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Mosaic

From the Shelf

By Patrick Odonnell

The Fall issue of Mosaic is, as usual, a heteregeneous little magazine, inlaid with essays, fiction, poetry, and appropriate illustrations. The issue is unified only by its contributors concern with the past, an interest which ranges from glimpses of primitive culture to the fictional re-creation of the personal past.

One of the issue's major successes is Marshall Berman's reflections on the New York Jewish Museum's exhibit ("it's not so much an exhibit as a happening") which recreates the city's Lower East Side from 1870 to 1924. The article begins with a series of cliches which create a suspicion that it is simply one more addition to the collection of general, and generally boring, essays on the search for "cultural identity." "We have no common ethnic, territorial or cultural past, as other nations have." Or, we are told, "Men need to recover their roots; not to sink into, but to grow out of." But Berman does not long remain at the level of banal declarations. He moves quickly through both his introductory remarks and the Jewish Museum; the major portion of his essay presents the fascinating, and often well-expressed, impact of the exhibit on Berman himself: "I felt the First Generation wrathfully pursuing me, as the Bronze Horseman pursued Pushkin's clerk Orogeny." Although Berman's perspective is highly personal and specifically Jewish, his article will be read with interest by anybody who is concerned with finding "enough of our ancestral past to give us a sense of unity and continuity."

In her brief sketch "You Gave Me the Answer, I'll Tell You the Question" Anne Bernays traces her own ancestral past back to her grandmother, who happens to have been Freud's sister. She presents her childhood memories of a Jewish family trying desperately to hide its origins without forgetting them. By recalling her own early confusion, she vividly illustrates the paradoxes and complexities created by the Bernays' cultural reorientation. Miss Bernays has infused the article with a quiet humor which makes her well-chosen examples all the more revealing: "Granted, the Harmonie Club had done its utmost to blanket its essential character, thereby losing out in gemutlichkeit (like a deodorized delicatessen), but it was still a club for German Jews." In her treatment of the persistent and uncomfortable problem of disentangling the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism Miss Bernays is intentionally inconclusive. The implication is that merely understanding one's cultural past does not provide practical solutions to its inconsistencies. When her daughter asks why the family does not celebrate Hanukkah, the reply is "Next year." The author, almost exasperated, adds "I have ten months to think it over."

Three of Mosaic's articles were written by students who spent summers working or studying in foreign countries. "Between Semesters" by Anthony Kroch consists of selections from a journal he kept while studying the "dying negritude" of the Bassari tribe in the African interior. In brief and eclectic observations Kroch offers an impressionistic case study of a group which seems to be rapidly moving toward extinction. In "Bahia" Keith Aufhauser's intentions are slightly different from Kroch's. Aufhauser captures the flavor of daily life in a superstitious and unpredictably violent slum outside of Salvador. Both Kroch and Aufhauser have obviously become personally involved in the groups' difficulties, but they have avoided dull sentimentality and laconic pleas for sympathy.

Paul Hamburg's short story, "Frankfurt, 1965" presents that moment at which "the concrete passes into pure dream, remoteness becomes the only reality." The narrative is engaging, but Hamburg's fondness for metaphor and abstract diction create a prose rhythm which is occasionally too slow for the rapid mental fluctuations it describes. "But of course that shudder lay hidden in the earliest glances, electrified your passion, and even now has stolen back through the rainy night to fasten itself once more upon your innermost hopes of resurrection."

The poetry in Mosaic is modest, both in length and ambition. John Russo's poems "From 'Still-Life'" give the impression that the poet is not yet completely comfortable with his poetry. In his first two poems he seems to be striving for objectivity in the presentation of almost-forgotten experiences, giving the poems so much distance from the poet and the reader that their communicative aspect is lost. In his last poem he permits himself to appear in the verse, with significantly better results:

No longer lines intrude from a forgotten ode.

Swimming like goldfish in a shallow pool,

They dart and scatter.

My mind moves out of the thickets and images

When he writes about a subject he knows well Russo's language and images improve; they become direct, telegraphic, confident. Perhaps Russo's poetry will take a more personal direction in the future, giving him the opportunity for more concreteness and precision, more emphasis on "life" than on "still":

I have a chance to sort them one by one,

My thoughts, as they pass before

An empty beehive in the sun.

"Split Second" by P. Greenspan freezes times momentarily and lets memory give a new order to the present. The poem has a tendency to become sing-song, but occasionally exhibits a control over colloquial diction and natural rhythms:

Over: events, crawling like ants

on the armchair's sticky plastic; places;

someone's footprint; the fossil-traces

of a word -- outlined by chance

The central inspiration of Miss Greenspan's poem suggests the major theme of the entire issue. After "turning the day clockless" the poetess becomes concerned with discovering "some sequence of tense." Marshall Berman and Anne Bernays similarly have attempted to find some sequence of events in their pasts, which help clarify their present attitudes and feelings. Kroch and Aufhauser have observed the conflicts between a traditional way of life and the demands of modernity. Russo and Hamburg have prssented fragments of the past in fiction and poetry. Mosaic does not try to put together the puzzle of the past; it successfully attempts to put a few more pieces in place.

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