David Biespiel had me from the first sentence, “I never told anyone this, but for a time I thought I would be a rabbi when I grew up.”
And then: “Not what you’d think of when you imagine the mystique of a deep-down Texas childhood, with the cattle and pump jacks and muggy vastness, pine pollen and red dirt, farm-to-market roads stitching together lonesome towns that get hotter after the sun sets, evangelical radio, Friday night football, Lone Star flags flying over all the gas stations, eighty thousand miles of freeways and billboards, boots and belts and ten gallon hats.”
In “A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas” (Kelson Books), the award-winning poet, literary critic and memoirist explores the meaning of home, the way memory shapes the heart and the big skies and bayous of his hometown and the grip it has on his soul. Ask him where he’s from and he’ll say Texas, even though he left nearly 40 years ago and has lived in Portland, Ore., for 25 years. Biespiel writes in breathtaking prose, full of close observation, candor and longing.
In an interview, he explains that after writing and publishing another memoir, “The Education of a Young Poet,” he realized that he had hardly written about growing up in Texas. If that experience wasn’t part of the answer to the question of how he became a writer, he began to wonder what question he’d have to ask for it to be the answer. So he started thinking about home and its significance, not “Why did he leave?” but “Why did he never go back?”
“I have been navigating this material for a long time,” he says.
Biespiel grew up in a traditional Jewish family, descended from immigrants from Ukraine via Ellis Island to Iowa, then Tulsa and Houston. He writes, “Chanting Hebrew prayers inside the magnetism of Texas lore was my open range of obligation, my 254 counties of faith … Dots and dashes slashing across the siddur were my hominy and grits, my leaves of trees budding in February, my hot bowls of chili, my Davy Crockett at the Alamo. The silky ink of Genesis and Exodus stained the flat drawl in my mouth, more gentility than twang, so that I felt paltry and sensuous the verses cutting into the violent weather of my imagination with their multitudes — curved tropes skittering across the pages like a two-step, a deliberate memento and admonition of how human beings behave.”
Biespiel knew his great-grandfather, who was born in the town of Cherniosrov near Kiev and came to America alone in 1910 (his wife and children followed 10 years later) and headed to northern Iowa, where he knew someone. He got himself a wagon and began working as a peddler and turned that into a scrap metal business. Biespiel’s grandfather, who had joined the family business, then moved to Tulsa. Biespiel’s parents grew up in Tulsa, where their families knew each other (his father was the lifeguard at the Jewish country club), and they married and settled there. When the writer was 4, his family moved to Houston, where his father then ran a branch of the family business that his mother took over after his parents ended their marriage.
He grew up in the section of Houston known as Meyerland (named for Joseph Francis Meyer, a German Protestant, who settled in Houston after the Civil War and bought up thousands of acres of rice farms that were later turned into a 2,000-home subdivision by his son George Meyer). Biespiel writes, “the storied Weequahic section of Newark in Philip Roth’s novels has got nothing on Houston’s Meyerland, which sits on a flood plain along Brays Bayou southwest of downtown bound geographically by two historic synagogues.”
The author attended Beth Yeshurun, the oldest Jewish school in Houston, at his family’s Conservative synagogue, and then the local high school (there was no Jewish high school at the time) while continuing his Jewish studies through the synagogue. He grew up with confidence as a Jew and as an American, enmeshed in Jewish social life and tradition, with a stint as president of Esquire, the Jewish junior high school fraternity.
He was a precocious, challenging, thoughtful and smart kid whose prowess was noticed, and increasingly, he argued with the rabbi’s certainty. At 17, he had a heated quarrel in class about faith with the rabbi, who threw him out of school. The rabbi never tried to reconcile — nor did he — and that incident, a mix of shame and triumph, prompted his turning away from Judaism and from Texas. He now describes himself as retired from Judaism.
“One of the biggest challenges in writing the book” he explains, “was understanding my own emotional leverage toward the material, the people in the story, my own relationship to my own life. In the writing, I had to re-experience those feelings, as though experiencing them for the first time.
“I’m trying to re-enact memory as real, not just as remembered. I’m trying to film it and experience it and reflect on it all at once. Not just as metaphor, but as an emotional challenge.”
When asked if he lives in memory, he says, “You can’t exist only in memory, but for me it’s always present. Always in that kind of abrupt edge between everyday life and the ever-present past.”
“I like remembering the remembering,” he adds.
When he returns after almost 40 years, with the hope of “unraveling a knot,” he walks the still familiar streets of Meyerland, the ground that remembers him, with the tunes of prayers his soundtrack. He pauses at his childhood home, returns to the synagogue and even runs into the rabbi, now an old man — a scene he would have cut if this were a novel, as it’s so impossible a coincidence. Both were caught off guard. Reconciling was on his mind in those moments, but the rabbi, in his telling, didn’t want to engage.
Biespiel tried to portray the rabbi as he saw himself as a younger man, realizing he is now older than the rabbi was then. “Had I written this when I was younger, I would have been ferocious, more hostile, less circumspect, sharper-elbowed. That’s what I mean by emotional leverage. I’ve lived more of life.”
And while he never became a rabbi, he has taught literature and writing widely, at colleges and universities around the country. He reflects, “I’ve taught for so long that I know what it’s like to have a precocious student getting the better of you, to lose a handle on it, to get wrapped up in your own ego. That helped me write this. I could put myself in his place in some ways. He wasn’t being malicious. It was just his temperament. He wasn’t going to give an inch and neither was I. It just blew up. We had been heading toward that cliff. It was very painful. Like when siblings have an irreparable break.”
A leader in the Houston Jewish community, who had been his teacher, refers to Biespiel “as the one who got away.”
Biespiel came out of his self-imposed retirement from Judaism once, a few years ago, for the b’nai mitzvot of his niece and nephew in Chicago, where he read the Torah, and did so with Texan ease.
In conversation, he mentions that “the big storms of late, all the flooding, have made that time in the 1970s dramatized in the book — not only the 1970s, but that time for certain, the time I know — something of a bygone. Meyerland will never be that ‘Jewish’ again. That slice of the 20th century of Jewish experience in Texas is disappearing. Or, gone already.”
Biespiel painted the image on the book cover, the vast Texas sky, and says, “I really love that Texas space. The sky is the landscape, always in motion. I miss that a lot.”
The award-winning author of 11 books, poetry and non-fiction, Biespiel is the founder of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters in Portland and poet-in-residence at Oregon State University.
“All of my work, in one fashion or another,” he says, “is navigating alongside, parallel, in conversation if not debate with the teachings I was brought up with. Any cursory reading of my body of work of poems over the last 25 years will make it clear that I was still in conversation with these subjects, from over yonder, from the remove. That’s one of the questions the book explores. Even from yonder, you take it with you. That’s what unaffiliated also means. It’s physical, in our blood, not in the dues you pay to an organization. You’re constantly and again in conversation with your own life. If that isn’t the most Jewish thing one can do…”