Monthly Archives: September 2014

Review of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, edited by Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman

Aiger and Silverman coverDeborah Ager and M.E. Silverman, eds. The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. Bloomsbury, 2013. 329 pgs. $29.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

In their introduction to The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, editors Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman suggest that the parameters of inclusion in this anthology are broad. They implicitly define “contemporary” to include poets born after 1945, that is post World War II, an obviously defining moment in Jewish and Jewish American history. Although I can easily think of a few influential Jewish American poets whose ages make them ineligible for this collection, a cut-off date of 1945 nevertheless means that most living poets could be represented. Similarly, the editors define “Jewish” as an ethnic category that subsumes the religious category also known as “Jewish.” That is, religious observance isn’t a requirement for the poet, nor is a religious theme a requirement for the poems—although many of the poems do take Jewish ritual, belief, and practice as their topics.

The anthology includes the work of well over 100 poets, that number in itself testimony to its inclusive nature, most poets represented by 1-3 poems. Contributors range from household names (at least in poetic households)—David Lehman, Charles Bernstein, Liz Rosenberg, Edward Hirsch—through mid-career poets—Susan Rich, Arielle Greenberg, Ruth L. Schwartz—to poets who haven’t yet published their first collection—Sandra Cohen Margulius, Rachel Trousdale, Onna Solomon. Such an array of poets is among the anthology’s strengths, although it also of course makes the task of reviewing more difficult. Before I’d read even 100 pages, I felt overwhelmed, for I’d already paused over so many good poems, and I’d already noted at least a dozen titles by the contributors that I should check out. So I’ll just admit here that the poems I will discuss represent a tiny percentage of those I could discuss.

“Relax” by Ellen Bass is filled with humor and good advice. We needn’t worry about the future, the poem implies, because it’s bound to be filled with misfortune. Here are the opening lines:

Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door…

The juxtaposition of the elements in this list suggest that we grieve the significant and insignificant alike, that we cling to the mundane, that we will each likely experience some calamity we’d not even thought to be concerned about. This list is effective because the elements are both precise and universal. But all is not lost, even when all is lost. Here’s the last third of the poem:

There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

The taste and scent and texture of a single strawberry makes all of the other disasters worth it. The poem develops through the accumulation of detail, and seems to be primarily a clever list that will easily persuade us to continue reading—though perhaps not bear up to rereading if it remains simply a clever list. The Buddhist story seems initially to comment on the speaker’s worries—life may be bad, but it could always get worse. But the poem turns here, not toward further tragedy but toward pleasure. And the turn leads to the most overt Jewish reference in the poem: “Oh taste.” “And see,” we might want to say, “how good the Lord is,” completing the line from psalm 34. The allusion is more oblique than many, but the imagery enacts the lesson from the psalm, three lines developing an image that appeals to nearly every human sense, as if (think of it!) sensual pleasure is what we are made for.

“The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashern” by Philip Schultz is much more serious, its solemn tone a response to its solemn subject. Observing a group of photographs, the speaker imagines what knowledge these children have acquired: “They understand they are no longer children, / that death is redundant, and mundane.” The speaker questions God, and the children question God, that divine being who this time does not intervene in history. The poem concludes with lines that straddle resignation and acceptance:

We look at their faces and their faces look at us.
They know we are pious.
They know we grieve.
But they also know we will soon leave.
We are not their mothers and fathers,
who also could not save them.

The line breaks here follow the structure of the sentences, and the sentence structure is equally straightforward, each one beginning subject-verb. The tone—objective, neutral—permits the horror of the event to be made manifest.

The editors of this anthology have done an extraordinarily good job in representing the diversity of American Jewish poetry. It is diverse not only in the ways they state in their introduction, but it’s also stylistically diverse, so it avoids the monotony of some anthologies wherein the poets are too aesthetically similar. Yet regardless of style, the poems are consistently energetic and engaging. It’s a collection I want to return to, though I hesitate, because it’s also a collection that encourages me to seek out further work by so many of these contributors.

Review of Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney

McLarney coverRose McLarney. Its Day Being Gone. Penguin, 2014. 93 pgs. $20.00.

Reviewed by Kasey Jueds, guest reviewer.

“Is the rendering of precise image a form of attention to this world or a means of departure from it?” Melissa Kwasny asks in Earth Recitals: Essays on Image & Vision (Lynx House, 2013). “Is the non-human another dimension we have been excluding or is the non-human a symbol masking a symbolic or mystical dimension, an other than earthly dimension? Do animals and plants stand for something else, and thus, lose their value as beings that exist?”

I’m reading Its Day Being Gone and Kwasny’s book in Wisconsin, at my family’s farm, in my own place of rivers and histories: Rose McLarney’s poems abound with both, and with the non-human presences of chickens, fish, dogs, cougars—her words, and the meadow I walk into every day here, making Kwasny’s questions about the more-than-human world and how to take our place, to write, within it, even more alive.

“I said I would never use animals/as the figures for my sorrow again,” McLarney writes in the book’s first poem, “Facing North,” which is, in part, about euthanizing a goat. I love this admission, its honesty, its hard look at the question of what and whom we do use in order to make things. And I love it that the next lines turn this sort-of promise on its head, as effortlessly as feelings change inside the body, and with the same dizzying suddenness:

But when the goat dropped shot,
the bread I’d brought to get her
to put her head down still in her teeth,
the chickens pecked at it.

I’m still here. I can’t stay away
from the hard images. Bread
taken from her mouth even then.

Throughout the book, these dazzling shifts: from precise seeing of the physical world to the mysterious, the abstract, the dim interior of the speaker’s mind and heart—and then back again: graceful, seamless. In “Redemption,” the lines weave between the bears the speaker’s watching and her unanswered, unanswerable questions about faith, belief, what it means to be human. “Are bears like humans,” she asks, “haunted/by deaths or the less definite and so ceaseless losses/that are love?” These poems take up Kwasny’s questions about the non-human world as image and as itself by embodying those questions: by their clear-eyed looking, their stepping back to see the bears, or the spilled organs of the shot buck in “Guts, Gleam,” twined with their stepping forward, into mysterious layers of feeling and spirit.

McLarney’s poems are like the bodies of water she keeps returning to: smooth surfaces over a deep, tangled, often contradictory, and fully human emotional life. In “Watershed,” an Appalachian river hides not just fish but trashed cars: “I swam over a wreck for years without seeing it until I grew old enough,/got long legs, and something soft and slick wrapped around my toe,/a seat belt unloosened, rotten backseat leather unfurling in current,/drawing me down to the metal below. Imagine where such/waters could let you drift.” In “Imminent Domain,” whole towns lie below a dam-created lake. The speaker, vacationing, swims above them, but she can’t stop thinking and feeling her way beneath the surface, can’t “stay away from the hard images,” can’t stop looking or writing: “My thoughts should swim/with darkness, hearths gone cold, emptied graves,/fish slipping slick-bellied over stones,/when I turn on an electric lamp.” In her fierce seeing of herself among the other people and creatures who inhabit her poems, McLarney’s speaker is both individual, etched against deer and mechanics, and woven among them, part of the same cloth.

The poems’ graceful musicality makes reading them—swimming in them—feel full of ease: I read through the whole book in one sitting. It’s the unsettled and unsettling emotional life underneath the poems’ surfaces that is difficult, often painful. In “Arcadia,” a woman burns down her own house because she’s “that desperate for something new,” while the poem’s speaker tries to do the opposite: let go of desire, purify her life, put away her own yearning for change. One of the last poems in the book, “I Float,” flips the ache for the ruined towns of “Imminent Domain” upside down: here a flooded river wrecks the speaker’s family’s harvest, but the speaker is dazzled (though she knows she should be distressed) by the damage:

The leaves wafted, the rounds
of fruits that had hung,
though ruined, were buoyant now.
Broken by refraction, they changed
to baubles I wanted.

The flood was a costumer, a jeweler.
And the way water cut ordinary sights,
that was appealing labor:
making stone toss about weightless light.

Everywhere, within and between poems, Its Day Being Gone tugs between poles: past and future, staying and leaving, finding contentment with what is and longing for something other. But because the book makes such a glowing whole, it argues for—it is—a place where those seeming opposites fuse. They will keep tugging at each other, but the poems take that tugging and turn it, miraculously, into a place to rest, a place where beauty and truth-telling offer a profound solace. In that way, they are a form of redemption.


To propose a guest review or submit a book for review, fill out the contact form.

Review of Second Sky by Tania Runyan

Runyan cover

Tania Runyan. Second Sky. Cascade Books, 2013. 73 pgs. $12.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

In Second Sky, Tania Runyan’s third full-length collection of poetry, she has taken a unique approach to her content—even given the fact that her previous two collections, Simple Weight (2009) and A Thousand Vessels (2011), also find their inspiration in the Bible. Here, the poems either focus on the life of Paul or respond to lines from his letters—nearly every epistle attributed to Paul has inspired at least one poem in this collection. What makes Runyan’s approach unique, however, is the relationship between Biblical verses and the poems. Nearly all of the poems include a citation, e.g. 1 Cor 1:25 or Eph 2:9 as an epigraph; when the epigraph refers to Acts of the Apostles, the poems most often respond to the life of Paul as narrated there, but when the epigraph refers to one of Paul’s epistles, Runyan uses a quotation from that verse as her title, e.g. “The Fruit of the Spirit,” “God’s Folly.” Such a strategy could quickly descend into gimmick. Runyan, however, uses these scriptural passages as points of entry, as commentary on contemporary life, just as the descriptions of contemporary life in the poems serve as commentary on the scripture. The poems acquire a richness and depth through their allusive titles; they expand the significance of the titles while the titles reveal a potentially greater weightiness to the poems.

This is not to say, however, that the poems are unrelentingly somber or simplistically pietistic. In fact, the speaker in these poems reveals her character flaws as forthrightly as I’ve seen in contemporary American poetry. “The Fruit of the Spirit” is filled with self-deprecating humor. The speaker acknowledges that, like many of us, she would find it easier to maintain her faith if God would just provide, well, a sign:

If the Spirit left me a bushel of pears
on the counter, I’d find it easier to believe
than any possession of peace

or self-control—waking without belly
dread or keeping Cherry Garcia
in the freezer for more than twelve hours.

Here is a woman after my own heart—those pints of Cherry Garcia are so small, after all, and twelve consecutive hours are so unreasonably long. The reference to Cherry Garcia plays on the “Fruit” of the title, of course, but it also aligns orthodox Christian spirituality with the trivia of our daily lives—for many of us likely do spend more time thinking about ice cream than we do about peace on earth. Cherry Garcia also points toward a brand, for if we know Cherry Garcia, we know Ben & Jerry’s, and the poem’s strategy suggests that these branded products might compose part of our spirituality. A couple of lines later, the speaker’s son “spills a lime green MegaSlush in the car.” Does the speaker demonstrate wisdom, understanding, fortitude, or any of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that mere objects hold very little meaning in the great scheme of things, even when they are stained lime green? Nope. She “instead bang[s] the dash: Crap! / Pay more attention!” But then she does turn to God, wondering whether her faith has ever been authentic. Jesus responds:

Come on, you didn’t say shit, He says,

And the ice cream made it past
the ten-hour mark. That’s as sweet
as peaches in August, my friend,

that’s juice running down my beard.

Jesus, it seems, is light-hearted, forgiving, fully invested in the material world. The fun of the poem emerges from the speaker’s understanding of herself and of Jesus.

Many of the poems rely on a more serious tone, even as they also demonstrate the acceptance and grace found in “The Fruit of the Spirit.” Among the poems I find most attractive for its craft is “No One Can Boast.” The first sentence exploits the sounds available in English as it also creates memorable visual and auditory images:

On the toll way just south of Kenosha
spring sets the boarded-up porn store ablaze,
topaz dousing the peeling paint,
the harp-notes of ice on the gutters.

Aside from the article “the,” every word in this excerpt contributes to the alliteration, assonance, and consonance present in the sentence. The first line contains a series of “o” sounds, followed in the second with the alliteration of “spring sets,” which then returns to the use of “o,” this time with syllables that also function as near rhymes: “boarded-up porn store.” Then the sounds of “ablaze” are reproduced in “topaz.” The imagery reveals how transcendent even the seediest environment can seem in the right circumstances. The speaker explores this insight further in the final stanza of the poem, when the ordinary again becomes extraordinary, for no reason but that it does:

I kill the radio. Just the hum of the motor,
the pitted road, my slow, steady breath
like the syllables, Yah, weh. I didn’t work
at this joy. It just appeared in the splash
and shine of I-94, as suddenly as these Frisbees
and sand buckets in the roadside yards
laid bare by the shrinking snow.

I could spend several more pages analyzing the thematic developments of this poem—its rich with imagery, and its layered meaning rewards close attention. But I’ll simply conclude with a comment on the facility Runyan has with ordinary language—in the midst of all of this attractive imagery, she inserts straightforward lines: “I didn’t work / at this joy. It just appeared…” We’re left with a recognition of how the least significant of objects and moments can lift our spirits, of how reassured we can be by the turning of time.

When I initially picked this book up, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it, for Paul is not among the Biblical figures I generally feel most drawn to. I suspect Runyan has read his epistles more carefully than I have, though, and thought about them more deeply. These poems are fully immersed in Paul’s language and life; they are also fully immersed in the language and life of the 21st century. Given how imaginatively Runyan has written about the Bible in her recent three books, I’m intrigued to see what she’ll do next.