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May 20, 2020 7:00 am

New Book of Poetry Finds Relevance During Coronavirus

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

A nearly-deserted 7th Avenue in Times Square is seen near midday in Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, April 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Mike Segar.

David Caplan is a Hasidic professor and poet who once wrote about the works of Eminem and Jay-Z. His new collection of poetry, Into the Garden, comes out during a pandemic where people’s lives have been flipped upside down. For many, it’s a time to contemplate their existence in the world.

Caplan, a professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, where he is the associate director of creative writing, knows that people may not be consoled by poetry or faith alone, but should look to their own power.

“It doesn’t pretend to have the answers, only reflection,” he said of his new collection, which was written before the pandemic. Some selections have been used in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

“It’s devastating,” Caplan said by phone of the coronavirus outbreak. “I cant imagine what it’s like for anyone who has lost a loved one. The void no doubt is horrific and painful. All I can say is that we must live on and show the best parts of that person through us.”

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His collection features many ironies. A thief is praying for his success. In another work, there is a wedding invitation for the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, but it is obviously a symbolic invitation.

“Chassidus by Telephone” is his best work here. The speaker listens to a class on a Bluetooth device, and there is an egg that he does not eat and a sandwich for someone who might be hungry that he does not eat either. He asks what exactly we have been feeding ourselves over the years.

He also writes about not having children with his wife, and calls it a tough decision to put that in print.

“It was deeply personal, but I wanted to include it,” he said.

He added he also has a personal gripe with depictions of Hasidic Jews in the media.

“I think they should be presented as fully human,” he said. “Sadly that’s not always the case and could give rise to antisemitism.”

The crux of his witty and inspiring poems focuses on mundane activities, such as past writings about a yeshiva boy in Morristown, New Jersey. There is also a slight similarity between his work and that of fellow Hasidic poet Yehoshua November, author of God’s Optimism.

In 2014, Caplan wrote Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming, and went into an in-depth investigation of artists like Jay-Z and Eminem, feeling perhaps they didn’t get enough credit from the mainstream poetry world.

“Eminem uses mosiac rhyme and twists the pronunciation to make it fit,” he said. “He’s controlling the language. The language isn’t controlling him. With Jay-Z, he has so much range and ability.”

In terms of the pandemic, Caplan thinks many people will adapt.

“Whether it’s poetry, film, or any type of art, there will be changes,” he said. “Humans always adapt and we just hope we can get through this time as safely as possible.”

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