This poem had an interesting beginning. My father told me that one morning when he was still quite new to life in Chicago, his fellow Yiddish poet, Ben Sholem, who was also a carpenter, came knocking at the door of his one room place, and woke him up. Alter had been up most of the night, working on a poem, so he was sleeping in-it was early afternoon. Ben Sholem insisted that he get up and come downtown with him to look at a certain picture at the Art Institute. He was so insistent that Alter obligingly went with him to see the picture which turned out to be a painting of an angry buffalo--defiant, but helplessly immured almost to his eyes…in a snow blizzard. Ben Sholem had heard my father describe having seen just such an entrapped animal-a bull--(which had been rescued in time) when he was a child in his native Ukraine. My father was captured by the picture, and stood looking at it for a long time. He made several attempts to deal with the subject (there was one published as the "Death of a Buffalo") but it wasn't until he changed the animal to a bull (actually, the poem in Yiddish refers to an "ochs"-however the English word ox implies a castrated animal, but the narrative requires an uncastrated male I think that there are two aspects of the subject matter that relate to my father's emotional life. The immediate one is the striking fact that his life was catastrophically changed by his having been orphaned at the age of ten when his father's prize bull killed him. My father wrote often of the effect on a household of an invasion by death. (Steps and Kaleidoscopic are just two examples). More tangential and subtle, is the way in which the erotic in so many of his poems is shown to carry a certain element of ambivalence and danger-see for example his poem "Women." It should be remembered that in his time and place, sexuality was much problematic and mysterious in ways that it no longer is. And being always interested in confronting what he regarded as the most challenging, it shouldn't surprise us that he used the picture to confront that mysterious world of the sexual. Dramatically and allusively .

Joseph Esselin --- July 4, 2000


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