Much of my winter break, or what used to be called “intersession,” was taken up with work: fine-tuning a manuscript, fiddling with footnotes (yes, that again), preparing for the new term and with it, a brand new graduate seminar on Jewish musical expression and sound.
Now and again, I surfaced to see a movie as well as some dance, treated myself to a leisurely, boozy lunch or two and even kicked up my heels at a friend’s son’s wedding.
While all of these activities were immensely satisfying, gratifying the senses and the soul, they were not the highpoint of the holiday season. That distinction belonged to a poetry reading.
Braving the elements as well as the vagaries of the NYC subway system which, on the night in question, had all but ground to a halt, I ventured downtown last week to hear my friend, Ben Kukoff, read from his recently published collection of poems, What This Country Needs.
I knew, of course, that Ben (a.k.a. ‘Bernie’) was a man of parts, with a very successful and varied career in television, theater and film. I knew, too, that he was a compelling story-teller, having invited him to my class on several occasions, where he handily won over the students, the toughest of audiences.
What I didn’t know, and what bowled me over, was his way with words. At once economical and shapely, rueful and hard-hitting, Ben’s poems go straight to the very heart of things: to the vexed relationship between fathers and sons, the indignities of aging, the intractability of nature and of history, especially American Jewish history.
Each poem is alive on the page and requires little by way of intervention. Still, it was a real treat to hear Ben give them voice, his wry line readings inflecting this word and that with just the right amount of oomph or restraint.
A push here, a gentle nudge there — and Ben’s words summoned up a universe. I don’t mean to fawn — that’s not my m.o. — but this poetry reading was one for the books. It sent me out into the cold, and unto the new semester, invigorated and renewed.
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