Ronald Pies, a writer acquaintance from my stint at editing the late online journal New Works Review – also a member of the faculty at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Tufts University School of Medicine,– has just published a poetry chapbook called The Heart Broken Open after one of its poems. It is available to purchase from the Harvard Book Store http://www.harvard.com/book/the_heart_broken_open/ where I, after about three or four readings in preparation for this review, have just purchased my personal copy.
The book is richly literary in style yet highly accessible to a wide popular audience and especially for those seeking solace in times of grief. And unlike the doggerel that is often handed to those suffering life’s vicissitudes, which somehow always fails to connect with me, here is an unsentimental poetry that comes deeply from life’s hard places yet is full of honest sentiment and the comfort that comes of good living and good literature. The chapbook contains twelve short poems equally divided between two sections entitled “Sorrow’s Body” and “Resurgence.”
The Heart Broken Open begins with “Return toBrooklyn,” an evocative piece in which a grandmother is “weav[ing her] way / back toBrooklyn” even as her family is losing her. The speaker remembers a day “whenConey Island / was safe” and her “accent thick / as hot pastrami.”
The more we lost
the more your speech
“I want some cawfee,”
These images, as others’ throughout this small collection, suggest in concrete language a larger story that remains hidden. I find myself remembering the voice of my own maternal grandmother as she read to me decades ago from the dialect poetry of James Whitcomb Riley.
In “Villanelle for a Dying Smoker” we hear the subject’s prayer: “Dear Lord, forgive me for the cigs and crystal meth.” In the next stanza we are posed this question: “Why should I or anyone care / for a life so willfully bereft?” That implied judgment is answered in the poem’s final stanza, whose last two lines echo back the refrains that drive home the poem’s pervading sense of compassion for whomever suffers:
Your eyes had no more light to spare.
My right hand took your left.
Your neck pulsed, your nostrils flared.
Every muscle fought for air.
In the title poem the speaker alludes to “a chirpy technician / your granddaughter’s age” and closes with what he wants to tell her but cannot, because “her eyes / are so painfully blue, / and so young.” (Likewise in part two the speaker of “Summer’s Lease,” who would warn his daughter of darkness and death but she “stop[s his] mouth / with eyes of wild azure.”)
The first part ends with a poem of profound sweetness, “After Chemo,” in which the lover sings to his beloved: “Come you home now, love”; and later:
Come home now
and let me rub you
I think, with sad irony, of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” though the rhythms here are a bit more Biblical and bereft of the particular beauties of youthful passion. More immediately I think of my father, who loved my mother beyond measure and parted with her too early last September.
But happily this book of sorrows is not without life’s resurgence as in signs of spring and life’s cycling backward in all its forms, though never really far from death’s sting. As in “The Lilac Borer” in part two:
As if to say
come and go,
as all things must.
In a final note let me pay homage to musical artist Anaïs Mitchell whose folk opera Hadestown called her to my attention – or my son the music reviewer did. Hadestown retells the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, his descent to the Underworld to bring her back. Mitchell’s lyrics are highly literate, even literary; in the final song her lyric praises not the fair-weather bird or flower but one who sings or blooms (like Orpheus) in the darkest times: “I raise my cup to him,” Persephone and Eurydice sing on the melancholy morning after that bold lover’s defeat .
But I come to this subject because Mitchell’s new album Young Man in America, her first after Hadestown, is now available. Here is a link to Jonathan’s review: http://hearhearmusic.com/2012/06/09/album-review-anais-mitchell-young-man-in-america/. His able and eloquent words will give you a deeper sense of her musical and lyrical brilliance beyond what I have attempted above.