Monthly Archives: July 2014

Review of Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell

Bell coverElana Bell. Eyes, Stones. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. 64 pgs. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Elana Bell’s first collection, Eyes, Stones, caught my attention in part because of its content: it explores relationships between Jewish and Palestinian people, each bearing hope for the land, each suffering enormously. Bell is herself a descendant of the Holocaust, but the poems are marked by compassion not only for Jews inside and outside of Israel but also for the Palestinians who have been displaced by Israel. The poems are not polemical in the narrowest sense of that word, but they are political. And they are also artful. I’ve repeatedly returned to this book, especially in recent weeks, and the poems return to me as I pull weeds from my garden, open my cupboard doors, go about my day. Bell’s skill with metaphor, image, syntax, and voice guarantee that these poems will be memorable.

The poems are often both allusive and elusive; they suggest rather than explain (some brief notes at the end of the book are sufficient to assist readers who need more historical context). The collection includes several short prose poems and one ghazal, but most of the poems are written in free verse. Yet stylistically the book is exceptionally diverse; Bell is able to select forms that best suit individual poems. I appreciated the book’s range which allows multiple entry points into the collection’s thematic concerns.

Although many of the poems are comparatively brief (frequently shorter than a dozen lines), I would first like to comment on one of the longest poems, “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm.” On the page, this poems looks deceptively conventional; it’s arranged into five fairly even stanzas, interrupted by one stanza of a single line, each stanza developing a bit of narrative as a prose paragraph would. The poem begins with a straightforward declarative sentence, but Bell backtracks later in the sentence to clarify that an idea that seems straightforward contains more meaning, more significance, than readers, especially American readers, would ordinarily assume. Here is the first stanza:

This is for Amal, whose name means hope,
who thinks of each tree she’s planted like a child,
whose family has lived in the same place
for a hundred years, and when I say place
I mean this exact patch of land
where her father was born, and his father,
so that the shoots he planted before her birth
now sweep over her head. Every March
she plucks the green almonds and chews
their sour fuzzy husks like medicine.

Bell’s strategy for the entire poem is embedded in this stanza: “when I say place / I mean…” The speaker understands that the reader won’t interpret these words as literally as they are intended. “Place” doesn’t mean this general area; it means this specific plot of land. Later, she says, “Amal loves this land / and when I say land I mean this / exact dirt and the fruit of it…” The speaker contrasts her own family’s itinerant history with the stability of Amal’s family. She conveys the longing of both “for that place / where we had taken root once.” This poem is remarkably empathic, willing to acknowledge the historical complexity of multiple desires for this particular land.

Stylistically quite different from “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm” is “Visiting Auschwitz.” This poem’s orderly arrangement in couplets suggests such civility, which would be an ironic comment on its content, but the poem is also disorderly, entirely lacking punctuation and capitalization. The poem tells the story of one woman’s survival through coincidence and accident, but it is memorable through its images. It opens with three anaphoric lines that could be questions as easily as statements (and so, given the absent punctuation, function as both): “what extra scrap of bread / what glance from a slop-drunk SS // what rage raised the rusted shovel / struck it on the starving ground.” The word choice here encourages meaning to compound. The SS man may be “slop-drunk,” but “slop” connotes the food of pigs, food only desperate human beings would eat. The ground is “starving,” but so, obviously, did millions of human beings. These four lines contain a total of twenty-four words (counting “SS” as one word); of these, all but four are monosyllabic, and the insistent rhythm provoked by these monosyllables is enhanced through the assonance and alliteration. Bell obviously understands how many factors of a language contribute to its meaning, and she understands also how to convert language into poetry.

I have not yet spoken of my favorite poem in the collection, a five-part sequence called “What Else God Wanted.” This poem describes the scriptural origin of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Abraham as its founding father. This poem occurs approximately one-third of the way through the collection, and its placement demonstrates Bell’s attention to the fact that she’s publishing a book, not simply a group of poems. “What Else God Wanted” is preceded by a poem called “God” in which God is, at best, not very relevant, and it is followed by a poem called “Bastard,” set in the near-present but obviously also commenting on the relationships among Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book, for it is too somber for that kind of pleasure. But I will say I admire it. I will say I wish you all would read it.

Review of How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider

Schneider cover

Pat Schneider. How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice. Oxford University Press, 2013. 303 pgs. $18.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In is not exactly a memoir, although it is that. It is not exactly a writing guide, although it is that also. It is not exactly a spiritual reflection, although it is grounded in spirituality and would not exist if the author had not foregrounded her spiritual orientation to the world beyond herself, the world within herself, and her commitment to writing as both spiritual discipline and craft. Schneider is the founder of Amherst Writers and Artists, an organization that emphasizes a particular method of facilitating writing workshops. I would characterize the Amherst method as hospitable; it is particularly effective in working with community groups, although I would like to see it practiced more often in the academy also, where writing workshops too often disintegrate into competition and hostility. Schneider was able to develop her method, I suspect, because she has attended to her spirituality and has worked to integrate it with other aspects of her life. In How the Light Gets In, she explores activities directly associated with spirituality (e.g. prayer, forgiveness), emotions that spiritual honesty won’t let us avoid (e.g. fear, shame), and her personal response to them through writing.

Throughout the book, regardless of the specific chapter topic, Schneider focuses on writing as a spiritual practice. Like all spiritual disciplines, such a practice entails commitment, but more significantly it requires attentiveness. It requires an openness to surprise, an appreciation for the mystical. (In this respect, Schneider resembles many contemporary Christians who have returned to medieval devotional practices, seeking divine union more than rational doctrine.) In her opening chapter, Schneider explains it this way: “Putting pen to paper has become my most essential spiritual practice, my most effective prayer. That is not to say that writing is my only prayer, or that all of my writing is prayer. But more and more, the two acts have merged” (15). As prayer, writing is expression in search of the divine. Yet the attentiveness required of the writer is reciprocal. Schneider describes a conversation with a former theology professor, Dr. Hugh Vernon White: “his word, ‘attention,’ helped me to understand my own experience in prayer. I feel held in the attention—the companionable attention of mystery” (19). As prayer, writing moves toward mystery, the experience of mystery rather than necessarily the understanding of it.

While such a practice can appear private and is often done in private, Schneider specifically states that the writer’s connection to the mystical must open outward and become connected with the world. Schneider comes to her practice through a specific tradition, and she holds herself accountable to the demands of that tradition: “Writing as a spiritual practice, it seems to me, while it fully includes and involves the self of the writer must also include the other. The tradition of spiritual practice out of which I came, all the way back to the great prophets of Israel, stressed justice and righteousness (‘righteousness’ meaning…not a code of behavior but right relationship with others as well as with God). Those who turn toward spirit, I believe, must consciously, actively, work to turn the world toward justice” (177). This is not a book, in other words, that rigorously separates “spiritual” from “religious” or defines the spiritual as personal fulfillment in contrast to the communal engagement of religion.

That’s all very abstract, and I don’t want to suggest that this book is highly theoretical or irritatingly general. Schneider makes these points by telling her own story, describing the poverty of her childhood and the shame it brought, her struggle living with a mentally ill mother, her attempts to understand her father’s abandonment of the family, but also the figures who intervened to save her, even if their assistance was imperfect. The narrative vignettes in this book feel honest without being exploitative—of her family and friends, of herself, or of the reader. And every story, regardless of its content, returns to writing. The extended narrative portions of the book assist Schneider in conveying the value of writing as a spiritual practice, whatever other purposes it might also serve.

On one level, this book is an easy read. The prose is clear and often stylistically enjoyable. The narrator is likeable, even companionable. The material reaches out to the reader, offering an invitation. But the book is also difficult. Schneider’s honesty demands a similar honesty from the reader. Reading this book was, for me, often exceedingly uncomfortable, but only because it was so transformative.

Review of Recluse Freedom by John Leax

Leax cover

John Leax. Recluse Freedom. WordFarm. 2012. 127 pages. $18.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Longer than many collections of poetry, John Leax’s Recluse Freedom reads almost like an edition of selected poems. The poems are arranged into five sections which differ from each other in form or style as well as content. The first section, “Writing Home,” consists of ten narrative poems that follow the speaker’s development from boy to young man and then into the near present. Although these poems are not rigidly metrical, neither are they absolutely free verse; they demonstrate Leax’s skill with accentual patterns, for while the stressed syllables clearly resonate in the reader’s ear, there is no thump, thump, thump of the bass drum that sometimes dominates contemporary poems written in metrical forms. The second section, “Bright Wings,” contains eleven poems about birds—crows, herons, grosbeaks, a hummingbird, an owl, even vultures. Although the speaker is occasionally present via a first-person pronoun in these poems, more often the world beyond the human is central. Obviously, someone’s eye is observing the birds as they turn their necks, build their nests, take flight, but they are not reduced to containers for human insight or catalysts for human epiphany. In the third section, “Recluse: An Adirondack Idyll,” prose poems predominate, although four pantoums are interspersed among them, each pantoum consisting of four stanzas. Next, “Walking the Ridge Home” contains seven poems, or seven sections of one long poem, that are among the more formally experimental in the book. Devoid of punctuation, they depend for their rhythm—and to some extent their meaning—on line breaks, indentations, and white space. Each of these poems takes a line from the Psalms as an epigraph to guide both the writer and the reader. Finally, the last section is called “Flat Mountain Poems,” and the poems here explore that oxymoron and other paradoxes of human life. Yet Recluse Freedom is not simply five chapbooks bound within one cover. The poems are united through their attention to the natural world and through the contemplative tone. The speaker honors the world by attending to it, and by receiving it without wishing it to be other than it is.

“Homecoming,” from the first section, is one of Leax’s most thematically complicated poems. Filled with scriptural allusions, the opening stanza subverts traditional assumptions about obedience and disobedience, violence and peace, safety and harm. Here is that stanza: “In the beginning there was war, / and my father, hardly more than a boy, / was called. Because he had no church / to witness to the peaceful heart / that spoke a living word within / his chest, he went, and he became / a silent man. In the chasm / of his obedience I fell, / plunged with my first steps / into the wash of blood—a slash / of milky glass split my face from nose / to cheek and left me just one eye to watch / for his return. My mother wept, / I’m sure. No one told my father. / He soldiered on in ignorance of the night / already settling on his day.” Obviously the first phrase harkens back to Genesis, but here there is no God declaring everything good. Violence begins, not after the fall, but with creation. The speaker’s father is “called,” not by God but by the draft board. His “living word” is silenced. And then the speaker experiences his own fall, not through disobedience but through his father’s obedience. In the center of the poem, the father is present for the liberation of Dachau, and after the horror there, “No prayer / he’d learned in the bright bedtimes / of his farm-boy youth could halt the stone / rolling inexorably between the close / enclosure of his mind and the wide / goodness of the life he knew before the word / descended void in vengeance, blood, and bone.” The stone here is not the one rolled away from a tomb to indicate resurrection, and the word that descends is not the messianic promise of peace. Thirty years later, the father dies with a shrug. At his funeral, the speaker considers his father’s experience, God’s knowledge, and the overlap between them: “should / God come down to answer for this world, / he too might break his silence with a shrug, / give up, and die, helpless before the blank / enormity he’d meet in flesh.” The speaker recalls the day his father came home from the war, when they would meet for the first time: “Each time a man, young, joyful, in uniform, / descended from a bus, I cried, / ‘Is that him? Is that him?’ / I can’t remember when she said, ‘Yes,’ / or if he took me in his arms / and touched my face with his.” He remembers the longing but not its fulfillment. The poem suggests that God remains aware of this world but also remains entirely absent from it, or, at best, powerless within it. Yet the speaker acknowledges that he might not recognize God if they did meet face to face. This poem is less angry than resigned. It is a poem of faith despite the evidence that should negate faith.

“Homecoming” is not particularly typical of Recluse Freedom—none of the poems in this collection is particularly typical of it. Yet each of them is interesting, and together they form a collection that testifies to the breadth of Leax’s skill, the variety of his practice. It is a book that should be read slowly, over a period of days, because the individual poems invite contemplation. It is a book that offers us a pause from our worldly concerns yet ultimately recalls us to the world.


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Review of Biting the Apple by Jeanie Greensfelder

Greensfelder cover

Jeanie Greensfelder. Biting the Apple. Penciled In, 2012. 58 pgs. $12.50.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Biting the Apple, Jeanie Greensfelder’s first collection of poetry (and the inaugural publication of Penciled In press), consists of short lyrics that aim to convey the speaker’s fall into knowledge. Many of these poems focus on specific encounters—with the self, with others, with the world—that contribute to the speaker’s self-understanding, the type of memories that rise again and again, demanding comprehension. They trace the speaker’s development from bewildered (and eventually disobedient) child through adolescence and early adulthood to the moment she finds herself in the near present, a woman approaching the status of elderly, if not quite there yet, the grateful companion of other children.

The book’s title is, of course, an allusion to the forbidden fruit, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and expulsion from Eden. Apples appear in several of the poems, but the one most directly linked to the theme of Biting the Apple occurs second in the collection. “The Bad Apple” describes the speaker’s father’s purchase of a whole bushel, enough for an entire season. Rather than celebrate abundance, though, the father insists that the speaker eat only bruised apples, perhaps to save the whole batch from spoiling, but the effect is a suggestion of stinginess. The bushel paradoxically creates an atmosphere of scarcity. Finally, alone in the house, the speaker sneaks to the basement and chooses “a perfect apple.” Then, “Upstairs I cut it crosswise / and eat around the stars. / I do not fall / into Snow White slumber. // When my father comes home, / I smile in innocence / and he smiles back, / unaware of my new friend / the serpent.” The most compelling image here is “eat around the stars,” for it is both precise and surprising. Although most readers will anticipate the speaker’s disobedience (for what child, given the chance, would not have disobeyed this father’s instructions?), readers will nevertheless sympathize with the child’s new knowledge at the poem’s conclusion, that disobedience doesn’t always lead to the dire consequences predicted by the book of Genesis.

The most effective poem in the collection, and one which represents Greensfelder’s style at its best, is “Sixth Grade,” recently selected by Ted Kooser for his American Life in Poetry column. The syntax here is straightforward, the vocabulary simple and direct. Yet there is a terror at the heart of this poem, but Greensfelder wisely conveys it through metaphor. Each of the first two stanzas consists of a single sentence, composed without symbol or figurative language: “We didn’t like each other, / but Lynn’s mother had died, / and my father had died. // Lynn’s father didn’t know how to talk to her, / my mother didn’t know how to talk to me, / and Lynn and I didn’t know how to talk to each other.” So the two don’t talk; instead, they create a game: “A secret game drew us close: / we took turns being the prisoner, / who stood, hands held behind her back, // while the captor, using an imaginary bow, / shot arrow after arrow after arrow / into the prisoner’s heart.” These final two stanzas acquire their power from the imagery, the straightforward language and syntax, and also from Greensfelder’s choice simply to dramatize the game, concluding the poem without a gesture toward explanation.

Occasionally the poems do explain a bit too much for my taste. For example, in “The Bad Apple” quoted above, the phrase “in innocence” could be cut, a deletion that would intensify the poem’s complexity, I think, without creating any confusion for the reader. In some of the poems, the language could be tighter, becoming more memorable through compression. “Knitting” begins with this stanza: “I hold out my arms. Mother / puts coils of yarn around them. / Starting with a thread, / she winds ball after ball, / colors for her afghan.” If the second line read, “coils yarn around them,” would anything be lost? I don’t think so, and then the most interesting word in the line, “coils,” would both acquire the significant position of first word in the line and also function as the verb, enhancing its imagistic power. On the other hand, the first line is remarkable for its enjambment. How much more effective it is to break the line after “Mother” than it would have been to simply follow the grammar of the sentence—many poets would have begun this stanza, “I hold out my arms. / Mother puts coils of yarn…” Greensfelder’s choice illustrates the significant difference poets can create by attending to the structure of the line as well as the grammar of the sentence. We see the child holding out her arms to Mother here, although the sentences suggest a separation between the child’s gesture and the mother’s action.

Greensfelder’s poems challenge us to consider the contributions of ordinary speech to literary language, a discussion that has been ongoing for at least forty years and is likely to continue as contemporary writers infuse their work with allusions to pop culture and classical culture simultaneously. This discussion actually begins with a consideration of audience and then leads to debates about accessibility or exclusivity, a debate I do not care to enter into here. Greensfelder achieves accessibility, and Biting the Apple would be a good collection to hand to any person who claims not to be able to understand contemporary poetry.