In my experience, the spiritual practice that writing poetry cannot help but become once you’ve chosen to make it your way of life is inseparable from the erotic practice my writing had to become before I could produce the poems that were truly mine to produce. The narrative this statement hints at is too long to tell here, but I can at least sketch the story’s contours.
At two different times during my teens, two men — one a complete stranger, the other a casual friend of the family — each took my body as his playground and his plaything and abused me sexually. Each man was a predator and each used my need for a surrogate father to lure me to him. My own father, after my mother sued him for divorce, left our house when I was three. As he walked out the door, he said to me that maybe — though of course I took it as a promise — maybe he’d be coming back. He never did, and, as any three-year-old would, I blamed myself.
I survived both these traumas, though I lived for many years afterward behind a veil of guilt and shame, of self-hatred, and the conviction that I was tainted, deeply and irrevocably, such that I would never again be worthy of another’s love. In orthodox Judaism, which I took as a teenager to be the guiding tradition of my life, god is the ultimate father, and because I was taught it explicitly, I believed that if I could gain this heavenly father’s approval, make myself good enough in his eyes to earn his love, then I would be good, and nothing, nothing — no matter what I’d done or had been done to me in the past — could ever undo that achievement.
So I studied the forms of daily Jewish life and poured as much as I could of my own living into it. The traditional religious view of the relationship between body and soul, however, that they are separable and that the full value of human worth is located primarily in the soul, and not the body, echoes in many ways the separation of mind from body that is a common experience of those who have been physically or sexually abused. As a result, learning to love my yiddishe neshama, my Jewish soul — which, as one of my rebbes used to say, was a prerequisite of earning god’s love — could not help but implicitly justify the hatred of my physical existence that I already felt. Ironically, in other words, my embrace of Judaism actually compounded the state of self-hating alienation in which I existed.
The first poems in which I named my abuse as abuse, describing in precise detail the acts and body parts involved, were primarily therapeutic and correspondingly unsuccessful as art. I remember vividly, however, how liberating it was not merely to have written them, but to understand that I had found a language in which they could be written. Suddenly, my body was more accessible to me, more mine than it had ever been. I felt differently in my body as well. The world of sensual pleasures opened to me and deepened, connecting me to my own desires and therefore also to my own sense of belonging to, of having a rightful claim to a physical presence in, this world, more powerfully than orthodox Judaism had ever made me feel good.
Indeed, the more fully I experienced myself as inhabiting my body, the more the project of making myself good in god’s eyes revealed itself as the strategy it had been all along for not confronting what my abusers had done to me. Writing those poems, in other words, helped to strip away the layers of mystification in which my body had been wrapped, uncovering the mystery — and I mean this word almost in its Christian theological sense: something that can never be fully understood and that can be apprehended only through revelation — the mystery of my own embodiment. I no longer cared whether or not I had a soul that was distinct from my body. More to the point, the approval of a god for whom the condition of that soul was a primary concern became for me irrelevant.
Tikkun olam, a concept that is central to Jewish spirituality, means, literally, the fixing of the world, and it refers to a religious duty Jews are supposed to consider ourselves obligated to perform. In the mystical tradition, tikkun olam means the task of gathering the fragments of the shattered divine, the pieces of himself [sic] that god gave up in creating the world so that the world could live and grow, and using them to reconstruct the original godhead. On a more mundane level, tikkun olam is represented by such things as the struggle for social justice. For me, writing poetry is also a form of tikkun olam. As poet and translator Sam Hamill has written, “The first duty of the writer is the rectification of names,” and he quotes Kung-fu Tze [Confucius], “All wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name.” It is in poetry, writing it and reading it, that I find this wisdom and its corresponding spiritual practice.