When Toronto poet Simon Constam emailed me with a request to read his debut collection of poetry, Brought Down, he described it as “notable because it addresses people’s daily experience of God and the Jewish religious tradition.” He noted, “it is provocative and well-written as can be attested to by the reviews of it thus far.” Indeed, the reviews I’ve read have been highly complimentary – and justifiably so.
I am neither religious nor a poetry buff, yet I found Constam’s poems engaging. I liked his challenging and questioning manner. At 70+ years old, he has wisdom gained from life experience that includes approximately a decade in which he followed Orthodox Jewish observance. His knowledge of Judaism infuses his writing and I had to look up a few names and concepts, even though there is a glossary at the end of this 61-page volume.
What I greatly appreciated about these poems is the theme that runs through most, if not all, of them: the title idea of “brought down,” as it refers to what we inherit from our ancestors, whether we’re talking about traditions, rituals, genes, coping mechanisms, etc. The lens through which Constam explores these ideas is his Jewishness. In “Yerushalmi,” for example, he writes:
“Today I seem to have the face of a man I briefly stared at, on a bus on Rehov King David in the fall of 1969. / I wear the same clothes, dark jacket, dark shirt, rough tan trousers, dust-scuffed brown boots. / The mirror shows me, grizzled, unkempt, stocky, stoic, almost seventy. / My face is the face my grandfather wore. / My parents, aunts, and uncles swore the resemblance is uncanny. My history is clear. / I was one of Titus’s captives marched through Rome in chains. I collected all my things in a sack to flee from Ferdinand and Isabella along the Jew-choked roads. I missed my fate in Kielce and Bialystock. I hid in the forests by Kishinev.” It ultimately concludes: “I am the inheritor of a furious history that only in this place can I never deny or forget.”
In his struggles with God, Constam contemplates what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be human. While this all sounds quite serious, and it is, there is humour in this collection and, ultimately, it is hopeful. As much as he takes God to task, Constam is calling on all of us to question ourselves, and to accept our responsibility for the state of the world.