Written in the 1930s when Hyam Plutzik was in his mid-twenties, “The Seventh Avenue Express” is a dystopian narrative set in the New York City subway system. This previously unpublished poem was turned into a limited-edition book, published by the Meliora Press at the University of Rochester in 2022, to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Plutzik Poetry Series and includes a foreword by Edward Hirsch.
Keenly aware of the rise of antisemitism and fascism in Europe during this time, the young poet sought sustenance in the time-honored verities of his Jewish heritage, as when he writes:
They read the words their prophets speak to them:
The good! the great! the beautiful! the true!
Whose memory shall outlast by far this age!
Men of the flaming word! the flaming sword!
Plutzik was a cub reporter on The Brooklyn Daily Eagle when he wrote “The Seventh Avenue Express.” Consequently the work includes references to some of his journalistic assignments, as when he needed to decipher the words on a crumbling tombstone “in a Jamaica churchyard near the El.” Ironically, Plutzik himself would be interred in a plot in the Old Montefiore Cemetery not far from that elevated train station. It is tempting to speculate he might have been making a play on words here, since “El” is also one of the Hebrew names for God.
Pun or not, this passage reveals another allusion to Plutzik’s Jewish consciousness — the preservation of memories in danger of fading, whether on the stone of a grave marker or the page of a book. He writes:
In a Jamaica churchyard near the El,
That shakes the body of the quick and dead—
Daylong the rushing trains frighten the earth—
O cruel the enigma that wrestles with the brain,
Not angel in darkness but devil day and night.
In a similar exploration of memory, Plutzik would publish a poem in his 1959 collection Apples from Shinar titled “After Looking Into a Book Belonging to My Great-Grandfather Eli Eliakim Plutzik.” Again playing on the “El” image in his ancestor’s name, the poet, with his “scribbling fist,” compares this ancestral book to a gravestone, as when he writes:
I am troubled by the blank fields, the speechless graves.
Since the names were carved upon wood, there is no word
For the thousand years that shaped this scribbling fist.
Only Here lies someone.
Here lies no one and no one, your fathers and mothers.
Additionally, in his Foreword to “The Seventh Avenue Express” Edward Hirsch notes how Plutzik had to “contend with the overwhelming influence of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” This presages Plutzik’s later poem “For T.S.E. Only,” also published in Apples from Shinar. In this powerful work, Plutzik challenges Eliot’s antisemitism, while offering the older poet “the milk of the mild Jesus’ teaching.” It opens with this stanza:
You called me a name on such and such a day—
Do you remember? — you were speaking of Bleistein our brother.
The barbarian with the black cigar, and the pockets
Ringing with cash, and the eyes seeking Jerusalem,
Knowing they have been tricked. Come, brother Thomas,
We three must weep together for our exile.
Indeed, in an extensive literary corpus spanning some three decades from the early 1930s till his untimely death in 1962, Hyam Plutzik declares without question that he is neither nonchalant nor casual about his Jewishness. Around the time he was writing “For T.S.E. Only,” Plutzik was asked to contribute some poems to a proposed prayer book on Conservative Judaism. He submitted four of them: “Magen Avot,” “L’Cho Dodi,” “El Anon El Kol,” and “Kaddish.” In “El Anon Al Kol,” Plutzik summons the mystical imagery of the Kabbala to honor the eternal verities that connect him with his ancestral roots:
The spirits, instruments of God, named after fire—
The spirits named for a whirling wheel—
The spirits called the Creatures of Heaven—
All chant his grandeur and might.
To end on a humorous note, the “wheel of fire” metaphor was also a favorite of T. S. Eliot, who used it in The Waste Land. In 2003, Rodger Kamenetz published “The Lower Case Jew,” a poem in which he imagined Eliot hauled before a rabbinical court on charges of antisemitism. In Kamenetz’s narrative, Eliot’s character Bleistein, here the prosecuting attorney, suggested the following sentence for his creator:
I propose you send him
to Hyam Plutzik’s grandson’s bar mitzvah.
For the Jews it will seem all afternoon.
For him, a hundred years.
He’ll hora with Rachel nee Rabinovitch
and kazatzki with Allen Ginsberg
who will give him wet sloppy kisses
After hearing the proposed sentence, which included joke-torture by Yiddish comedians and palate-torture by schmaltzy concoctions of matzo ball soup and gefilte fish, a groaning and unrepentant Eliot pleads for mercy, claiming: “O I am bound to a bagel of fire.”
The upcoming book, Hyam Plutzik, American Jewish Poet: Memory, Loss and Time, to be edited by Vicki Aarons, Sandor Goodhart, and Holli Levitsky and published in 2024 by Academic Studies Press will include essays from twenty distinguished scholars, including Alan Berger, Hilene Flanzbaum, Edward Hirsch, Cary Nelson, Monica Osborne, Boris Fishman, and Eric Sundquist, among others. Its publication suggests that Hyam Plutzik, a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is finally receiving his well-deserved recognition as an important mid-twentieth-century poet.
The book is thus “a gesture toward not only reviving the memory and work of a brilliant American poet but also a step toward making his work universal,” as Aitor Bouso Gavín recently commented in the Massachusetts Review when reviewing a collection of Plutzik translations that were released in 2021 by Suburbano Ediciones.
Years earlier, in his commentary on Plutzik’s Collected Poems, Ted Hughes wrote : “He has a kinship with Isaac Bashevis Singer, drawing his strengths in a similar way, directly and openly, from that ancient tradition, yet engaging the modern world as a stripped soul — with a point-blank, wholehearted simplicity of voice. His visions are authentic and piercing, and the song in them is strange — dense and harrowing, with unforgettable tones.”
The Plutzik Poetry Series was established in 1962 by the University of Rochester after Plutzik’s death at the age of 50. It has since welcomed more than 300 writers, including US and British Poets Laureate as well as Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award finalists and winners. Plutzik had taught at the University from 1945 to 1962, where he was the first Jewish faculty member in the English department. He was succeeded in that position by Anthony Hecht, who edited Plutzik’s Collected Poems in 1987.
Edward Moran has been researching and writing about Hyam Plutzik’s poetry for more than fifteen years. He served as literary adviser for the 2006 documentary film Hyam Plutzik: American Poet, directed by Oscar nominee Christine Choy. He has also presented on Plutzik’s work many times at symposia sponsored by the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Association, an affiliate of the ALA. Prior to that, he served as associate editor of H W Wilson’s World Authors reference series, taking the baton from and continuing the legacy of Jewish-American poet Stanley Kunitz.