The Vividness of the Particular: Cherie Walsh on Sally Rosen Kindred’s No Eden


No Eden, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mayapple Press, 2011

In No Eden, Sally Rosen Kindred’s first collection, the poems’ various speakers find themselves in “broken weather, broken story.”  We find Eve in fallen exile, Noah in the hold of the ark—poems of midrash, in Alicia Ostriker’s sense of the word, as Kindred discovers for these  old stories new imagistic and emotional content.  Kindred weaves her midrash with poems spoken by a contemporary woman remembering her girlhood, where her alcoholic mother shapes weather and story, and with poems that take place in the adult life of that speaker.  The midrash works both as correlative for the poems about the family and, importantly, as fully imagined poetry on its own.  The relationship is metonymic rather than metaphoric;  that is, within the whole of the collection the associations between and among the poems are rich and multiple rather than singular and algebraic.

“Noah Waiting, Not Praying,” for example, moves with a kind of psychological integrity through images and details also fully integral to the material itself.  The poem begins, “What a darkness, to be favored/like this, to be/hurling birds up into/the botched sky,” and deepens from there, lingering with and turning over the images, revealing their wholeness and illustrating the character’s state of mind.  Noah hasn’t asked for this “burden/starless and rough/as gopher wood,” but has loved God for creation and even “for the window/on the ark, where sky/could open us before we cast/our best music through.”  This rewriting of “hurling birds” shows the power of the image as Kindred stays with it, allowing it to show more of itself and its evocations even as it develops the portrait of the speaker.  “Noah’s Wife Remembers” imagines its character forty years after the flood, talking to a selectively interested granddaughter who is planting almond trees.  The poem as it develops its speaker seems preoccupied with relationship and portraiture, but in the last five lines the imagery shifts, surprisingly, to the almond itself, an image referring to the larger story even as it takes on its own symbolism.  This symbolism, in turn, constitutes the culmination of the poem:

What I love

are the brown bodies of almonds,

the sweet wrath of my thumb knowing what’s inside

and wanting the strength to split their knotted souls

and lift the safe meat out.

This is a fairly stunning move, where the image of the almond, germane but different, latent until this point, bears the entire emotional weight of the poem.

Other factors in the poem, too, add to the surprise of the poem’s shift to this image.  In general, Kindred’s attention to the music and the density of language, always translucent, comprehensible, though sometimes chunky with modification, has the reader paying attention to each line, rather than speeding through language to follow narration, even in poems with strong narrative elements.  In this poem the rising water “spun into bruised shades” and “unravel[ed] the gold skins of grain”;  the speaker goes into her house and “return[s] with a secret fist” that the granddaughter uncurls.  The reader is vulnerable to surprise because she is absorbed in this language, the richness of this telling.  In an even more narrative poem such as “Vespiary”—where the contemporary speaker as a girl remembers her mother’s response to the stinging of a neighborhood dog by wasps—where the story moves swiftly, the language remains full and sonorous.  The dog’s

limp fur heaves with spent deadly stars.

Wasps hum and fall from the black rabble

of his back:  moon skin, crumbled legs.  Some are dead

but thrumming, some roll and break

their wings in the acids of his withered belly.

In this passage, as throughout, the success of the language rests both on diction and music as well as the poems’ measured use of syntax, sometimes held together by anaphora, sometimes by a mix of long and short sentences.

On the level of line, too, the poems mix enjambment and end-stopping, making for a line I associate with Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, an influence I hear in this way and others in the present collection, but which originates in William Carlos Williams:  the line ending posits a secondary reading that does not carry the correct denotative meaning but creates a tension effective within the poem.  “Raisin” uses this device:  “they were hard and warm.  As your teeth break the skin/what weeps forth is fog and mud.”  Certainly, in a poem about childhood and new realizations of suffering, the image of “teeth break[ing] the skin,” i.e., teething, makes emotional sense, but the literal meaning is about biting a raisin.  I hear the influence of Glück in lines like this one and in lines bookended by the same word, as in this one, from “Second Mother”:  “his pitch, his call is his/waking.”  Kindred makes this bookending her own by using it sparingly and in concert with other local tropes.  Line, then, is another way the poet is able to create or relax tension or establish pacing.  In other poems, Kindred chooses short sentences and largely end-stopped lines to make for an emotional effect, and she uses point of view to establish pacing, as in “My Body at Thirty is a Dark House”:

Old house, crowded with drooping stars,

keening under rainwater, where is your hard chair?

Weren’t there once wings in the glass?

I don’t know this place.  The stairs green into night.

I’m staggering at the foot, waiting for my hands

to find pine knots coding for the door.

The speaker, here more Plathian than Glückian, uses short sentences to convey emptiness, flatness, while maintaining this poet’s characteristic odd, strong diction:  “green into night,” “pine knots coding for the door,” where “knots” almost puns.  The move from the external description to the speaker’s comment and then to the narration of her relationship with the internal landscape—“I don’t know this place”—shows the careful and effective pacing of the piece.

Compounding the effect of Kindred’s powerful image-sense is the accretive meaning of images as they occur in different contexts throughout the collection.  Some images stay in the family poems—the blue china hen, the hose, the coffee cup, the porch—while others cross over between the midrash poems and the family poems—the apple, the garnets, the ark animals.  All of these, of course, carry their other connotations with them when they travel.  In the family poems the china hen appears first in “Vespiary,” where it symbolizes the suppressed anger of suburban mothers;  then in the “Mary, Full of Grace” section of “Seven Sorrows,” where it becomes a vessel for a maternal suicide note;  and finally in “Yearn,” where the speaker addresses it:

Blue china chicken

at the center, where is your shine?

Take this grief and feed it back to me,

dark burgundy taste of my mother’s soil and sleep.

The image of the garnets, important to the Noah story as the sole givers of (dim, barely adequate) light on the ark, appears again in “Our Liliths” in the “six years/of garnet defeat/in our mother’s womb.”  From other poems and from inherent similarity, we associate the ark with the womb, and the correspondence compounds.  The image appears in the collection’s final poem, “Mercy on Pecos Road”:  “Here my garnet mother lightens and dries…” and we understand how this mother has been a sort of garnet, as we understand the image from the other poems, lighting the way just enough for the daughter to survive.

Kindred’s play with the Noah story gives her images and characters grounding, on one hand, and particularity—or multiple particularities—on the other.  The resonances work multiply, and this multiplicity is powerful:  Noah as survivor, Noah as drinker, “Noah” as the name of the contemporary speaker’s adopted son.  The story is grueling, as a mistaken God destroys creation and then offers “gifts made out of sky.”  The story is also one of which our culture can make a cute motif for crib linens, as the speaker’s baby receives.  Through the poems we look hard at the “Animal Dark” of the Noah story, and by the end of the collection we are easily linking elements of the biblical story to elements of the family story.  Indeed, the long poem “Seven Sorrows” overtly invites us to do so, weaving together as it does, section by section, the stories of biblical figures with the contemporary speaker’s story, all through the contemporary speaker’s voice.  In late poems where the connections are less overt and the reader makes the associations, as in the “Noah’s Wife” poem, compounding images sing.  It is here I marvel at Kindred’s technique, the skill with which she treats her vision in its wholeness and complexity.

Near the end of the collection, poems such as “Our Liliths” and “Seven Sorrows” begin to tell more directly the speaker’s emotions about her experience, to a degree that the speaker’s response, her inferences, become a feature of the end of the collection.  For example, the speaker tells us in “Our Liliths” that the mother’s miscarriages are the “better-off daughters,” and while acknowledging that she “can’t climb all the way to seven” in “Seven Sorrows,” she tells us that “sorrow has mothered me from this day.”  Some readers may recoil from the speaker’s direct expressions of anger and sadness, yet coming at the end of the collection, they both match the emotions of the midrash characters and read as fully human, as the consciousness of pain

comprises part of the human condition, and, indeed, makes pain meaningful.  From the beginning, the speaker has lived the same difficult story, as we know from “In My Seventh Year, I Entered the Cathedral of the Blackbird’s Wing”:

. . . No mother

but I’d found her sleep:

great throbbing,

night-feathered nest

of mercy and devastation.  And I lay

down.  I lay down.

This is, like many first books, a book of the wound;  later, Kindred may write another book, but in this one, the wound is fresh, the poems’ emotions raw and keenly felt—though the craft, as I have described it, and the vision, which feels complete, make for an artistic rendering.

No Eden, while it ends on a note of mercy, is not a book about mercy.  It is about a particular discovery—a set of particular discoveries, which both are and are not the same discovery—of the profound brokenness of the worlds the characters, and the reader, inhabit.  It is a richly imagined and carefully woven assemblage of voices that grow more powerful through their associations with each other.  Both individual poems and the overall structural composition allow for the vividness of the particular even as they allow the primary speaker’s story to open out into emotionally potent archetype.

*

Cherie Walsh has a MA in English from the University of Maryland and, having taught outside the university for 13 years, has returned to complete an MFA in poetry writing.

The Firmament Between Worlds: Barbara Goldberg on Myra Sklarew’s Harmless


Myra Sklarew, Harmless, Mayapple Press, 2010

Anyone who knows Myra Sklarew knows how modest she is, how uncomfortable is in the spotlight.  In art, as in life, she steps aside for those who are, in her view, more deserving.  In “Keeping Silent: for Stanley Kunitz”  she says, “Like the others, I lay claim to you.”  But despite his fingerprint on her work, despite his being a family relative, she closes this way: “perhaps those who knew you best, loved you more,/ must write their verses for you.  I move out of their light.” If not the spotlight, there is a territory where Sklarew is more at home:  the interstices, the space between this and that – she is, after all, the middle of three sisters!  More to the point, what is the space between memory and forgetfulness, dream and reality, the right arm and the left. In “Crossing Over” she describes the area between heaven and earth as “the firmament between worlds.”  Here is where “the breached parts come together/ again in wholeness” (“Tell it Not in Gath”). That firmament is illuminated by imagination, which bridges the “space between wisdom and madness.” (“Harmless”)

…In this poem, I ask that the transport

of frozen children

be transformed, that

in the morning when they come to unlock

the ice-covered door, from each golden

chrysalis

a living child will emerge.

The poem goes on to show the role of the artist:

…the artist, between dreaming

and reality, opens our eye and places

before us

twenty girls, intact.

It is art that transforms us, allows us to “open our eyes” and give life to the dead.

There is an incident etched in her memory.  It is June 24, 1941.  The family has gathered in her grandmother’s house.  Sklarew’s father is pacing up and down the room, a letter in his hand.  It is from relatives in Lithuania pleading for help.  Of course the letter was heavily censored. “You live in the Garden of Eden,” it said, “and we in the valley of Gehenna [hell].  We would like to meet with you ”   Unfortunately, the letter arrived too late. The holocaust is at the epicenter of Myra’s material.  It comes from hell.  In biblical times, this valley southwest of Jerusalem, was the site of a cult where children were burned as offerings. But there is also the Garden of Eden.  And from its earth comes Sklarew’s exquisite attentiveness to the living world. “I had a third grade teacher who used to cry a lot,” she says.  “I found I could make her laugh if I told stories about the ants living under a mushroom.”  Even then she trained her eye on the teeming life underneath.  She says, with complete sincerity, her close observation of living things – insects, cicadas, even bacteria – is her redemption, her true religion.  “Just think,” she says.  “There are 10 times 10 trillion bacteria in our gut.  Without them, we couldn’t live.”

There’s a wonderful poem entitled “Misreading” that begins with an epigraph by Adam Czerniaawski: I’m packing my bags, flames burn us. “I’m packing my bugs” she writes. “The enemy is at the door.” Sklarew can look for hours at a cicada under a magnifying glass, marveling at its colors, designs and its structure.  “My bugs and I, we have no opinion today/  on the jurisdiction// of righteousness, on who/  owns the air.” So why does Sklarew, who grew up in Long Island and Baltimore, have a special affinity for Lithuania, the land of her mother’s people,  “no matter the massacre places, the brutal untimely deaths.” (“So Far”).   She continues, “I lay claim/  to their lives.” They are hers.  Through her poetry, she breathes life into them.

I like to think of Myra Sklarew as Malakh, the angel in the Old Testament whose name means messenger.: “In all their affliction [Malakh] was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bore them, and carried them all the days of old” ( Isaiah 63:9). It is a privilege to be the receiver of memory’s texts and the restorer of wholeness. It is life affirming:  “an old man unburdening/ himself, lifting the dead// from the massacre/ pits that they may breathe again/ in the air between us.” (“By Telephone”).

“Lithuania is a land of so much suffering,” Sklarew says.  “I want to tell the stories of those who had never given voice to them before.”  She actively seeks out the townspeople, visiting with them and taking down their memories.  Many of the older ones alive during World War II have a kind of amnesia about events that transpired.  They remember that they befriended the Jews.  They don’t remember taking part in the killings.  Or stealing their possessions.   Sklarew’s mission, it appears, is to go beyond these one dimensional memories and flesh them out in all their contradictions and complexity.

Hers is not easy poetry.  It can be smothering, as hiding under floorboards or in a suitcase under a bed in a forced labor camp   Or being buried alive in the forest.  How can one go on living?  How can one ever laugh again?  As Sklarew sees it, only someone like her cousin Leiser, who has “risen from the cellar/ of the murdered, this blind man/ who has outwitted death can laugh.” (Leiser Is Singing) Sklarew herself dredges up the mass graves, because not to is a sacrilege, a betrayal of all those who suffered.  Memory must stand guard. Sklarew’s close study of memory after trauma dates back many years.  Consider her early study of biology and bacterial genetics, or later at Yale University School of Medicine her work on frontal lobe function and delayed response memory in Rhesus monkeys.  Her absorption with neuroscience and memory continues till this day.  For years she has attended lectures at NIH and elsewhere and written numerous scientific articles.

Despite being self-effacing, Sklarew is a powerful presence.  And exerts a powerful moral influence on all who come in contact with her.  Perhaps it’s her incorruptibility, her belief in the almost holy work of the artist. And this she has transmitted to everyone who gravitates towards her – as a professor at American University and as President of the artist colony Yaddo.  “It has been a real gift,” she says, “to be entrusted with the heart work of others.” Similarly, it is a real gift to delve into the heart of Sklarew’s poetry.

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Barbara Goldberg’s most recent book, The Royal Baker’s Daughter, received the Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press).  She with the Israeli poet Moshe Dor edited and translated two anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace (University of Syracuse Press/Dryad Press).Her work appears in the Best American Poetry 2009, Paris Review, Poetry and The Gettysburg Review.  The recipient of two NEA fellowships and other national awards in translation, fiction and speechwriting, she is a former senior speechwriter at AARP.