An Apple, Grapes and a Hazel­nut on a Mossy Bank, William Hen­ry Hunt

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, Pur­chase, Brooke Rus­sell Astor Bequest, 2013

Our world is, in some ways, a baf­fling place in which to live. On the one hand, dai­ly exis­tence teems with news of enmi­ty, vio­lence, and loss; while on the oth­er, these same days bring unex­pect­ed, per­sis­tent kind­ness and the stag­ger­ing beau­ty of our planet.

But maybe my frame­work is too sim­ple. Maybe I shouldn’t be think­ing about life in terms of two sep­a­rate hands — this or that, this and then that. No; as a Jew­ish poet, I feel pret­ty sure that my respon­si­bil­i­ty is to try to hold it all at once.

Let’s start with the Jew­ish part. The idea that we might encom­pass both kinds of extremes goes back to the ear­li­est chap­ters of the Torah, when Adam and Eve eat the for­bid­den fruit — fruit from the Tree of Knowl­edge of Good and Evil. One bite con­tains that full range of knowl­edge, and, after eat­ing it, so does each human being.

Jew­ish tra­di­tion is steeped in such will­ing­ness to see both the good and the bad, from our texts to our prac­tices. We have bless­ings for when we see nat­ur­al won­ders, and bless­ings for when we hear about a death. What’s more, these forces often coex­ist. Break­ing glass­es at wed­dings, for exam­ple, or a Mourner’s Kad­dish that con­sists entire­ly of praise. Indeed, one of my favorite Jew­ish teach­ings comes from Rab­bi Bunim, who told his stu­dents to car­ry in their pock­ets two lines of text. The first read, I am noth­ing but dust and ash­es, and the sec­ond, The world was cre­at­ed for me alone. He encour­aged the stu­dents to place these mes­sages in sep­a­rate pock­ets, so that they could con­tem­plate one at a time with­out ever for­get­ting the other.

I don’t want to turn away from one truth in order to embrace anoth­er. I want my eyes wide open. I want to see it all.

This all makes sense to me. Life itself makes it hard to for­get about the ash­es when rev­el­ing in cre­ation, and vice ver­sa; and so Judaism builds that truth into our tra­di­tions, hol­i­days, teach­ings, and rituals.

Poet­ry is a way to get that same truth onto the page, and into the breath.

As poet Mag­gie Smith has said, We live in a bro­ken place, and yet it’s a beau­ti­ful place. Both are true.… And so some of it is just being able to hold those two things at the same time.” Or, in the words of Marge Pier­cy, To be a poet is to open your eyes to every­thing around you.”

These words by Pier­cy echo Gen­e­sis 3:7, which takes place right after Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of Knowl­edge, when the eyes of both of them were opened. Open­ing your eyes to every­thing means see­ing just that — everything.

Writ­ing it down invites a read­er to see it all, too.

In my new col­lec­tion of poet­ry, What’s Left to Us by Evening, there are poems about gun vio­lence, glob­al warm­ing, eco­nom­ic inequities, and angry soci­etal divi­sions. There are also poems about com­mu­ni­ty, fam­i­ly, polit­i­cal change, and the breath­tak­ing beau­ty of trees in bloom. Many of the poems try to hold both extremes at the same time. In Plague City,” a per­son walks to see the cher­ry blos­soms in the ear­ly days of the COVID pan­dem­ic, care­ful­ly avoid­ing peo­ple along the way. In City of Sides,” a kid dress­es as the pres­i­dent and encoun­ters every­thing — the strange anger/​of some hous­es and the unearned wel­come of oth­ers.” The poem Dou­ble Rain­bow” begins, Yes­ter­day some­one robbed me, and today,/an after­noon of rain brings a dou­ble rain­bow.” And Sat­ur­day Morn­ing” reveals that, Despite every­thing, sun finds the syn­a­gogue window.”

This, I think, is life — not just now, but always. At times it feels like I’m try­ing to nav­i­gate a con­tra­dic­tion or para­dox; how can all these oppo­sites be true at once? In wis­er moments, how­ev­er, I under­stand exis­tence to be an incred­i­bly com­pli­cat­ed whole. That lat­ter view is the one I want to hold onto. I don’t want to turn away from one truth in order to embrace anoth­er. I want my eyes wide open. I want to see it all. Judaism and poet­ry, and espe­cial­ly the two togeth­er, invite us to do exact­ly that.

David Eben­bach is the author of nine books of fic­tion, non-fic­­tion, and poet­ry, includ­ing the new poet­ry col­lec­tion What’s Left to Us by Evening and the cre­ativ­i­ty guide The Artist’s Torah. His work has won such awards as the Drue Heinz Lit­er­a­ture Prize, the Juniper Prize, and oth­ers. David lives with his fam­i­ly in Wash­ing­ton, DC, where he teach­es at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty. You can find out more at davideben​bach​.com