Sometimes the past makes sense only as a bridge to get us from where we were then to where we are now. I don't know if anything like that was going through David Zaslow's mind as he put together "Thou Shalt Wander 40 Years: Selected poetry and artwork 1965-2006," but wandering is the metaphor, and the feeling comes through the pages.
In his day job, Rabbi Zaslow is the leader of Havurah Shir Hadash, the Jewish Renewal congregation in Ashland. But he came in 1970 as a wandering hippie/poet/seeker.
Unlike the children of Israel, who wandered 40 years before they got around to claiming the promised land, Zaslow didn't spend half a lifetime. His desert was the continent between his native Brooklyn and Ashland, and when he entered grad school to study poetry at Southern Oregon State College his odyssey was only beginning. "Herein dwells the poetry and doodles where a '60s' hipster morphs into a davvener;" reads Zaslow's blurb on the book's back cover, "where the sparks of William Blake and the Baal Shem Tov intersect; where Coney Island comes to Oregon and Zen meets Jerusalem."
A davvener is one who prays. Baal Shem Tov was the 18th century Polish-Jewish mystic thought to have founded Hasidism, to whom God was in everything and everything was in God.
The young Zaslow had the luck to study with Lawson Inada, a poet with whom he shared an outsider perspective. Zaslow was a Jew, a poet and a long ways from home. Inada had been deeply affected by being incarcerated with his family in the camps to which America shipped West Coast Japanese in the early 1940s. The two shared a love of American jazz.
What Zaslow got from Inada was not a new perspective on iambic pentameter but the sense of a connection to the heart.
"He was really important," Zaslow says. "To have somebody with such a great laugh and such an inside view of poetry. It wasn't academic, it was a living model."
He went from admiring the technical brilliance of poets like William Blake and Dylan Thomas to opening up to poets like William Stafford and Robinson Jeffers, who didn't think poems needed even meter. Pablo Neruda, a poet who wasn't above writing odes to common things, was another marker on the road to selfhood.
"It's not just imitation if it leads to finding your authenticity," he says.
That took until his mid-30s. He'd already had a couple of careers, working as a poet in the schools in the early '70s heyday of the National Endowment for the Arts, and founding a jazz club with fellow New York transplant Steve Sacks. Jazzmin's was a place where you might see Earl "Fatha" Hines, Taj Mahal or Leon Redbone in a small town in Oregon.
Zaslow and Sacks showed Britt it could be more than a small classical festival, booking Dave Brubeck in 1979 and Count Basie's band in 1980.
He'd hooked up with pianist Patty McCoy, and the two had recorded kids' poetry with school publisher Good Apple. There was the "Shakin' Loose with Mother Goose" series Zaslow and McCoy did with Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, which won an American Book Award.
Somewhere in all this, something began to shift inside the man. The path of poetry led to an inner space, and Zaslow found himself looking at metaphors that no longer seemed to be comparisons but another kind of reality.
"That's when I knew I was over the edge," he says. "When I started believing the metaphors, I couldn't work in the schools anymore."
He found his faith at around age 40 (the third 40 to enter our story!) and moved on to King David, another pretty fair country poet. this time he was agog at what he saw as the elegance of God's having created a universe of metaphor, where so many things became in a sense interchangeable.
"I was seeing correspondences," he says.
He studied with Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield. He became a rabbi. He has been at the Havurah since 1995.
and by he began choosing poems, choosing the line drawings and paintings and doodles, that would make the book.
Many of the poems turn on notions of time. As early as 1966 Zaslow wrote, "patience yearns/in the pen/of unturned words:/flower springs/from seedless time." In 2001 he imagined his grandmothers, Anna and Fannie, hoping for simple things: "happiness, health,/Yiddishkeit (a sense of Jewishness) for their children,/and some happiness for themselves./And those hopes/poured out down through time/are filling the cup of my life today."
These poems are full of time: "the twilight of months," "the evening of the year," "our life's fruit," "my life's season," "soaring skylight high in time."
And they are full of ghosts, including that of a young David Zaslow in Brooklyn, "When I was a boybusting,/waveswaggered son of the beach/in my shorebrowed/and seasinging home/called Coney Island ..."
"I had not thought of it that way," he says of the time themes.
He's still writing poems, but they're liturgical now, poems as prayers.
We are not living in a culture that honors poetry. That's about our culture, and maybe it's about poetry, too.
"You know Mos Def?" Zaslow says of the HBO rapper. "Def poetry? It knocks me for a loop, not because all of it's good, but because it's street poetry."
In the end, the place where Blake, Reich and the Baal Shem Tov intersect may be right outside Zaslow's window, where they merge and transform time into a cathedral of memory.
"I've been in this house 31 years," Zaslow says. "I look out at the trees, the trees that have been waving, almost like fractals, waving their leaves for 31 years.
"And it's all part of one moment, trees and eyes waving at one another."
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or .
When Coney/ Island comes/ to Oregon