Original poem reprinted online here: "Zvi Mendel" by Orlando Ricardo Menes
Originally read: August 28, 2013
More information about the Poet: Orlando Ricardo Menes
So the very top of the page, past me wrote down, "I don't know this language" in reference to the Hebrew being used. This statement covers multiple questions I had about the language: what does it mean? How does the language integrate with the poem? What does the language bring to the poem.
Then rereading the poem over again, language is the least of my focus now. I think when I looked up a couple words, I figured that the language is more of a defining characteristics in this character driven poem. It's not about the message, but the humanization of Zvi Mendel, who I don't know the reference to.
The first three lines, "Ersatz cantor, self-taught kabbalist, / retired tobacconist to Havana's Ashkenazim, / Zvi Mendel smokes one last corona," note that the affirmatives that describe his past have something to do with spiritualism, probably of Jewish faith, and the current action is based upon Zvi smoking which will become a reoccurring image throughout the poem.
Then from the person comes the setting, "Pigtails of maduro / festoon a sunny window," and "stop the cedar humidor / a wind-up gramaphone wobbles Für Elise." The current is tranquil and domestic. It's as though Zvi is in a calm setting. From here, the poem suggests a turn to nostalgia.
"It's 1952, & though he's lived thirty years / on Calle Monte, his dead wife a pale goy, / a convert from cow town in Cienfuegos," thoughts about the wife, "one son who married the maid, a cute / & salty girl," his son then his son's wife.
Then the poem goes a bit humorous with, "but--oy vey--black as coal tar, / another who turned communist & calls / the synagogue a pen of goats," Yes the subject matter is a bit serious, but also a bit extreme. Also, here, the speaker talks from the perspective of Zvi reminiscing of his life. And then there's mention of how "Old Zvi" would act "won't / go completely native, mangling Spanish, / singing Torah on the tram," and 'eats only food canned in the U.S.--kashrut beets, sauerkraut, corned beef--" and note that in depth personal of Zvi the reader experience -- likes, dislikes, memories, past, as though we, as readers have to know the background of this character in depth.
"But tobacco's the exception, Zvi argues, / if first grade, no mosiac, worms, or rust, / the drying done in barns clean of hogs." None of the phrases come together to become coherent. However, these feel like the thoughts of Zvi just trying to come up with more to say about Zvi -- not necessarily stream of consciousness; rather, word association based on what "Zvi argues."
Then the didactic lines, "Whether one inhales doesn't matter / because smoke, weightless, indigestible, / cannot be a defamation to YWHW." The lines talk more about the character than the philosophy. Here, Zvi (not necessarily the speaker) is trying to justify smoking even if it is against Yalweh. Weightless, indigestible smoke comes across as nothing in presence, meaningful in memory to Zvi.
And so at the end when Zvi is referencing his older self (older self) that he sees the divine in smoke which isn't a defamation, "Old Zvi in awe as the sparks of dust / arc into a tremulous rainbow, shekinah." Now here's the trick with the affirimitve here. Old. Does that mean older in past or older as person. Here, it feels like both.