David Herrle reviews To Life! To Love! by Rolf Gompertz
published by iUniverse
"What was I talking about? Oh yes, LOVE."
TO LIFE! TO LOVE!: IN POETRY AND PROSE, A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR is a colorful title. Really. It's spelled out in blue, light teal, dark pink, light pink, green, and orange (see image above). The different colors foretell the varicolored moods, subjects, and musings packed within the covers like condensed rainbow stripes.
Speaking of colors, I usually hesitate to evoke hackneyed Old Testament stories, but the one about Joseph and his multi-colored coat that snobbish atheists and anti-Semites alike recognize is warranted in this case - not because Rolf is Jewish or because his writings tend to center on Judaism. TO LIFE TO LOVE's author simply shares elements of the Joseph story: he knows and feels the great love of a father, frankly shares his dreams and is shunned for them, is seemingly out of God's favor but then regains wonder and faith, turns bad situations into lessons and opportunities, realizes his potential and ultimate purpose, and learns trust and forgiveness and repeatedly returns to Love's salvation.
I found this Joseph connection before I finished reading the book, so I was pleased to see that the final poem was entitled "Coat of Many Colors":
the needle in the haystack,
My books, My poetry and prose,
And I shall sew you
A garment of Love,
A coat of many colors.
Rolf Gompertz (Menachem ben Shimshon v' Sarah) isn't a man who is always happy (like his joyful image on the front cover), always hopeful and impervious to sin and sorrow. He is a man who admits sin and sorrow but chooses to chase happiness and hope until he crosses the mortal finish line. And he believes beyond the finish line. No dull existentialism or fundamentally meaningless strict materialism here. So these memoirs are meant to offer "sparks of spirit" (contrary to physicalism's and nihilism's ultimate absurdity) to those on the mortal side lest they suffer living death from despair:
"When all is said and done, there is only one answer left:
Love and Reconciliation."
Rolf treats readers to sincere flights of fancy as well as grounded speculation; he doesn't fear passionate explosions or mystical puzzlement or elitists' judgment of his dark and light pinks of verse. Like a jester who takes serious pride in his station or a Buckingham Palace guard who dares to grin and even stick out his tongue, Rolf plays the humorist and teacher, the metaphysician and the fool, the studious speculator and the child who rejects his homework and dour books to race through flowery fields and loaf by brooks instead. Such laxness and boyish bravery might count as weakness in other writers, but Rolf's sincere and consistently intense insistence on resisting pretense treats readers to his flexible but strong-like-water core instead of some tightly guarded palace with nary a grin or forbidden stuck-out tongues.
Though TO LIFE TO LOVE is full of "high" language, it's not meant to baffle or dazzle readers with formal malarkey. Readers' enjoyment matters above all. Rolf writes: "Poetry can be fun...Between you and me, a lot of poetry isn't worth bothering with. By the time you've figured out what some of the poems have to say, you find it's wasn't worth the effort." Rolf likens this long labor for disappointment to "eating artichokes."
If Rolf has a fixation, it's Love - whatever that suggestive, nebulous, popular, powerful word entails. And he's not ashamed to be "old-fashioned" and capitalize key words like Love or Urge or Faith and Folly ala Coleridge and Blake and countless others. Too many stuffy owls snub their beaks at this tradition. Rolf's recurring Love theme is central to his message of Life. I can't help but recall the conclusion to Percy Shelley's "Song" which sums up TO LIFE TO LOVE (but without Shelley's shortsighted atheism):
"I love Love - though he has wings,
And like light can flee -
But above all other things,
Spirit, I love thee -
Thou art Love and Life! O come,
Make once more my heart thy home.
TO LIFE TO LOVE expresses and incarnates the author in the same fashion that LEAVES OF GRASS "was" and "is" Walt Whitman. But the poetical Whitman seems more persona than person, while Rolf is Rolf is Rolf. As if to emphasize the Rolfness of the entire book, he preludes the poetry with the text of a one-man play that was staged in the 1980s (with the help of Marsha Moode) called "A Celebration of Life In Poetry and Prose with MENACHEM." From that point on, Rolf's spiritual expansion spans perceptions, divisions, mentalities, and back into biblical history (particularly identifying with Abraham).
Call me Menachem.
Let me tell you a story.
Come with me,
Come back with me
Give or take a hundred
Or two hundred years...
Much of the book, however, entails a diary-scope focus: introspection, juggling of personal regret and resurrection, and humility. After all, the author admits that he is but a "Poet of the Foolish Heart," prone to error and despair and overlooking "The Great Truth" even in his own work.
Rolf repeatedly relates his real experiences in the anti-poetical world, the world of "entertainment merchants" and hard-sellers. It was a bitter lesson turned into lemonade sweetness and hence worthy as a cornerstone subject to illustrate the possibility of a poet's redemption from obscurity.
"They say they are too soft,
My stories, my scripts, my dramas.
I listened, respectfully at first.
Maybe I needed to learn...
What do you want from me?
Look around! Look at what sells!
I looked around at what sells:
Mindless action, cold passion,
Ah, now I understand: You want mindless action,
cold passion, mechanical people...
What about the heart, the spirit, the soul?
But they who buy and sell
do not hear and do not want to hear.
Do the entertainment merchants know something
about the masses in the marketplace that I don't know?
The second-to-last stanza of the complete poem made me cry. It is a powerful testament to some poets' bravery in the face of self-proclaimed trendsetters and Mammon-mad jerks who have (over centuries) compromised worthy art for the sake of commodification.
In vivid Vivaldi fashion, the poetry is sectioned into Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, comprising seventy poems in all. The majority of Spring's and Summer's pieces are rhyming couplets and sonnets. Autumn and Winter contain all free verse. Spring appropriately begins with Rolf's first English poem, written in sixth grade. Winter closes with remembrance, doubts, worry about leaving literary marks behind after death, a poem called "Obituary," musing about Ne'ilah (Yom Kippur's final service, signifying the closing of heaven's gates), reunion with God, and - connecting to the colors of the book's front cover - ultimately ends with "Coat of Many Colors" (seen above).
But the book isn't over. Rolf packed this thing like a time capsule. Almost 100 pages left! An interlude called Menackem's Mantras (little tidbits of humor and personal aphorisms) leads into a Prose section including an English translation of "Kristallnacht - 50 Years Later" (an impressive speech he delivered in Krefeld, Germany in 1988), "The Nuts & Bolts of Jewish Spirituality and Mysticism," a fascinating study of the Red Heifer tradition, a speculation about miracles, "Moses and the God of Love," and a touching account of his father called "Over and Over and Over Again" reprinted from a 1985 Guideposts.
If you're ever shipwrecked on a desert-island and you could have a single volume to represent Rolf Gompertz, hope for TO LIFE TO LOVE. His Hebrew name, Menachem, means "Comforter." How fitting. Menachem's words are indeed a comfort, on desert-islands or on park benches or in the midst of a busy workweek. Rolf just wants us to listen and be edified in some way: "May my words resonate with you and may they offer insight, guidance, and inspiration, on your own journey through life." By now he's saying to readers what his father, Poppa, once said to him (as recorded in the book): "I know I repeat myself; I know you have heard the stories before. Your life is still before you. Mine is behind me. I hope you don't mind if I talk." And we shake our heads and say, "It's all right, Rolf! Talk, Rolf!"
Rolf's bottom line is the Top Poppa. He seems to speak to God through Abraham in "Akedah Aftermath":
Abraham: "Wow! You're awesome! A puzzlement! I can't figure You out! You're a mystery, an absolute mystery!"
God: "You're getting the picture."
A: "Where do I go from here?"
G: "Walk with Me."
A: "All right."
(read Rolf's poetry)
- review by David Herrle 8/2005
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