’t realize it until after I wrote one poem about playing in Bathurst Manor that the key thing was, we weren’t watched in the way that I watched my son all the time. I went to kindergarten on my own, running down Wilmington, away from the parental gaze.”
Only later did suburbia become “boring” and “stultifying” and “I certainly had no desire to live as an adult there.” Like many young adults, she felt the need to escape her old surroundings’ tidiness and “cultural homogeneity, which I associated with sterility and repression,” Shenfeld told the Toronto Quarterly literary and arts journal recently.
Still, it’s the reader who wins. Shenfeld’s poems, though spare and taut, evoke a lushness and nostalgia one might associate with a much older writer’s folkloric memories of a European shtetl. In one offering, she spies “the Golem of Bathurst Manor cruising Wilmington Avenue in Rabbi Kelman’s turquoise Chevrolet.” (The protective Golem may come in handy one day, she writes).
The streets of her childhood “carried names of English towns. We skipped up Wilmington to the public school, chanting the blocks aloud: Searle, Brighton, Acton, Combe. Home was an L-shaped bungalow, floating on a sea of grass.”
Shenfeld, a remarkably youthful-looking 54, has published three books of poetry: The Law of Return (1999), which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry in 2001; The Fertile Crescent (2005); and her latest, whose title came to her after watching her father as he lay dying.
“His hands went up,” Shenfeld recalls, her own hands mimicking a sudden downward swoop, as though bricks dropped, “and fell down. He really did do that. I started playing around with that – that he spoke with his hands, and somehow, the line turned into, ‘oh my God, his hands spoke in Yiddish.’ ”
My father’s hands spoke in Yiddish,
the ganze megillah of curses,
Ever in motion,
they argued with themselves.
Gai kochen aufen yam! my father’s
hands said. Go s–t in the sea!
In the mamaloshen,
they spoke their last, impatient words,
rose palms up from the narrow bed –
All right already!
then fell like bricks.
Their final kvetch
bemusing the angel of death.
“That’s what poets do,” she explains. “You kind of go into a dream state and you hallucinate. I was in terrible, terrible grief but that poem does have humour in it.”
Born in Toronto to Canadian parents (her mother’s father, Arthur Parker, was the city’s first Jewish doctor), Shenfeld attended afternoon Hebrew classes at Beth Emeth synagogue, where, amid the usual horseplay, the cadences and rich imagery of the Bible and readings inspired her. “I recognized the incandescence of the texts, even at a very young age.”
After studying poetry at York University with the late Irving Layton, “I didn’t follow the predictable path of the nice Jewish girl who went to Mackenzie [Collegiate] and got married and moved to Thornhill.” Instead, she spent years travelling the world, including hitchhiking across the Sahara Desert. That experience infused much of her earlier work.
A noted filmmaker and freelance writer, Shenfeld is in a unique position to explain the difference between her journalism and poetry. “I start with the truth in a poem and then I twist it, I prevaricate, I could lie. It’s not so much that I’m interested in telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
And while a great exercise in self-expression, “a poem only works when you are reaching someone else,” she concedes.
Her range extends beyond the Manor, whether she’s exploring burlesque dancers or canoeing or the cantillation of a Maftir – all in short, crystalline lines.
Is the craft any easier than it was in her teens? “Certainly,” Shenfeld replies. “Now I have more to say.”