Book Review: True Faith by Ira Sadoff

True Faith: Poems

Ira Sadoff
BOA Editions. 2012

reviewed by Mike Walker

In Ira Sadoff’s new book of poetry, the title poem starts “true faith belongs to the truly unstable”, and from there, it’s a rolling ride through the American landscape, language, the questions of faith and what that word “faith” even means. Sadoff, a veteran American poet of Russian Jewish ancestry, has long been hailed by critics for his astute and complex use of language, and he embarks on a quest in this volume to explore language further yet also to use it as an instrument to navigate questions of culture and religion in often uncomfortable, cunning, and in the end, remarkable, ways. “They love ideas in Virginia”, Sadoff tells us, despite less-flattering things he also has to say about that same state, and people in other locales garner both his praise and criticism, too. Madrid earns a poem and America has not one, but two, plus a few others that could be entitled “America” as well. Sadoff’s not fully cynical but always, in the very best of ways, fully questioning and his desire to learn overshadows any view one may form that he pokes fun at his topics here and there: he’s out with not only the best of intentions, but the sheer ability to make good on them, and comes home like Lewis and Clark with treasures to show and tell from the greatest of journeys across land and stream. In the end, even his poems set overseas are flawlessly American.

It takes the multi-blood American mind to produce these words, and in converse, it takes the blood of other shores to make one so American. The Jewish aspects, the Russian aspects, the noble storyteller tradition in both those loci, the great sense of poetics of place and nuances of culture in these conventions come forth fully formed from Sadoff’s pen. He writes as an American, but he writes just as much looking in from outside, seeing things anew, and jumping from car to notepad to jot it all down. Thus, even when he approaches what might in a less-skilled poet’s hands seem trite, he makes it both sincere and novel—unique even—in his view of it. Anna Akhmatova was much the same: when she took that train from Saint Petersburg to Tashkent under the worst of conditions, she still came out afresh in a city designed to delight—even under less than the best of circumstances. When the Russians (or Russian-Americans, or Russian-Jews, or looking back far enough even the Slavs of the Kievan Rus) write of home, they write in a chatty, forward, nostalgic manner but when they get out of town, over the mountain, to the places they’ve only seen in postcards, something else comes to life and it’s an ability to score down the heartbeat of the new place, the visited place, the moment as a tourist is at once turned into the words just spoken from lips to ear and yet also words carved into stone. Their words are immediate, real, and honest, but also strong, robust, and lasting.

Sadoff is no less demanding nor any less forthcoming when it comes his own life:

My first roses brought me to my senses.
All my furies, I launched them like paper boats
in the algaed pond behind my house.

This is the onset of his poem “My First Roses” and sums up a lot of the type of introspective writing he provides in this book. The topical matter in such poems is not surprising—it’s the same old loves found and lost, the medical queries, reflections on the arts, all the stuff we get from poets who have been in the game a few decades already—yet the results with Sadoff can be astounding, as if Monet was sent out to paint your cousin’s cattle in the field. Furies, we do not often expect in poems with “roses” in their titles. Nor do we picture them oft-launched like so many paper boats, but oh, perhaps we should all the more often.

To get even more to the core of it, Sadoff himself outlines a short thesis of what he attempts to do in his poetry in his poem “Self-Portrait”:

I think I want everyone and everything to be loved so much
I get dour, chastising, dark, and sometimes hate
so much I can’t go for a stroll without recycling the moment

Wow. While Sadoff speaks certainly for himself, does he not also speak at least in part for many other poets and writers in general? Or even, artists in general? The frustration he has is far from unique, but his ability to narrow it down into something so understandable is a rare talent. Sadoff has picked up the role of the chronicle-writer—that role taken up by Isaac Bashevis Singer and many before him even, the role that requires a near-scientific ability to record the topography of both place and emotion, but also the discerning nature to make something more of it than a narrow historiography. This is a man keenly aware of his surroundings, who “for beauty keeps a ceramic swan” given to him as a child by a favorite auntie. He is keeping other things for beauty in his verse, too.

The scope of Sadoff’s work is as impressive as its depth: the same man who writes in his poem “In a Southern Climate” about the sociogeography of both Bush politics and of Texas itself also crafted the sparse but engaging poem “Orphans”, which is about its obvious subject but much else, as well. The tenor of the poems and their form could be the work of two different yet contemporary poets, however, they are both the efforts of Sadoff and recent efforts at that.

Decipher me, we say to the wilderness.

Thus opens the poem “My Country” and provides another possible thesis for Sadoff’s goals in this book. He looks at the landscape and even though he often finds—and is rather distracted by—the interventions of human scars, he still is able to locate enough “wilderness” to produce a distinct, tactile, and robust landscape. It is this tactition in his words, a sense that seems directly carried from eye to pen, that defines Sadoff’s capable, dazzling, wordplay. Sadoff writes of the post-9/11 world as have many poets—especially American poets—in the past decade; however he writes of this time and its circumstances anew, unraveled and unencumbered of all the tropes of our contemporary days somehow.

On the cover of the book in hand, there is a beautiful photograph of a volcano in Iceland erupting in 2010, sending a huge ungainly plume of black ash and smoke skyward above the prim, bright farmhouses of an innocent hamlet. Running between the typography of the book’s title and the author’s name is the line—what’s known as the lead—of an EKG readout, a pulse running amok right between a work and its author. It’s a great little touch of graphic design that unites the composition of the cover, but it also stands as an icon for what this book is all about: the pulse of time through the body of society and land alike. Sadoff’s added another fine corpus to the standing library of views and vantages he’s provided over his lengthy career.


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