Qorbanot: Offerings by Alisha Kaplan, Art by Tobi Aaron Kahn

Crimson blood platelets form the cover of Alisha Kaplan’s Qorbanot – symbols of bloodlines, sacrifices, and the sanguine flow of poetry and painting. Yet these platelets signify far more in this début collection of poems, which are illustrated by the layered brushstrokes of Tobi Kahn. Their collaboration colours the words and gives voice to abstract expressionism, while several inclusive and incisive essays fill in blanks of meaning. As James Young notes in his “Foreword”: “Mind pours itself into the open spaces on the page between Alisha Kaplan’s exquisitely intimate, gemlike poems and Tobi Aaron Kahn’s mysterious … miniature paintings.” Poems and paintings pour meaning into each other in a chiasmus of gemlike colours and enigmatic words where voice and vision synaesthetically draw near.

“Subtitled “Offerings“, these spacious pages offer much to the reader.”

            Subtitled Offerings, these spacious pages offer much to the reader. The first section begins with a prophetic epigraph from Hosea that resonates with the priestly rituals that follow: “Instead of bulls we render our lips.” The verb carries over to the opening line of “Grain Offering” as ancient prophet and modern poet converge: “am I heretic / as I tender to my beloved.” The rhyme of render and tender is explained in Kaplan’s copious online “Notes” to her volume: “Render means offer or tender, as in give payment, which is the literal meaning of it in this verse from Hosea. Render means depict artistically … render speechless.” Kaplan’s “Notes” provide more than mere lip service: they open multiple voices and meanings. The speaker’s rhetorical question not only foregrounds identity but also reminds us that the root of heretic is to choose: the poet has chosen to veer from the beaten path while adhering to her forms of tradition.

            The sensuality of her offering is captured in “a bed in a field” as well as in a burning fistful of sweet aroma that reaches date palms. Furthermore, the palms of lovers’ hands and trees reach across the page to Kahn’s green and grey abstraction – a flowing mouth of delta, an alphabetical aleph or daled, an altar of perception. Afternoon prayer or mincha suggests a resting, as well as the burn and curl of qorban.

            In her “Notes” Kaplan invokes Buber’s I and Thou as an ethical essence of her poetry that enters into dialogue with her reader and with Kahn’s offerings. Her prose poem, “Heirlooms Offering,” reaches across the page to Kahn’s blood cells that form the book’s cover. Blood flows from her grandfather’s ruby ring to her mother’s surname, Rubinstein or ruby stone, and back to her grandmother’s thimble which protects bleeding from the sewing needle. These heirlooms span the Shoah through memory and foresight, the commingling of the priestly and prophetic at every turn. Kahn’s crimson cells accompany the anatomical journey through generations. Buber’s I-Thou relationship expands to Bakhtin’s dialogic imagination that includes the heteroglossia of paintings, online notes, and essays by Young, Ezra Cappell, Lori Hope Lefkovitz, and Sasha Pimentel – each genre offering its own meaning.

            To decipher the meanings behind Kahn’s abstractions, the viewer may turn to Rothko’s rectangles, which conceal another hidden Jewish past, or to Michel Foucault’s theory of heterotopia or “other place” (such as temple or altar) that mirrors yet upsets spatial boundaries. Heterotopia also has an anatomical dimension whereby cells or tissues migrate across the body to relocate to a different site or organ. Heterotopias in Qorbanot move across bodies and spaces, shimmer at surface offerings before moving through layers and depths. Between heterotopia and heteroglossia, the polyphony in this volume echoes across time, space, and sacrificial body parts.

            Kahn’s colours and shapes flow between bodies and spatial suggestion. Opposite “Guilt Offering” his green-grey “Study for YMNAH” conceals and reveals a vertical figure where background enters in an oval face. A crescent line crosses at shoulder level to merge with Kaplan’s words: “for making the shoulder something to look over.” Although her “Notes” do not explain this shoulder, they do mention “part medical, part spiritual pathology” – a heterotopic wandering across the body. The crescent marks the horizon, outstretching vertical worlds, reaching for the unknown of a redemptive offering. That Tobi Aaron Kahn is named after his uncle, who was destined to become a doctor before being murdered by the Nazis in 1933, adds further to medical dimensions of healing in Qorbanot. The body of writing and painting becomes an anatomy of stillness and flow, a drawing closer in intimacy and a centrifugal spreading of meaning.

            In “Burnt Offering” (35) “you say this is not death but a transformation” leads to “all that can cross a threshold.” Transformations and thresholds are central to Qorbanot: reading, writing, and painting are transforming acts, while liminal thresholds may be sites of sacrifice, accompanied by threshing and thrashing of grain and bodies. Kaplan’s transformation transforms the reader; Kahn’s metamorphoses and liminal lines enter a ritual process from biblical times, across the Holocaust, and into postmodernism – each painting a threshold offering itself to interpretation. Abstract guilt calls for an abstract expression and, as Sasha Pimentel notes, pareidolia calls on interpreters to imagine figures in a ground.

            The epigraph to Section V is a quotation from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a novel that ends with “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” In her final novel, Daniel Deronda, Eliot examines the hidden life of Jews and in particular the eponymous protagonist’s hidden identity. The hidden lives of Jews are revealed and concealed on every page of Qorbanot. “Offering to my Mother” feminizes the Akeida story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac and replaces it with the poet’s relationship to her mother. In the two senses of heterotopia, “A body can be a home” (66), as domestic place and womb overlap. The poem ends with “there is a time to suffer in silence / and a time to scream.” Kahn’s grey miniature “TZAAK” serves as a coda to silence and scream. Even as the face echoes Munch’s The Scream, the Hebrew voices that scream and reimagines Isaac’s name as a suspension of sacrificial sound from his origins of laughter. Kahn’s tragicomic masks haunt Qorbanot, while “banot” in the title underscores Kaplan’s lines of daughterhood.

            Yet screams can turn to silence in “vow:” which opens to a blank page as if a single vowel could encompass an entire language. The vow opens across the page to Kahn’s black strokes of “KHYTA,” which is wheat in Hebrew, part of a grain offering, but also close in sound to sin and tailoring. A thin black thread wavers above a thicker horizontal bar and reaches upward toward a vertical brushstroke that longs to restore it. On the one hand, a prayer shawl is an heirloom; on the other, the tailor’s thimble is handed down to protect a granddaughter’s finger. Dualities of splicing and cleaving permeate Offerings, for every drawing draws near and apart. “KHYTA” paints transforming thresholds and moves along subliminal spaces.

            “Offering in Which an Angel Appears to Moses in a Blaze of Fire from the Midst of a Bush” reimagines the angel as female and is accompanied by Kahn’s colourful “ESALH,” an anagram of tamarisk tree or “I will ask.” For the poem asks names of Moses and the angel. Kahn’s bright red angel takes off from Klee’s Angelus Novus, but also clings to the waterways of Exodus.

            The book ends with Kahn’s “STARHA,” a bright floral pattern in a sea of blue and field of green that responds to the final poem, “Wake,” the poet’s resurrection in a field in Hillsburgh, Ontario. STARHA’s multi-petalled star moves in many directions, but the title may also refer to the Hebrew nistar or hidden. The poet awakens and asks, “Am I transformed?” (109). The metamorphoses in Offerings recur in poems, paintings, and the concluding essays, which illuminate all that precedes them. Qorbanot draws nearer Kahn’s New York City, Kaplan’s rural landscape in Hillsburgh, and other places in the Diaspora.

Alisha Kaplan is a poet who lives in Toronto, Canada. This is her first book. Tobi Aaron Kahn is a painter, sculptor, and Professor of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts. His art is the subject of several books, including Objects of the Spirit: Ritual and the Art of Tobi Kahn, by Emily Bilski. He lives in New York City.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ State University of New York Press (April 1 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 152 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1438482922
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1438482927

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.