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Good Letters

How do poets and writers choose their book titles?

I didn’t have a good answer to the question, Why did you choose the title Love Nailed to the Doorpost?” posed at a recent reading, though I knew that sooner or later that someone would ask. I did have a superficial answer, but I hadn’t thought through metaphorical or thematic meanings suggested by the title.

Honestly, until I read what a few others had to say about my book, I wasn’t even sure that the title pointed to a unifying concern.

Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, Third Temple, Love Nailed to the Doorpost: these are the titles in order of publication, of my four books of poetry.

The title Tekiah (1996) was the result of some brainstorming with friends around the dinner table, probably over Shabbat dinner. The moment a friend shouted out tekiah it stuck. Tekiah: a blast of the shofar, ram’s horn, sounded throughout the period leading up to and including the Jewish Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Chair in the Desert (2000) was one of a number of possible titles on a list I shared with two dear writer friends. The phrase appears in one of a group of poems set in Israel. The specific poem in which the phrase appears is spoken by a minister of immigration “welcoming” new immigrants by dispelling them of fantasies of Jerusalem they may have arrived with and directing them to their new home, their “chair in the desert.”

I found it fairly easy to come up with Third Temple (2007). “Third Temple,” one of the poems in the book that always (with one exception) elicited a favorable response from listeners and readers imagines me offering my (now deceased) 120 pound Chocolate Labrador Retriever “Bubby” as my sacrifice at the third temple in Jerusalem, should that temple ever be built and should the Jews return to the ancient practice of communicating with God by means of animal and other sacrifices.

I also liked the implied metaphor: book as temple, my third book as my third temple. As for that one (that I know of) unfavorable reaction to my animal sacrifice poem: I read the poem to the participants of the first week-long residency of a two-year program called The Jewish Arts Institute. After hearing that poem, one participant dropped out of the program, choosing to fly home the morning after my reading.

As I had done with Chair in the Desert, to choose the title for my new book I considered titles of individual poems as well as phrases within poems that seemed to me to have some strong resonance. Love Nailed to the Doorpost is a phrase from a short poem entitled “Mezuzah.”

When I started sharing the title with friends, Jewish friends especially, they immediately got the reference. A mezuzah is a small, slender case containing a piece of rolled up parchment on which is written a passage from Deuteronomy that is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes.

The passage from Torah begins, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your might, and with all your soul.”

When I was asked, at a recent reading, why I chose Love Nailed to the Doorpost as the title, I could have said something about the title poem from which the phrase was taken but that answer seemed too obvious to me, too literal.

If I had thought of it before that very minute, I could have said something about how the title itself functions as a kind of mezuzah on the cover of the book, a reminder to pause before crossing the threshold of the book and remember to love.

Seeing it this way now has me wondering if the titles of all four books might suggest something about a spiritual (if not artistic) journey I’ve been on for at least four decades now:

Tekiah: the blast from the shofar is a wakeup call, a call to wakeup to the higher purpose of one’s life, morally, spiritually.

Chair in the Desert: it’s time to take one’s seat in the wilderness, the emptiness, to sit with whatever arises there.

Third Temple: with the first and second temples in Jerusalem destroyed, this is the temple without walls, without priests. The third temple is made of words. It arises whenever and wherever we speak with one another truthfully and lovingly.

Love Nailed to the Doorpost: love—romantic, ecstatic—isn’t limited, sought and found only with some people and places rather than others, rather it’s to be cultivated, intentionally, actively, until it becomes boundless, open to receive and include all of life. We must remember to practice love when we cross every threshold, literal and figurative.

Thanks to being asked a question for which I did not have an adequate answer, I now see the titles of my four books as offering some insights into what may have been going on with me spiritually over the course of the last three decades of my life. I can’t say that I’ve always heeded the messages suggested by these titles, but I’m willing to consider these teachings now that these four books are with (not behind) me.

And who knows what work, what art, what spirit, what life will come through me next. I can only hope, as Stanley Kunitz writes in his profound poem “The Layers,” that “I am not done with my changes.”


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost, Tekiah, Chair in the De-sert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poet-ry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spir-itual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville's English Department. You can find more information at www.richardchess.com

Above image by Richard Chess and used with permission.

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