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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