The Poetry of Joseph Zaccardi







Joseph Zaccardi's review of
Songs from a Small Universe by Raphael Block

Songs from a Small Universe by Raphael Block
Beatitude Press, Berkeley, California
ISBN: 978-0-9825066-2-2
2009, 89 pages, $15.00

We take too much credit for our deeds. These poems, like all things, are gifts. I hope the joy they have given me spills over to you.”

Thus begins the preface to Raphael Block’s collection. His poems re-imagine the formation of small universes: the cells of the body, the galaxies of the spirit, the verses that touch us all; the oneness of the universe we share.

I remember when I was in the fifth grade at St. Mary’s grammar school, looking for the first time at a drop of water through a microscope and seeing not what I expected, not simply water that came from an eyedropper onto a glass slide but rather an entire world of organisms, a world teeming with life and movement. Later I learned about the divisions of cancer and then about the invisible things that unite: prayers, the soul, pain. These are some of Raphael Block’s universes; his realization of the infinite divisibility of the infinite, that the human race is one part of many parts. No one thing being greater or smaller than any other. This universe of limitless configurations.

The poems in Songs from a Small Universe are divided into seven sections; together they form a chorus of subjects: songs of the natural, the human experience and songs of remorse and joy. Block’s compositions have many strengths, among them his fine-tuned ear for the music of language. Here are two excerpts from “Calling.” (Page 9) He sings:

I let myself be torn,

laughing with March hares

and birdsong awakening fields....

Everything is calling

in its depth

to our depth….

And in the appropriately titled poem, “Small Universe,” (page 13) he concludes with:

I sweep my porch, while

a thrush

bounces in a bush.

On a clear night I get lost

in the Milky Way.

There’s a kind of tenderness in his poems that are insistent in their honesty and constant in their emotional resonance. In the section titled Tears, the images are about ritual and loss, the tears are quiet songs. From “Spell of Being.” The poem answers the unanswerable: (page 33)

Alone, I’ve learned how to climb

into that warm, rounded tree-hole,

lined with a fir-pressed bed,

filled with woody pine smells,

a semi-darkness to better hear myself,

and entering that den, catch ringing from the trees,

echoes of our longing.

Raphael Block has the gift of precision and rhythm, like a fine-tuned piano, his voice has beauty and texture. He is the beholder of great sadness, the holder of the mouthpiece of a recorder to the lips. Block’s musical skills shine throughout this collection but no more so than in the final section, “Songs for Singing,” where he invites us to sing along with him. His lyrics are accompanied by chord sequences. Here’s “Angel Of Clouds” in its entirety:

(page 82)


Red blasting their underbellies,

Ab Bb

streaming towards the setting sun,


bouncing on a mattress of air,


singing high, leaping and dancing,


a skipped beat ─ now you’re gone. ] x3


Winged angel of clouds

Ab Bb

explodes the western skies,


|| reeling the swallows’ invisible chords

Ab Bb

into the raging glow :||


|| Stars slip into the sky,

Ab Bb

and stars around stars around stars :||


ringing, ringing, ringing. ] x5

Songs from a Small Universe is an intensely moving book of poetry, it is indeed a small universe of beautiful words, and it is vast.

Raphael Block was born on a Kibbutz in Israel to pioneering parents and spent his boyhood playing on the hills of Haifa. Just before he turned nine, his family moved to England. Learning English shaped his ear for sounds, and the British climate and temperament fashioned his life over the next 25 years, until he met and married an American living in London, reviving the long submerged, fiery Israeli. Raphael and Deborah moved to Northern California with their daughter in 1993, and after Deborah’s death from cancer in 2002, he raised their daughter. Raphael has worked with children of all ages for almost 30 years. He currently lives in an old apple orchard outside of Sebastopol, and considers himself richly blessed.

Joseph Zaccardi is editor of the Marin Poetry Center Anthology. His second collection of poetry, Render, was published by Poetic Matrix Press in 2009.

From 2010

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