Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bright, Beautiful, and Bouncing: The Modern Sonnets of Judith Goldhaber

Judith Goldhaber's 2005 volume of SONNETS FROM AESOP coupled a round hundred verse-form fables with bright, bold paintings by her husband Gerson -- and won a IPPY in 2006, the Independent Publisher Book Award for Most Outstanding Design. A big friendly book, easy to enjoy, it's a dandy gift for giving or receiving. The cover art is from "The Fox and the Grapes" (remember the frustrated canine declaring that those grapes beyond his reach are probably sour anyway?). Sure, the race between the tortoise and the hare is here. But my favorites turned out to be ones where Judith found cute ways to twist the language and her own humor, like the finale to "The Fox, the Cock and the Dog":

"I would," the fox cried, as he started running,
"but sometimes I'm outfoxed by my own cunning."

I also appreciate Goldhaber's willingness to speak the "morals" clearly in others, like "The Dog in the Manger":

... But dogs, like men, will oft destroy
the pleasures they themselves cannot enjoy.

A quick two years later, Goldhaber brought out her next collection, in 2007: SARAH LAUGHED: SONNETS FROM GENESIS. And here the delight is the braid of quirky mirth, daring imagination, and matter-of-fact exploration from this scientifically trained grandmother (she's a former science writer for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California; her artist husband is a physicist at Berkeley). For instance, the sonnet sequence opens with the little-mentioned existence, especially in Jewish lore, of Adam's "first wife" Lilith. In Goldhaber's hands, Eve's obsession with her predecessor becomes the drive for consulting the serpent, who admits, "victims always get my sympathy." Alas, a sympathetic serpent isn't a very helpful friend to this curious foremother of the tribes to come.

Then there are playful renderings of Sarah's laughter at her late-life pregnancy, with God's own sense of a joke; and of the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, with its bitter fruits. Goldhaber doesn't flinch from the tortures and deaths of Genesis, but she spins them onto the page with the calm acceptance of someone who already knows that life comes in light and shadow, never one without the other.

So it is that at times, the poetry dips its tongue into the stronger brew that runs through this opening book of Western history of God and the people. Probably the most poignant is Goldhaber's rendering of "The Ignorance of Cain," which opens with

Ignorance of the law is no excuse
you say, but picture yourself in my place --
the firstborn offspring of the human race,
guileless and raw and ignorant as a goose.

... and then concludes after Cain's murder of his brother Abel with,

I propped him up and called him by his name,
blew in his ears and warmed him with my breath,
I never imagined such a thing as death.

Goldhaber's books include warm words on the wraps from Willis Barnstone, and are available through the publisher's web site:

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