The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, Jean Nordhaus’s third full-length collection of poems, delivers thoughtful, vivid poetry with a sense of both history and timeless humanity. The collection is based on the life of Moses Mendelssohn, a principal player in the Haskalah or “Jewish Enlightenment” that took place in the last half of the 18th century.
Nordhaus does a good job of juggling the task of telling the story of a historical personage while also writing great poetry. Most of the poems are written in Mendelssohn’s voice, although she also writes from the points of view of his wife, Fromet, and his grandchildren, the composers Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. The poems highlight events in Mendelssohn’s life and the issues that those events imply.
Moses Mendelssohn was a man of immense compassion. The son of a Torah scribe, born with a humped back, he left the ghetto of Dessau when he was fourteen to live in Berlin. Although he remained a practicing Jew throughout his life, Mendelssohn also had a passion for Enlightenment ideas. Late in life, he would write a treatise arguing that Judaism was a faith in harmony with reason. In order to argue his ideas in the secular world, he defied Jewish law and taught himself German, Greek, English and French. In the poem “He Learns German,” Nordhaus writes of language as a double-edged trap: "Behind / this fence of syllables / you are locked in, locked out." He was the first Jew to publish a book in German and his writings, the most famous being his free translation of Plato’s Phaedo, won him fame in his own time. But while the Phaedo garnered Mendelssohn accolades from the Berlin Academy of Science, it also caught him between the Jewish and Christian communities. The religious Jewish community attacked him for
the secular nature of many of his ideas. On the other side, the publication of the Phaedo lead to reactionary anti-semitic responses from Christian critics. Mendelssohn withdrew from writing for seven years. When he finally returned to the public eye, he was concerned with issues of how Judaism and Enlightenment philosophy intersected.
This prejudice he faced during his life in Berlin serves as the basis for the title of this collection as well as the chapbook A Purchase of Porcelain that was published in 1998. Under Frederick the Great, Jews were required to buy porcelain from the royal factory upon marrying, pieces that were chosen by the factory owner because they could not be sold otherwise. Mendelssohn was required to buy twenty life sized porcelain apes.
The manager thought it a fine joke—
selling apes to the Jew, beasts
to the beast. But I am not ashamed.
The dumb beasts have less vanity
than many a man who vaunts himself
created in God’s image.
This passage, from the title poem, highlights the prejudice Mendelssohn faced as well as the self-assurance he had in elevating himself above hatred. He can even see humor in his purchase, naming the apes that he displayed around his house:
And this one
is known to the family
as Frederick the Great
I could go on, but you understand.
It is this philosophical perspective that gives the poems their quiet beauty. In the poem, “Death has Knocked at my Door,” actually taken from one of Mendelssohn’s own letters, we hear Mendelssohn’s abiding faith in the value of life even after the death of his own child.
My friend, the
dear child did not live these eleven months in vain. …
She showed pity, hatred, love, and admiration, she
understood the language of those who spoke, and
endeavored to make known her thoughts to them…
I cannot believe that God has set us on His earth like
foam on the wave.
Mendelssohn’s life was in many ways a meeting of the rational and the irrational: reason and faith, pragmatism and love. He had six children who grew to maturity and a wife who he loved deeply. In writing about Fromet, Mendelssohn struggles with the lack of sense in love.
No theorem, no system of thought
can explain how I long to be near her,
how my blood leaps like a fish
at the sound of her name.
This collection contains poems that I return to again and again. There are passages in this collection that shine out with a clarity and depth that is at the same time plain-spoken. In Nordhaus’s writing we hear the simple wisdom of parable used to explain life’s challenges, which have always been with us but have never grown easier to deal with. On Mendelssohn’s decision to leave his home, Nordhaus writes,
In my heart
I hid a secret home, a place
where I was bound, where I
belonged. The ghetto raised me,
rocked me in old mysteries,
honed my mind with riddles,
bid me: Stay!
Does the yolk
tell the egg it is happy
in its jacket—safe, con-
The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn is a meditation on believing in life through all of its changes, a message any book should be pleased to deliver in this day and age.
- Mercer Bufter