Anyone questioning the relevance of poetry in the 21st century could do herself a favor by checking out Rachel Mennies’ very intimate collection, “The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards,” a finalist for the 2015 National Jewish Book Award.
Mennies, an instructor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, has produced a volume of poems that illuminates a shared Jewish experience, albeit in words that evoke the personal. The subjects range from faith and the questioning of faith to identity and the essence of Jewish womanhood over time.
Mennies was raised outside of Philadelphia and has lived in Pittsburgh since 2011. She was immersed in the practice of Judaism while growing up in what she describes as a traditional Reform home, where her family observed the Sabbath as well as the holidays.
“I was raised religiously Jewish, for sure,” Mennies said.
While it was that religious foundation that inspired “The Glad Hand of God,” it was her work composing the poems that led her to examine her own place in the Jewish continuum.
“I learned a lot about my own faith while I was writing this book,” she said.
This is Mennies’ first published book of poetry, spurred by a desire to record her family’s history. Although she has a background in nonfiction writing, it turned out to be poetry that was the most appropriate way for her to say what she wanted to say.
“While I was in grad school [at Penn State], I was in a nonfiction workshop, and I began researching my own family,” she said. “I had a lot of questions for my own family, particularly my grandmother, my father’s mother. She was 11 when they immigrated to the United States from Germany. She didn’t really understand then what was going on in Berlin. Her stories kept changing.”
Because it was so difficult to pin down the facts, Mennies began exploring the subject through poetry.
“The professor of my nonfiction class was a journalist, and he kept saying, ‘Get the facts,’” she said. “But poetry gave me the chance to explore the subject without the research and the journalism side.”
Although Mennies’ began writing her poems with a focus on the Jewish experience in Nazi-era Germany, she then “started moving in concentric circles as I read more and started thinking about what it meant to be a Jewish woman.”
While Mennies writes critical nonfiction, book reviews and essays, her primary genre now has become poetry, and she is currently at work on a second collection, although it is not thematically Jewish.
The Jewish Book Awards is North America’s longest running awards program in the field of Jewish literature and is now in its 65th year. The Jewish Book Council, which grants the awards, does not recognize poetry every year, Mennies said, although there are annual awards for fiction and various nonfiction categories.
“This recognition means a lot to me,” said Mennies. “It’s wonderful to see people connecting with the book and people seeing a way to identify with the themes here.”
As the Holocaust plays a heavy part thematically in some of the poems, Mennies also sees her book as helpful in preserving that history.
“My grandmother is in her late 80s,” Mennies said. “We are losing our Holocaust survivors to time. The question of the importance of these stories, and that they stay alive, is paramount to me. And it feels very Jewish to me, the idea of remembering and telling these stories.”
“The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards” can be found at the East End Book Exchange, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. It is also stocked at the libraries of both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
A selection from the book follows.
Practical, we take the names of our dead
because the dead are sturdy — stern mantles
of opportunity, watching as we shoulder them
from windowpanes, closets. Rose — one curling r
makes hundreds of us, Rachels, Rivkas, Renates,
Richards, Ronalds, this slip of a woman
in a fading photograph keeps all our tongues
moving. Blessed are you, lord of our passed-on,
our looking-over-us-on-high, as the dead name us
consonant, as we cast aside the baby books and run
curious to the headstones, hunting for names
among the mausoleums and weather-worn
statues, the roses gone to pulp beside the roses
freshly brought, red and resonant.
This poem originally appeared in “The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards” by Rachel Mennies (Texas Tech University Press, 2014).
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.