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Pure Poetry

Pure Poetry

5.0 1
by Binnie Kirshenbaum

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Meet Lila Moscowitz, a smart-mouthed, Jewish American beauty with a voracious appetite for sex, a remarkable talent for outrageous lies, and an unerring knack for screwing up her life. An accomplished poet, renowned for writing "smut and filth in terza rima," she goes about her life in Pure Poetry with enough attitude and verve to win your heart


Meet Lila Moscowitz, a smart-mouthed, Jewish American beauty with a voracious appetite for sex, a remarkable talent for outrageous lies, and an unerring knack for screwing up her life. An accomplished poet, renowned for writing "smut and filth in terza rima," she goes about her life in Pure Poetry with enough attitude and verve to win your heart forever. But since fleeing the all-consuming passion of her marriage to Max, the sexy German, she can no longer compose so much as a couplet; ghosts have taken over her Greenwich Village apartment, and the contrast between her feelings for her present lover and her former husband is breaking her heart. And neither her best friend, Carmen, nor her cross-dressing analyst, Leon, is able to soothe her angst over her impending thirty eighth birthday, an occasion fraught with a thirty-seven year tradition of emotional devastation. But time waits for no woman, and the dreaded birthday does bring insight: Love can be undone by the same desires that nurture it. Lila knows that she has got to take action, and in doing so she comes to realize some startling truths about herself, her capacity for love, and the nature of true freedom.

Binnie Kirshenbaum's voice has been acclaimed by critics and readers alike. Already a bestselling author in Germany, Kirshenbaum demonstrates a brilliant maturity in Pure Poetry. Not since Erica Jong's Fear of Flying has a novel so captured a woman's heart and desires. Readers will cheer Pure Poetry for its heady mix of humor and sadness, and for its slyly unsettling visions of modern life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Laurie Stone, author of Laughing in the Dark and Close to the Bone; long time critic for The Village Voice Pure Poetry is a joke of a title, for Binnie Kirshenbaum's funny, sad novel is delightfully ragged and raw and piercingly aware of ambivalence that can't be resolved. Lila escapes life as a suburban princess only to feel herself becoming an urban Camille. But there's too much Lenny Bruce in her for that. This book is a joyous, sexy anatomy of melancholy.

Norman Mailer Not many young female novelists can deal with sex, the appetite for it, and the loss of such appetite with as much candor, lack of self-protection, and humor as Binnie Kirshenbaum.

Maureen Howard author of A Lover's Almanac Binnie Kirshenbaum has created a memorable heroine, witty and too wise for her own good. An original and striking performance: Kirshenbaum writes boldly and honestly about sex, race, class, and a woman's lonely pursuit of a place to call home. Line by beautifully written line, this novel is funny, but in the end, the journey to self-discovery is deeply moving.

Sara Lewis author of Heart Conditions Binnie Kirshenbaum is one of a few true originals in American fiction. This book will take your breath away. On the one hand, Pure Poetry is a funny, heartbreaking, can't put-it-down page-turner that you'll want to devour in one greedy gulp. On the other hand, you'll want to slowly savor its many layers of meaning, subtle insights, and deep observations. Like your best friends, its main character, Lila Moscowitz, i's a unique, flawed, and complicated character you'll love forever. Read this book, and you'll thank your lucky stars that you have both Lila and Binnie in your life.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz author of Leaving Brooklyn Binnie Kirshenbaum has a wonderful gift for turning cliches inside out and making conventional wisdom run for cover. How nice, for instance, to have a swaggering, foul mouthed, wacky, predatory female poet as heroine for a change! But beneath Pure Poetry's outrageous humor and assaults on political correctness runs a current of intractable pain, gallantly faced. This fiercely clever writer is a true anarchic spirit.

Nicholas Christopher author of A Trip to the Stars Pure Poetry is a terrific novel, with a deliciously strong voice, finely wrought characters, and a sure narrative touch. Binnie Kirshenbaum has a musical ear and a wicked wit, and she employs them with wonderful modulation in creating a remarkable world all her own. A novelist with an enormous European following, with this book — multifaceted and polished as a gem — Ms. Kirshenbaum ought to find the corresponding audience in the U.S.A. that she so clearly deserves.

Poetic License

Not long ago the critic Vivian Gornick proclaimed "the end of the novel of love." She called on novelists to recognize "a hard, simple truth we have all absorbed": namely, that romantic love lacks the transformative power traditionally ascribed to it. Romantic love, according to Gornick, does not leave us "magically changed"; for that, only self-reliance will do. The tough-minded novelist should follow the tough-minded woman and leave the novel-as-love-story, along with the whalebone corset, in the attic of history. Binnie Kirshenbaum is, like Gornick, a streetwise Jewish feminist, but she is not having any of it. Pure Poetry, Kirshenbaum's third novel, is about true love: the desire for it, and even more, the need for it. Lila Moscowitz is a tough, fast-talking, and independent woman, but in the end she wants what Juliet Capulet wanted: "Love, capital L, heart-shaped O, arrow piercing the V to drip blood over the E, the kind of love that, more often than not, makes a mess of your life."

When I sat down to talk with Kirshenbaum about her new book, she announced right off the bat: "I actually have a heroine who falls in love. Usually I have heroines who don't even try. But this time I wanted somebody not just to fall in love the way we do now, which I think is the result of too much therapy and too many self-help books, and which I think is antithetical to grand passion." Lila Moscowitz therefore falls in love -- for a time -- with old-fashioned recklessness, courting disaster like the heroine of an opera. This is a new thing for her: "Before I met Max no one had gotten the best of me. As if the best of me were something to thieve. I was like the New Yorker who claims, 'Twenty-six years in this city and I've never been mugged'.... I was known to boast, 'Thirty-one years old and I've never been in love.' As if falling in love were the same thing as falling on a patch of ice." Lila must have forgotten to knock on wood in making this boast, because once she falls, she falls hard.

The pre-Max Lila would never have slipped and fallen. Lila is a poet, a bawdy formalist who writes about wild sex in the strictest of poetic forms: For example, "The Seven Steps to Self-Gratification" is "a Sicilian septet which rhymes abababa." Lila writes formalistically about sex because she cannot abide the mess, the formlessness, of love: "I write about sex because I have no gift for writing about love." But suddenly, accidentally -- "It happened when I wasn't looking" -- Max enters her life and wrecks her rhyme scheme.

Max Schirmer is charming, intelligent, sweet, loving -- and German. Like Juliet Capulet, Lila has fallen for someone from the wrong clan, a veritable Montague. Yet at first Max's Germanness pleases Lila. For one thing, there is his cute, constant habit of malapropism: "Must we open this book of worms?" Max asks when Lila raises the Jewish Question. Lila's love for Max is also heightened by "the extra kick afforded by that which is illicit." But before long Max's Germanness becomes a kind of excuse for Lila to escape the threat of love, which happens also to be its promise: that of losing control. The sweet annihilation of passion gets mixed up in Lila's mind with the real annihilation of the Final Solution -- which is sure to be the most controversial aspect of Kirshenbaum's novel.

Lila sees the Holocaust everywhere. When she and Max quarrel, she goes out to get her hair shorn and thinks of her new do as "the Bergen-Belsen crop." When she notices Max's taste for lentils, she thinks of Hitler's vegetarianism and gets "the idea that Max ate the same foods Hitler ate. That meal for meal, their diets were identical." Indeed, when Lila coops herself up in Max's apartment she feels a bit as if she is being held, in a camp, against her will. Yet ultimately it is Lila who leaves Max. She breaks his heart. As Kirshenbaum told me, "She turns him into a sort of prison-warden to justify her walking-out." Thus does Lila's emotional cowardice disguise itself as an extra in Schindler's List.

In allowing Lila to make use of the Holocaust as a metaphor, Kirshenbaum has done something brave and unsettling and -- it has to be added -- not always in the best of taste. But she has indicated very vividly Lila's crippling fear of staying in love once she has fallen there. And she has also been bold enough to create a Jewish heroine whose intense awareness of the Holocaust discourages rather than aids self-knowledge. This is a risky move -- as risky in its seriousness as Pure Poetry is, in its other aspects, courageously comic -- but as Kirshenbaum knows, and Lila learns too late, risk is what love is all about. Sexy, witty, and brave, Pure Poetry is a novel that, dispensing with stage fright, stands up before us to tell a few jokes, show some leg, and finally bare its heart. It appears the novel of love has some life in it yet.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Poet and femme fatale Lila Moscowitz is in top form, and at rock bottom, in Kirshenbaum's relentlessly sassy tale of a beautiful 34-year-old Jewish woman on a quest for love and happiness. Lila is a minor New York celebrity, famous for her bawdy yet formally rigorous sonnets, but her success as a writer can't compensate for the fact that she pines for her ex-husband, German cartographer Max Schirmer, while feigning interest in her current blue-blooded boyfriend, Henry. Having sabotaged her marriage to Max in part because she felt she'd betrayed her Jewish heritage by marrying a German, Lila cracks many tepid, transparent jokes about loving the enemy in an attempt to mask her enduring passion for him. Another truth she hides from is that her passion for and dependence on Max threatened her sense of self. Lila's fear of trusting people is rooted predictably in her unsatisfactory family relationships, which Kirshenbaum describes in heavyhanded fashion. Lila's parents barely acknowledge her existence, though her mother, Bella, is as domineering as she is dismissive of her daughter. When Bella dies, Lila is not even informed of the funeral and, in an unconvincing scene, is kicked out of the house where the family is sitting shiva. Other plot twists, details and supporting characters are equally ineffectual: Lila wants to be 32 again, so she enlists her best friend Carmen to help her turn back time; Lila's apartment is haunted by two ghosts, her therapist is a cross-dresser and Henry keeps his parents' ashes in shoeboxes. The cast of characters make a sketchy backdrop for Lila's ongoing monologue about her search for happiness, but the heroine's path is obstructed by so many self-consciously irreverent jokes and cliched observations that she doesn't generate sympathy until the end of the book. Here, however, some of Lila's quandaries achieve resolution, and her journey seems worth it when her emotional complexity shines through her defensive wisecracking. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Lisa Schwarzbaum
Kirshenbaum sings out, raunchy and exquisite in a voice of New York Smarts and literary daring that, after A Disturbance in One Place and On Mermaid Avenue, continues to grow even stronger and more original.
Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

scansion: The system of describing conventional poetic rhythms by visual symbols for metrical analysis and study. Stressed and unstressed syllables are marked according to the degree of sense emphasis transmitted. It does not make rhythm; it reveals it by transferring it from a temporal into a spatial dimension.

With the splendor derived from pointillistic detail, I'm getting a picture regarding Henry's ex-wife. Our first date, and already I am privy to the particulars of the marital dirt. Is this a treat for me or what? Ah, those trifling morsels of delectability. Minutiae like candy-kisses. Henry tells me how Dawn lets the children go without bathing for days at a clip. How graciously and with a tra-la-la of oh-it-was-nothing, she accepts compliments on dinners she did not prepare, but rather bought from the caterer at Dean & Deluca. How her nipples are cylinder shaped and long like Olive Oyl's nose, and how her pubic hair grows to extraordinary lengths.

"I swear to you," Henry says, "it grew like you wouldn't believe. Honest, it was like the hair on your head except that it was scraggly. You have beautiful hair. The way the light catches it." Henry takes a sip of his drink, a gin and tonic, and he asks, "What color is it exactly? Your hair? On your passport what does it say about hair color?"

"Black Cherry." I tell him my hair color is Black Cherry. That is what it says on the bottle, but I don't tell him that part. That it is Black Cherry by L'Oréal. Instead, I steer the conversation back to where it was before he digressed. The color of my hair is of no compelling interest to me at the moment. I much prefer the dish on his ex-wife. "So what does Dawn look like?" I ask. "Is she very beautiful? Aside from the nipple issue, that is."

Henry shifts forward in his seat to get at his wallet. Our table is window-side, and a glimmer of my reflection stares back at me, sizing me up. I spook myself and turn away from the window, as if you could turn your back on your double. Henry hands me the photograph of his ex-wife. She is all dolled up. "For a wedding," he tells me. "Mostly she dresses like a slob. Sweatpants and grimy T-shirts. And she doesn't put on fresh underwear daily either. To tell you the truth" — Henry's voice drops a notch as if he is confessing to a crime — "her personal hygiene is not the best. I'll bet you're clean," he says. "You look like you are very clean."

I bring the photograph near to my nose. I'm myopic like nobody's business, an affliction that can also translate into a lack of discernment. Vanity prohibits me from wearing my glasses except when the need to see clearly is a crucial one. Twenty-twenty vision is not sufficient motivation to obscure my eyes, which are the size of walnuts and hazel colored. Not to mention I was blessed with lashes like Liza Minnelli, only mine are real, and don't even talk to me about contact lenses because the eye is not an orifice.

I focus on the subject of the photograph. Seated on a lawn chair, her legs crossed, she is wearing a yellow frock and a straw hat with a wide brim. Her smile is also wide, and if I squint, I can make out that her teeth are crooked. She is a skinny woman, and she is not much to look at. Although she might be pretty enough if not for the lack of a chin, which is the most serious of all the facial flaws.

We did not meet that way, but Henry is the sort of man I could've met through a personal ad in New York magazine. Divorced white male, 40-ish, father of two children plus cat, hamster, and goldfish. Solvent, kind, good-looking, and fun-loving, but is not afraid to cry. Likes music, movies, long walks on the beach, and YOU?

I return the photograph to Henry, and I ask him, "Do you still love her?"

A flicker of doubt crosses his face, and I catch it there. Still, he says, "Definitely not. No way." Glancing once more at the picture of his ex-wife, Henry is reminded that, except during the summer months, she did not shave her legs or underarms, spots where also her hair grew like shrubbery. He next tells me how, in lieu of a proper blow job, she acquiesced only to something like playing the harmonica, her lips pursed along the shaft. Not once in the entirety of the twelve years they were married did she take the whole of Henry's cock into her mouth. "And get this," Henry says. "Every year for my birthday, she gave me a chamois-cloth shirt mail-ordered from L.L. Bean. Except one year I got a book on dolphins. Dolphins are nice," Henry says, "but it's not like I was interested in them." Then he asks, "What about you?"

"Me?" I say. "I take it in my mouth."

Henry laughs, but also he is blushing like a tea rose. "No. I mean, have you ever been married?"

I nod, and I say, "Yes. Once. Briefly."

"So you're divorced too." Henry thinks we have that in common, but I tell him, "No. I'm a widow."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Henry is flustered. As if he's made a social gaffe, he fumbles with words and gestures. Like a pair of trout on land, his hands flip against the air and slap his face and the tabletop. "Really. Sorry. Oh, I shouldn't have said anything. Would you like more wine? Let me get you another glass of wine."

We, Henry and I, did not meet through a personal ad because — for what it's worth — when it comes to men, I have never experienced deprivation or even slim pickings. It could be that I am heavy with pheromones. That I give off an irresistible stink. Or maybe men go for me because they like a toothache, because in all modesty, I'm not always the easiest person to get on with. Whatever. Also, it doesn't hurt any that I have a certain celebrity, albeit minor, but that does come with a kind of cachet.

Bent on getting me another glass of wine, Henry raises his arm to signal the waitress. I reach across the table and take his hand. "Henry," I tell him, "my glass is full."

No matter or not that I am popular with the men, I would never have answered such a personal ad because while I like cats and music well enough, I'm not keen on the movies. Or children, and spare me from long walks on the beach. The beach is an area I actively dislike, and men who cry are not for me. I do not have what it takes to care for the emotionally enfeebled. I've got my own problems.

Leaning in to diminish the distance between us, as if nosing about in my business requires physical intimacy, Henry asks how it happened. "How did he die?" His voice is soft and it comes from the back of his throat. It is not necessary to look or to touch to know that, as we speak, Henry's pecker is growing stiff like rigor mortis has set in. It's this situation about me being a widow that's doing it. As if all women widowed young are like spiders. Black widows. Seductively mysterious and titillating and dangerous. A femme fatale, and perhaps for real. As if maybe I am capable of bringing on killer orgasms. Henry is not the first man of my acquaintance to burst his fly over the possibilities. "Your husband?" he presses for an answer. "Was it an accident?"

"Complications." I tell him that much. "He died from complications," I say, and then I leave it alone. I do not explain what is meant by complications. Entanglements. The raveled skein of yarn that is story's tragic element, the labyrinthian free falls of choice, the momentum of things out of control, of fear and human failings. Better he should think Max died from a bowel nicked during a routine appendectomy. Or from pneumonia. The tragic conclusion of a common cold neglected.

I bill myself as a widow, I refer to Max as my dearly departed, I incant may-he-rest-in-peace because this is one of those cases when a falsehood embodies a greater truth. A metaphorical truth because the literal truth would serve only to distort the picture of my marriage to Max. As if our marriage were simply yet one more marriage that didn't pan out. As if we were but a statistic in the annals of divorce. A marriage gone belly-up due to squabbles over money or that he ran around on her or that she grew fat or that they grew apart. All the usual reasons for a marriage to go kaput. Our marriage was not that way. Not at all.

To do my marriage justice, a death was required. Death was the way it had to end, the only exit available, and Max had to be the one to take it because it wouldn't be logical for me to be the dead one. Despite that there is more than a shred of evidence to justify the statement, "My marriage ended because I died," I could hardly say such a thing now and be believed. Not while I'm sitting here window-side in a trendy downtown tavern with my hand under the table and resting on Henry's leg. My fingertips make small and soft circles around his knee. Circles of intent, and not to mention I prefer the part of the widow to that of the corpse.

In this version of the story, the part of the widow is a small one. There was no scene where I stood graveside weeping while a casket, with Max in it, was lowered into the ground. No mass was said for Max, and I did not write an elegy for his memorial service either. That's because there was no memorial service. I did not sit shiva for him, and I have never left a spray of red roses laced with baby's breath at his headstone. Indeed, there is no headstone that sports three lines, like a tercet chiseled into marble, Max Schirmer / Loving Husband / 1993-1994, because Max is not dead in that way.

In the conventional sense of the word, as far as I know Max is not the least bit dead. Nonetheless, for purposes of my own, Max is as dead as a doornail. A conceit aided along by the fact that he now resides in Los Angeles. The city of angels, which is a place of clear skies, fluffy white clouds, movie stars, palm trees, blue swimming pools, and not at all unlike an afterlife.

Meanwhile, poor Henry here is having something like an asthma attack. His breath is short and rapid, which is a cryptogram for horny as a toad. Considering as how I am responsible for this condition, what with the way my fingers are figure-skating along his thigh, I invite myself back to his place. It is not in my nature to tease, and also because it is my way to ask for what I want. "Let's go to your place," I say, because generally speaking, my apartment is off-limits to guests. The ghosts who live there with me, Dora and Estella, they don't take to strangers, and the ghosts, they were there first.

Copyright © 2000 by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Meet the Author

Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of two short story collections and four novels, most recently the critically acclaimed Hester Among the Ruins. She is a professor of fiction writing at Columbia University and lives with her husband in New York City.

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Pure Poetry 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
It took me ten chapters to figure out what this book was about. Lila is in constant turmoil with herself. She wants to be younger, she wants more time, she wants love. But she will not let herself love. It's a quick easy read, but nothing special.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great postmodern love story set in the transient and fragmented Manhattan landscape where relationships end abruptly, boundaries shift, and landmarks become obsolete. Lila Moscowitz, the narrator,is funny, tragic, and demented in this updated, New Yorker Old Testament story of bondage and exile--in Babylon and in the wilderness with golden calves along the way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great read! A woman of 35 who knows all about sex, but is a stranger to love meets the man of her life - and looses him, because she's afraid of the emotional bond. A story that shows how we're subject to our prejudices, projections, and preconceived ideas even when we think about the ones we love.