REVIEW: Tradition by Daniel Khalastchi
by Eric Howerton
No one can accuse Daniel Khalastchi’s second collection of poetry—provocatively named Tradition—of failing to fully embrace its post-modern conceit. At times the risks in Tradition reward the tolerant reader’s pathos, but mostly these poems tickle our sly, inner appreciation for the unanticipated chaos of modern life.
Comprised by mostly narrative poems, this collection is unflinching in its satire from the very first poem to the tongue-in-cheek cover, which features the visage of a rather stern-looking, hatted Hasidic gentleman with the word “tradition” angularly lacing throughout his beard. Rather than revering tradition and the time-honored customs of yesteryear, Khalastchi’s work labors to dismantle the very notion of tradition so as to scrutinize tradition’s relevance amidst the instability of an ever-fluxing, ever-diversifying world, a world where the need for arch-narratives and moral templates seems waning, unwanted and anti-progressive.
The traditions Khalastchi most often deflates are those of Judaism, most notably Jewish conversions for marriage purposes, which here more resemble a weekend with your dilettantish uncle than anything having to do with spiritual tutelage. If the cover of the collection doesn’t communicate a tone of near-total irreverence, Khalastchi ensures that no one misses out on the joke immediately in the collection’s first poem, “I Want Jew So Badly”:
The conversion Rabbi comes to my door holding
a box of unwrapped dildos and a wood-handled
The conversion Rabbi and his convert appear regularly throughout the collection, though they won’t be caught doing anything remotely “orthodox.” While readers might expect the conversion poems to address the difficulty of reading and speaking Hebrew, familiarizing oneself with holy texts, or psychologically preparing for certain dietary prohibitions, these poems instead show the Rabbi and his ward receiving facials at the Clinique counter and shopping at Costco, as well as committing crimes in public restrooms. While each of the conversion Rabbi poems has a rather unfortunate pun as its title (e.g. “Jew and I Travel to the Beat of a Different Drum,” “Lover, Jew Should Have Come Over,” etc), they do float above their comic origins by asking whether modern consumer behaviors have loosely become traditions in and of themselves? And if so, are these traditions any less deterministic or confining than the antiquated moral restrictions openly mocked elsewhere in the book?
Khalastchi takes jabs not only preservation of tradition, but at its evolution too. How tradition interfaces with and is warped by modern preoccupation is perhaps the collection’s chief concern. In a moment where the Rabbi and his convert are discussing burial practices, the Rabbi offers a startlingly contradictory consolation in order to procure a sale:
…When you stop shaking
we can go to the basement and I’ll teach you how to knock clean
Hebrew names into the dark marble of a headstone. Plus,
he says, removing a blueprint of black x’s and circles
from his satin breast pocket, if you commit to buying
your cemetery plot today, I’ll let you sleep for ten
minutes believing in the resurrection.…
For as many blows as it takes, religion is not the only target of ironic entanglement here, as Khalastchi is an equal-opportunity lampooner. In the midst of poems that poke fun at religious practice and custom, Poetry with a capital P receives just as must criticism for the assertion of its own dogmas.
For example, many of Khalastchi’s poems bite their thumb at what most readers and writers of poetry have been taught to regard as “rules” that should be broken only with ample justification. Khalastchi often abandons the strategic use of enjambment as emphasis or to double a line’s meaning, and instead bluntly ends his lines on articles (a, the) and prepositions (on, to) that do little to reinforce a poem’s theme. The aesthetic inclusion of a clumsy tedium does not, however, mean that the poem itself becomes uninteresting or fails to accomplish its aim simply because its enjambment is not of a “recommended” variety. Rather, these poems present themselves as aggressivity in the face of tradition and orthodox method, as alternatives to blind adherence and stylistic rigidity. The 28-line poems that Khalastchi dubs “sonnets” earn their titles by positing romance, however these poems intentionally lack strict meter and make more turns than a revolving door. Time shifts and time leaps that might be a turn in a 14-line sonnet here serve to reemphasize the fact that everything is always turning all the time, always moving away from the patterns of what was into the patterns of what will be. The traditions of tomorrow will be born from the same mouth that chewed on, deformed, and spit out the gummy traditions of today.
For Khalastchi, that rules and traditions exist at all seems to be the only justification needed for breaking them. But to what end? Perhaps in order to assert that the rules are not always broken in the same way, that there are both reckless and systematic ways of bucking the norm.
Still, breaking the rules for breaking-the-rule’s sake begs the question of whether or not a rejection of tradition—wholesale or partial—is an act of liberating oneself from the arbitrary binds of time, history, and the inheritances left to us by the zealous, controlling dead? And if so, once one dispenses with the supposed value tradition, do the world and its movements fatalistically slip into a morass of symbolical emptiness and nihilistic solipsism?
The answer to these questions, I would argue, appears in the numbered “Poems for My Father,” in which the speaker addresses his Jewish father’s exodus from Iraq, a journey necessitated by frightening religious persecution. For nine consecutive poems, Khalastchi’s project pauses the satire and hones in on the historical realities of lived, human experience instead of hyperbolic satires.
When Khalastchi writes in the acknowledgments that “dissonance is an integral part of harmony,” it seems as though he’s speaking directly to the tonal incompatibility between “Poems for My Father” and the rest of the collection. The collection is worth reading for these nine poems alone, as they stand out as the most politically significant, culturally sensitive, sincere, and meaningful poems in the collection; however, their importance wouldn’t be emphasized as such if not surrounded by poems that showcased the extreme and comic manifestations of the “modern traditions” like late-stage capitalism, liberal individualism, and sexual liberation to name a few.
The poems in “Poems for My Father” are a dissenting voice in a collection that largely mocks tradition, and perhaps this caveat is intended to remind us that for those who suffer persecution because of their traditions, tradition cannot be a laughing. As a marker of identity, affiliation with tradition is often involuntary, which means that persecution may be unavoidable despite what one actually believes or practices. Khalastchi powerfully writes of the danger unfurled when traditions grow intolerant of one another in “II.”
You walked until morning. The city was
swollen in throngs of long cotton and the
souqs became veined with lines for raw
meat. Standing in garbage, you needed
new clothes. Back at your house, a police-
man was waiting with sandals by the
door. He asked for ID and if you were
Jewish. From your wallet fell pictures
of a well-dressed man. Before taking you
away, the officer spoke to an onlooking
neighbor. What she said in her garden let
him let you go.
After a series of prolonged gags, Khalastchi reminds us that laughing can itself be a privilege, and it is privilege alone that allows us to question the value of or roll our eyes at tradition. By recognizing this privilege in light of traditional habits, Khalastchi helps us see that—for all its absurdities, hypocrisies, and inequities—the perseverance of tradition both endangers and strengthens us as a people. At the same time, tradition mocks us for participating in retrogrades, while also adding gravity to customs that would—without the context of other people having done the same thing for hundreds if not thousands of years—seem crushingly and foolishly quaint.
Tradition is available from McSweeney’s
Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza,theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.