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Nikki Stiller reviews Isidore Century for the Home Planet News

July 8, 2009

Oy! Where to begin? FROM THE COFFEE HOUSE OF JEWISH DREAMERS is so rich, so full of life and has so much ta'am, tastiness, that it is almost daunting to review. Even the author's name seems significant (indeed, we find out his real name is Irving Centor) for these poems, in which the religious and the secular vie with each other, seem particularly suited to the last century and the current one.

This book is actually two books in one. The reader must turn the tome upside down to read the second half, a trifle gimmicky, although one can see the rationale. We start out, however, with an evocation of how he became a poet when he was well into his forties. In "The Visitor," he writes, "I did not know poetry./ Poetry knew me." It was for him, "A distant cousin of Torah/ ...a long lost relative/ from the Jewish Culture Club of Warsaw." It sits in the kitchen "drinking schnapps" with him and his father. Even at the beginning of his poetic journey, there is an intimate connection with Judaism:

Before I fell asleep,
he pinched me an the cheek and sang me a niggun.
In the morning he was gone and I wrote my first poem.
People and places, places and people: these poems are definitely in the Jewish anti-pastoral tradition. What could be more urban than Coney Island? He is not interested particularly in the ocean: it is the carnival of life next to the sea of infinity that interests him. Here, where "Brooklyn Jews" wander "like land locked sea gulls," he is transported to Poland with his father's father, and meets a man wearing his life ("Journey to Coney Island"). In "Journey to Coney Island (2)", he meets his former neighbor who tells him "It is time you returned to your body/ It is time your life ceases to be a dream." It is as if Coney Island is the beginning of a meditation. As he emerges "from the dream/ on the boardwalk at Coney Island,"
Like the first amphibian
crawling onto the shore
eyes blinking, unfamiliar
with unfiltered light
he suddenly finds himself "burdened by clothes." He goes home to stare at his nakedness in the mirror. Here dream and reality mix. Tiny scars remind him of the whip in his mother's hand. (Did she really use a cat o' nine tails?) At the end he returns to his body and his mother's eyes have returned also. We are very far from the ferric wheel and from the literal sea.

The section entitled "Stories from the Thirties" contains some of the most successful poems in the book and, one suspects, were written after the Coney Island sequence. Isadore Century has an intense and intimate relationship with the dead, especially his father. His technique is to locate himself in the here and now, then give way to visions. In "Morning Service," while "saying Kaddish" for his father, his father is suddenly beside him, saying Kaddish for himself. Although "alive/ he wouldn't be caught dead in a he is/ all cleaned and pressed/ in the navy blue suit he was buried in." A minor miracle, and the book is full of minor miracles:

I say Amen and look up.
He is no longer there.
an old hand-knit skullcap;
it smells of paint and sweat
and his brand of cigarette.
As with so many of these poems, we are in the realm neither of reality, although we begin there, nor of dream, but, as in Kafka's stories, on the plane of imagination. We must accept the testimony of the visionary.

The midrashim that constitute a little less than half the book maintain the same enthusiastic tone as the poems in the other half. Century does not really incorporate the Torah portions, but uses them, as he did places, for journeys of his own. In Bereshith, for example, "In the Beginning," we hear not about the creation of the world, but--in two separate poems--about Cain the Wanderer. In the first poem, he is an attorney defending the culprit:

It was my first case;
I pleaded him innocent on the grounds of ignorance.
How could he know what a blow would do?

He loses the case. Cain "is still wandering./ I am still appealing." In the second poem about Cain, the poet lets himself go:

He would have loved New York.
As a fugitive and a wanderer
he could go to the movies,
eat Chinese and Italian food,
shill in Central Park
and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Is the poet spinning out of control? we ask. But no. This poem turns out to be a meditation on urban indifference:
Everyone would be too busy
to notice the man
if they did,
they would not want to get involved.
And back to Cain, a twentieth century man:
All he had to do
was mind his business
and. oh yes. control his temper.
When he does adhere to the text, the poems are quite successful, giving life and blood to the familiar Biblical personae. In "Lech Lecha," ("Betake Thyself"), in which God commands Avram (he is not Abraham the Jew yet), the speaker is a workman in the idol factory of Avram's father: Avram would "stomp and shout all day, 'False Idols. False Idols':
I didn't think they were kosher either,
but it was a living.
And for a boss's son, you couldn't find better.
He made me take coffee breaks,
no work an Saturdays, a holiday always.
Above all, we feel the tension in these poems between the man of faith and the modem skeptic. This tension gives the book its universality.

And Isidore Century has a great sense of fun. Life for him is a delight. In "Friedman Beach--Tel Aviv," a small crowd of men and women "over sixty-five"

jog and swim, bend and stretch,
creak and groan, complain and gossip,
but mostly laugh,
as though being alive each morning
is the funniest joke they know.

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