Brought Down by Simon Constam

Simon Constam’s debut collection of poetry is arresting, moving, and deeply satisfying. From the cover design with its vertical shaft of light in a bamboo forest that connects to verdant stacks with their own hidden mystery, Brought Down descends and ascends in Jewish aphorism, genuflection, and genealogy. The opening poem, “Almighty,” unfurls the speaker’s reverence, which combines with irreverent skepticism by the end. The first stanza expands parallel lines in a pantheistic presence embracing Bible and Whitman:

“You’re a Torah scroll. 
You’re a mountain rock.
You’re a page filled with ancient talk.
You’re two, brilliant-blue sapphire blocks.”

End stops, hard consonants and rhymes reinforce the attributes of the Almighty: God is endless, yet contained in this God-decentered world where Buber and Spinoza are two of many background voices. He is simultaneously protagonist and antagonist in the struggles of “Simon Agonistes.”

            The title phrase first appears in “Text”: “Rabbi Aharon Zalman Leib brought down”; that is, the rabbi decreed that certain laws govern the behaviour of women. Eliezer Greenshaft disputes this strict decree and offers a more lenient attitude: he “brought down / onto the page the idea that women should be free.” Constam brings down teachings from heaven and history, the wisdom of descending and dissenting, humility and chutzpah in arguments with the Almighty.

            The final poem in the collection, “Brought Down,” broadens the phrase’s range further: “My genes were brought down from Aharon Rabbenu / through countless generations.” What is brought down from priestly and prophetic Sinai are shattered tablets of broken laws. Also in this lineage is a descent from Egypt towards a Promised Land.

            The fallen world of Constam’s cosmos is vertical: “Brought low by this world. Brought down a further peg or two.” To get even, the poet levels (with) God: “I brought him down to stand before me. / What I meant to say is that I brought him down to stand.” Meaning shifts yet again: “It is brought down / that you should not see your father’s nakedness.” In the final use of this fraught phrase an equilibrium is established: “It is brought down that you should lift up those parts of the world.” In the argumentative spirit of Abraham and Moses, the poet balances these complex ups and downs of psalms and lamentations.

            In “Torschlusspanik” every “single day a mirror buries the past,” while in “Yerushalmi” the “mirror shows me, grizzled, unkempt.” Through his looking-glass, Constam reflects in clear sonnets and uplifting “Aliyah” that counters what is otherwise brought down. His palimpsests and portraits incorporate many generations hidden in the lights and flights of forests. Humble and proud, this guide for the perplexed is a welcome addition to a heritage that survives on and beyond the page. The only flaw in this volume is the misspelling of “shtetl,” the Yiddish village left behind.

Simon Constam is a poet and an aphorist. His poems have been published in various magazines, among them The Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, and the Dark Poetry Club. He has published a new, original aphorism under the moniker Daily Ferocity on Instagram, daily for almost three years.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Resource Publications (Jan. 13 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 61 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1666734357
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1666734355
Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.