The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards
Poems by Rachel Mennies
Texas Tech University Press
Winner of The Walt McDonald First Book Prize for Poetry
It’s a new year and a chance to get back on track with my weekly (usually Thursdays) Readin’at feature here on the blog. Readin’at is where I celebrate all things literary that relate to Pittsburgh and the region. Here, I talk Pittsburgh-focused books (and review them), literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases and more. I’ve let this column wane a bit over the past few months, but there is so much bookish stuff happening in Pittsburgh that I think this deserves a resurgence.
Rachel Mennies was one of the Pittsburgh authors who I read over the holidays. (She and I will be reading as part of Acquired Taste: Holiday Recovery on Saturday evening, January 10 at East End Book Exchange. We had met earlier in the year, during a gathering of writers on what was possibly one of the most spectacularly gorgeous evenings in Pittsburgh.)
Aside from all that, however, Mennies’ award-winning The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards attracted my attention because of its poems exploring themes such as coming of age as a Jewish woman in America; interfaith marriage; the history, the present, and the future of Judaism, and the sense of finding one’s place in the community as well as the family. For various reasons – the death of my husband’s grandfather, the main family tree branch connecting him with his Jewish heritage; celebrating the winter holidays of Hanukkah and Christmas, and returning back to Philadelphia for the holidays – made this the perfect book for me to read when I did.
In his introduction to Mennies’ work in The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, Robert A. Fink of Texas Tech University Press and editor of The Walt McDonald First Book Series in Poetry, posits that the title
“suggests a delightfully ambiguous, ironic interpretation of God’s hand that protects, that judges, that points to history, heritage, the promises made to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the law meted out to Moses and the children of Israel. God of the Garden of Eden. God of the Shema. This Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Not hand of God, however, is also a glad hand, welcoming hand – one that “accepts / the muddle of our lives ,” a God who “holds/ nobody responsible,” who says, “As you wish,” and then “retreats into the sunset alone.” (“The Jewish Woman in America, 2010”) Glad hand also connotes what could be a less-than-sincere gesture, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts / neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, ESV). There will be no pat, no comfortable answers in this collection of poetry.”
Perhaps no comfortable answers, but for this reader several poems evoked feelings of comfort because they were set in my hometown of Philadelphia. It happens to be Rachel Mennies’ hometown, too, and that of her family.
“They went to Girls’ High School, classrooms filled with young women speaking foreign tongues, caught and released, caught and released each day, back when men and women were kept separately until marriage ….She left his bedside and paced a block of Old York Road, north and south, east and west, as if a cage around her kept her close.” – Philadelphia Woman, pg. 27
What Mennies does exceptionally well in these deeply personal poems – divided into five sections – is show through her curation of her family’s stories how one’s ancestors and their history remain an indelible part of us, even as we move elsewhere to build our own lives and raise our own families. Our lives may be vastly different, the religion of our birth may become faded or forgotten, but the reminders are there.
“I see them in Giant Eagle, buying
the same soup and eggs as I buy;
at the Squirrel Hill library,
their sons garbed as God prefers
even in hot July, consoled by the tallit,
trailing blessed white strings
through Forbes Avenue dirt.
The women cover their heads, their skirts
making dark mysteries
of their legs. All faith, they show me
the fabric of inaccessible glory, the rents
in my own life. My God holds
nobody responsible. He lives in the thick air
over Philadelphia, likes it there, doesn’t
speak to me much, if at all….” – “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010” (pg. 9)
Yet we are connected to our ancestors through stories and ancient customs. They are always with us, as in “For Rose,” my favorite poem in this collection.
Practical. we take the names of our dead
because the dead are sturdy – stern mantles
of opportunity, watching as we shoulder them
from windowpanes, closets. Rose – one curling r
makes hundreds of us, Rachels, Rivkas, Renates,
Richards, Ronalds, this slip of a woman
in a fading photograph keeps all our tongues
moving. Blessed are you, lord of our passed-on,
our looking-over-us-on-high, as the dead name us
consonant, as we cast aside the baby books and run
curious to the headstones, hunting for names
among the mausoleums and weather-worn
statues, the roses gone to pulp beside the roses
freshly brought, red and resonant.
– “For Rose”, pg. 24
Rachel Mennies, a resonant new voice with echoes of the past.
Join Rachel Mennies, Jeff Oaks, and myself at
Acquired Taste Presents: Holiday Recovery
a food-themed literary reading celebrating family holiday traditions
Saturday, January 10
5 -7 p.m.
East End Book Exchange, 4754 Pittsburgh.
Additional details here.