The Book of Noah
by Yoni Hammer-Kossoy
Grayson Books, 78 pp.
Reviewed by Ofira Koopmans
Who wants to hear about climate change and how dire it is? Not many—I know I never did. But this book changed that. Yoni Hammer-Kossoy’s The Book of Noah is written out of an acute awareness of catastrophic climate change in a stunning, highly original, and entirely non-preachy and non-intimidating manner. It is funny. It is hopeful. It shows us why our duty to earth is sacred.
The collection is an ongoing conversation with Noah, the biblical hero who heeded the warnings of impending doom, thereby saving man and beast from annihilation. Hammer-Kossoy uses the mythology to put the question before us: should we heed—or continue to ignore—the warnings of the ecological doom we are facing today?
The book opens with an evening prayer, as if to invite the reader to embark with the poet on a meditation that can drift in any direction—whether into environmental, spiritual, or personal waters. The forty poems that follow (God caused it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights!) are divided into three sections, “Ark,” “Seed,” and “A Bow in the Clouds,” which correspond roughly with Genesis, chapters 6-9.
Based in Jerusalem, Brooklyn-born Hammer-Kossoy wrote part of the collection during the Pandemic, when lockdowns meant that home became an ark; an enclosed space with a radius of 500 metres beyond which we were forbidden to venture. Thus, the flood is not only a metaphor for environmental danger. It is also a way of thinking about COVID. The first section deals with preparing for, sheltering from, and waiting for, danger. Its first prose poem “Dear Noah,” calls out to the biblical hero, “I want to know if there’s more to do now than build a bigger boat and keep a neater zoo.”
In “The Smell of Rain,” the speaker notes: “They say the human nose can smell a trillion combinations of odours. [...] I try to grasp one trillion, but like yearning, it’s either too big or too small to comprehend.” An idea that questions whether the notion of climate change is too vast, and hence too intimidating, to comprehend as well.
“Seed,” the second section, implies that all potential and every possibility also carries risks and dangers. The speaker moves forward, nonetheless. In “Exit” he leaves a high-tech job and does not “look back,” carrying everything he has “in an old knapsack.” “A Hand in the Dark” makes skilful use of white space to bring home the way that sight deceives us. The optical effect is powerful:
is a werewolf under starless sky.
a chain of islands erased
by indifferent tide
Could it be asking how the slow decline deceives us, allowing us to continue living in the “translucent lie” between seeing and pretending to be blind?
“A Bow in the Clouds,” the third section, takes on the question: What happens when you leave the ark? Many of its thirteen poems are documentary in nature, in that they contain scientific facts, a poignant hallmark of Hammer-Kossoy’s, in which he muses about natural phenomena, all while taking the reader on detours via small occurrences in his daily life.
“Eumillipes Persephone, The Leggy Queen of the Underworld” wittily observes that only time will tell what the newly discovered millipede is trying to tell us: “… either that there will always be creatures getting along fine without us, or that there’s no place left on this planet to properly hide.”
The poem that made the strongest impression on me is “Disappearing ABCs.” Taking the form of an alphabetical list, it asks “And what might my children’s children say…” after many endangered species have gone extinct?”
The poet’s mission statement, I believe, lurks in the middle of the first prose poem: “I am trying to find a voice that doesn’t push away, that hews close to beauty, but my optimism has become like a last rhino in captivity.” In The Book of Noah, Hammer-Kossoy accomplishes that goal, finding a voice that does not push away, a voice that hews close to beauty.
Rather than evoking despondency and a sense that all is lost and there is nothing I can do about it, this breathtaking read lifted me up. Rather than provoking despair, it uses the power of words in order to inspire.
Until April 2021, Ofira Koopmans was the Tel Aviv correspondent of dpa International, the International Service in English of Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Germany’s leading news agency. Following a career in journalism spanning twenty years, she is currently transitioning to creative writing and studies in The Shaindy Rudolf Graduate Program in Creative Writing.