Canto Inferno


At a recent reading in New York, Jacqueline Osherow expressed relief that she didn’t have to explain the Yiddish references that would have eluded audiences in Utah, where the Northeastern Jew has been teaching for the past several years. Yet cultural displacement is often a breeding ground for poetry, and it would be difficult to imagine Osherow’s work without the explanatory impulse. In Dead Man’s Praise, her latest collection, the explanations are inextricable from the content they are elucidating. “Why always this compulsion to explain?” she asks at the beginning of “One Last Terza Rima.” Yet Osherow’s guiding, often ironic voice never intrudes; rather, it leads us through the often perplexing labyrinths of the Psalms, the Holocaust, and Dante’s Inferno.

Osherow’s medievalism is more immediate than archaic, and it is precisely the combination of the arcane and accessible that makes her poems simultaneously challenge and invite. Like Elizabeth Bishop, who wove her voice into a sestina so effortlessly you forget the form is there, Osherow makes villanelles, sonnets, and even Dante’s terza rima feel genuinely conversational. Part of her strategy is to make herself a brash, fearless character within the traditional forms she invokes, unafraid to topple a biblical figure—or even a deity. In the first of 13 “Scattered Psalms,” she unseats David to proclaim: “Dare I begin: a song of Jacqueline?” Undaunted, she continues, and in the book’s 11th psalm—the title poem of the collection, drawn from a Psalm that intones “Dead men don’t praise God”—goes so far as to “pity Handel, / gospel singers, televangelists / belting out their hearts for a borrowed word / When I have the whole thing,/one hundred and fifty psalms, / every single syllable a hallelujah.”

Such audacity is present throughout the collection, albeit tempered by self-deprecating humor and revelations of self-doubt. “Even Yiddish doesn’t have a word / for the greatness of my Yiddish poem,” she struts, with a bravado worthy of Frank O’Hara, only to add later the following borscht belt deadpan: “It’s a question / whether God Himself / can make out the text of my Yiddish poem.” There is no question that Osherow is anxious about her audience, and, despite her insistent use of formal verse and often obscure Judaica, in the closing lines of her “Sonnet,” she is most concerned with the plain sense of things: “Let’s try it then. Let singing start. / Why listen to an incoherent heart?”