Oyster Boy Review 19  
  Fall 2010
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On the Edge of the Everyday: Shirley Kaufman's Threshold

Reginald Harris

Shirley Kaufman's Threshold
Shirley Kaufman.
Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
142 pages, $12 (paperback).
ISBN: 1556591926.

Shirley Kaufman's work is an attempt to restore the reader's senses, to bring back our ability to take pleasure in small things. Closely observed and keenly felt, her latest book, Threshold, is filled with the finely-honed details of life. Kaufman's work as a translator, mainly of poems originally in Hebrew, has helped sharpen her eye for language and how it works. She sums up part of her poetic process in "Little love poem" this way:

    I collect these words
like coins
        in the bowls of beggars

they add up to
        just enough to
keep going

Originally from the United States, Kaufman has lived in Israel for the past thirty years. The poems in Threshold also range from Seattle to Jerusalem in its subjects and concerns, from the "projective verse" style poems of its opening movement to later sections dealing with family and long-term love, Biblical figures (Adam, Rachel, Jacob) and the poet's role as historian and witness. While there is a love of life and the things of this world in her work, there is always sadness, a haunted sense lurking behind Kaufman's poetry. Even a New Year's celebration at the millennium causes her to reflect:

the twenty-first century
but sparks and flashes
into dust

    too many zeros
ending with smoke

Quietly political, Kaufman's work does not take sides in the conflicts in Israel or anywhere—"good guys / bad / what's the difference / if everyone fights" she writes—her work comes down very strongly in support of humanity, and the lives of those caught up in the meshes of violence. Resonant and deeply satisfying, Threshold is a solid, serious and ultimately moving work by a consummate and compassionate professional.