In 1976, the political landscape was changing, and I had dreams of becoming a poet. The riots in protest against the war in Vietnam were still rampant, but some of the fervor at SUNY Binghamton, where I was a student, had subsided. During this time, I was invited to a reading at a small, conservative temple in Elmont, Long Island, NY, and eager to escape the confines—my four walls—I went in order to discover other “poets.” In walked an unusually vibrant woman, small in stature, but with a large voice and a nasal tone, she stepped up to the podium and read from her chapbook, Between Revolutions:
The catshit reproaches me in the bathroom The icebox has regressed: and puddles on the floor.
The drain’s in pain again.
It vomits when I do the dishes.
a bit unwell.
I was immediately smitten, not just from her powerful words, but by the passion she exuded; the humor in her diction; the nostalgia for a world I had left so long ago, when I moved away from my grandpa’s pharmacy on Belmont Avenue in Brooklyn, the world of immigrants and Zionists. Here stood a woman whose zest for life and its inhabitants was extraordinary. Enid spoke to me in a way no one ever had before: this was the wry, ironic intelligent voice of a poet. Enid lit a fire inside; she filled the hunger of a young woman seeking political commitment and a special warmth. This was a defining moment; I had finally met a real poet. Enid became my mentor, without her ever knowing it.
Apparently, she was such a mentor for a whole host of devoted fans. For Enid with love, a Festschrift, edited by Barry Wallenstein, conveys the grandness of this “Dame,” the vibrancy of her work and the impact she had on friends and her beloved husband of 25 years, Donald Lev. It was a real loss to the literary community when she died in 2003, after a tough battle with cancer. Through these loving narratives and poems, remembrances, Enid’s spirit lives on.
Barry Wallenstein calls this collection a festschrift, a festival of writings, which the dictionary defines as a ‘volume for presentation to a well-known scholar or the occasion of her attaining a certain age, pinnacle of career, retirement.’ This festival, through recollections, essays and poetry, written by authors, some of whom had never met Enid, but were moved by her work, functions as a tribute to honor a scholar; a teacher and poet of the midrash and a woman with deep ties to her ethnic identity as well as the troubled political landscape of the times.
Her poems begin in the home. No one is more important to that home then her partner, Donald Lev. Donald was her husband and the two lovingly edited the unique newspaper-formatted journal, Home Planet News. Enid shared how “I always thought I left Baltimore in search of the ‘Revolution’ or a place where I could be a ‘writer.’ This is what I told myself. But it came to me that I was really coming to find you: my soul mate, my bashert. That was the real purpose of my journey. Poetry and politics were part of it, but not ‘it.’”
There were many components to this home, and Donald-though the biggest, the brightest, the best, was not the only piece of this majestic puzzle. Home was the many memories of a sharply critical mother and a loving father who exposed her to cultural Judaism. Home is a place where, “Anything you don’t see/will come back to haunt you.” It was Donald and Brighton Beach; the aging socialist parents; the other residence in the Catskills, where Judith P. Saunders tells us, “She conjures up flora and fauna and landscape with an accurate eye, conveying the flavor of rural life, but she remains poised between outsider and insider.”
In the same piece, Saunders informs the readers of Dame’s enthusiasm as she approaches, “the mountains waiting for us,” and then “pulling into a sleeping street” and preparing a midnight dinner that “is a feast.” Enid Dame and Donald Lev loved the country, but like all aspects of her life, she understood the cracks in the earth, that nothing was perfect, except, perhaps, the domestic routines.
Burt Kimmelman’s understanding of Dame’s love for domesticity, is that there is laughter and warmth in this, and such is the go between grief and survival, “The idea of two people/working in separate rooms;/ one is fastening down words in wax,/ one is cutting garlic/building the soup/they will eat together, later/meeting at the table.” There is also the unvarnished hope that the words which capture these routines will be immortalized once its inhabitants are no longer there:
The idea of a house
even when the house is sold even when the lives lived there They will unpack new words vegetables They will remodel the kitchen. They will add another chapter to the house’s biography. They will set up new routines to sustain them in the shadows
Many of the writers recognize, within the intimacy of her daring diction, not just the love of “houselholdry” (Kimmelman), but also the love of the divine where, “epic scriptural issues are taken up with grant casualness” (Kimmelman). Alicia Ostriker was inspired by Dame’s Lilith sequence, where this early rebel, “Kicked myself out of paradise” after some quarrels with Adam, and ends, “Now I work in New Jersey/take art lessons/live with a cab-driver/he says: baby/what I like about you/is your sense of humor.” It is Dame’s sense of humor, the feminist trajectory behind these midrash poems, coupled with her love of “the man and god I couldn’t live with” which has propelled many Jewish women writers to explore text within the bible that challenges the patriarchal order. Ostriker concludes her beautifully written essay, “Her midrashic writing is a tree of life sprouting through disasters. Her writing as a whole is sharply political without being simple-minded, passionate and humane without sacrificing playfulness. May her work continue to ripple out her left spirit of truth and compassion and comedy and justice. May it live and be healthy.”
This abundance of health is played out in the zest and sexuality of the female protagonists. Enid had unusual ability to shape Eve into more than an outsourcing for the history of women-she shapes her into a loving, eccentric contradictory figure of love and lust. (Martin Tucker) Such compassion motivated Dame to embrace not just women, but all of humanity, with a sense of justice for Jews, Christians, Blacks, Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians. She spoke for the poor and the beleaguered, and motivated her friends and students to reach out in the same, compassionate way.
Enid was a committed teacher, loved by her students. Roberta Gould shares: “Reading into their work/a potential visible/to none but their creator/she made them feel worthy. They changed pebbles to pearls/she said/Was this love or blindness?/ Did she believe it?” (Poetry Teacher).
Her students were not just those who attended her classes, but the writers who were inspired by her generosity of spirit, her marvelous humanity and the multitude of poets indelibly marked by her words:
Enid Dame Enid Dame everything is important your words tell me not to grieve but to carve a fierce and tender goddess from the Hudson River Breeze (Yerra Sugarman)
Yerra Sugarman longs, at the end of her poem, for Enid to “Comfort me bone by bone god’s lioness.”
Such is the life and art of god’s lioness. Reading these heart-warming testimonials awakened that poetic passion a young girl once had, and brought back that youthful Enid, the one who set me on my own poetic journey with the “face, radiant, smile serene” (Judith Lechner). Barry Wallenstein in his poem Without Tears for Enid understands that fire is embedded in her text: “Enid/of the midrash line-full blooded,/belonging to the light,/blazing wife of Donald,/a character…/illuminating/in flight.”
Barry Wallenstein has edited a superb “festival of verse and narratives.” These tributes, with their own distinctive literary voices, are a gift, and this celebration is honoring a poet whose legacy will linger for years to come:
Enid Patron of poets Your presence grows in absence, Your words an eternal flame A torch to light dark corners. Legends could be spun You could not save the world But your words saved souls And will again. (Judith Lechner)