A Living Space in Human Dust: Jee Leong Koh on Miriam Stanley’s Get Over It


get-over-it

Get Over It, Miriam Stanley, Rogue Scholars Press

The subjects in Miriam Stanley’s second book of poems are depressing—mental illness, divorce, man’s inhumanity to man—but their effect is not. These poems, burning with anger, hurt and despair, give a light that does not dazzle nor flicker, but stares steadily at the world that meets its eyes.

The book is organized according to three broad topics. The first group of poems describes Stanley’s work with mentally ill patients. The second deals with familial relationships, including a grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, and a marital break-up. In the final group of poems, the poet extends her vision to take in historical and current political conflicts, in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian situation in the Middle East. What unites these disparate strands of experience is the perspective of a Jewish woman, a troubled feminist; what lenses these different scenes into a cohesive film is an artist’s eye.

Stanley works as an art therapist in the New York City hospital system. The poems about her work are most powerful when they see with an extraordinary precision and sympathy. In A.B., a boy who suffers from schizophrenia is first seen in his “tattooed palms,” then his “cigarette burns,” and finally “the black roses on his teenage back.” A woman who stopped talking after the age of 14 has shoulders that stooped like “a white flag” (Christine at the Clinic).

The speaker’s perspective in these painful poems is never condescending; instead, the therapist frankly owns up to suffering from a mood disorder herself. The poet does not aspire to anything as grand as T. S. Eliot’s “wounded surgeon” but describes herself wittily as a “Peer Counselor,” the title of a layered poem about a therapist dressing up as a patient for an office costume party. Beyond self-implication, the speaker grants the broken humans of these poems their essential mystery. In the strongest poem of the group, Fire, the therapist smelled smoke one day on the clothes of a patient, and the poet thought of the Sabbath candles, and how “no one can touch them.”

In the second group of poems, Stanley turns her observant gaze on herself and family members. There are moving poems here about a grandmother’s mental deterioration, and its effects on those around her. The most interesting poems, however, are those that struggle between the feminist goal of gender equality and a woman’s desire for love in the face of advancing age. Again and again in these poems, the speaker conceives of her loveless situation and of her romantic hopes in terms of a living space. “So here I am at 44,” the speaker muses, “watching Flip This House, and/ Trading Spaces” (Chanukah Makes Me Want to Christmas Shop). The names of the reality shows underline, ironically, the fantasy of instant change. Confronted with the reality of divorce, the speaker in Linoleum is obsessed with the gashes and bumps in the fake maple floor covering, and dreams of smooth and glossy “laminate.” Quite unconvincingly she proclaims, “I have mastered want,” before admitting more honestly that “I’m sick of being a feminist,/ I want to marry wall to wall/ carpet.”

The security of a conventional marriage is altogether seductive, so much so that when she lives with, but not marries, a bohemian lover in Two Hundred Square Feet, she finds herself wishing for “an apartment with an actual bedroom,/ a floor with corners empty and clear,” and feels, in wishing this, she is cheating on him “with the invisible.” As the last quotation suggests, the achievement of these poems lies in investing the material world with the intangible stuff of longing. In Backyard, a wonderfully complete poem, the speaker confesses she wants badly the deck chairs and the grill but, alas, they do not belong to her. Still, sitting on the deck and reading, she enjoys the passing moment of possession, and invites the reader to “see me lean like water finding its level.” We all need a container, a room, in which to shape our lives; the need is as much spiritual as material.

The scope of the last group of poems is tremendously ambitious, covering as it does varied figures like Methusaleh, Thomas Cranmer and the Dalai Lama, and diverse historical events like 1924 Crimea, 1958 Congo, and 1959 Cairo. And so it is little wonder if the poems here are more uneven in quality. Observing the deadly conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the New Yorker in the speaker conceives of her own city as the unlikely meeting ground of opposing faiths and cultures. There is more than a touch of the good citizen in such a conception, a leavening that makes those poems feel less real. The greater passion and craft, I think, have been devoted to the poems about Jewish history and its present.

In these poems about survival, the fragment figures as the potent trope. The fragment may be “The Seashells” the speaker smuggled through Israeli customs. Back in New York City, when coworkers celebrate Christmas, the speaker takes out and strokes her “calcium fans” in order to “cling to the reef of my own history.” The strong poem The Ruins of Tel Aviv begins with the unseemly “disrobing” of “layers of walls” but ends with the proof of History, which needs no concrete and so fears no ruin:

The Bauhaus sea ascends; carries tides of passed olim,
striated beds of one hundred years grow a district.

History builds its mansion as roofs collapse.
Our proof, our presence, unassailable and rising.

The tidal cadence of these lines is near-irresistible.

The last poem of the book meditates, appropriately, on the “Aftermath” of the Maccabee uprising. In it, the poet distinguishes between the responses of fathers and mothers to the death of sons in war. The farmer describes their sacrifice complacently as “First fruit,” and his wife retorts that one does not suck one’s own marrow. When battle is resumed, and the men go to the front, the women stay behind in the dust of empty towns. In those sad homes, the women, “safe as a cluster of oranges,” tell stories about the war. The poem ends quietly, even hospitably, to accommodate these female voices: “The war is written about by scholars/ in kitchens./ The rain is a welcome guest.” The mixture of scholarship and domesticity is masterful. Welcome is the perfect last gesture of an open-hearted house. In this book, not only does Stanley find a living space in human dust, but she also throws it open to everyone.

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