A Quartet Sings from Finishing Line Press
The Good Body by Anne Becker.c2007,
Finishing Line Press. 29 pgs ISBN 978-1-59924-165-4.
Gentling the Bones by Katharine Young. c2007,
Finishing Line Press. 27 pgs. ISBN 978-1-59924-221-7.
The Promised Bride by Jehanne Dubrow. c2007,
Finishing Line Press. 27 pgs. ISBN 978-1-59924-148-7.
The Slow Creaking of Planets by Gretchen Primack. c2007,
Finishing Line Press. 29 pgs. ISBN 978-1-59924-227-9.
A Review by Judy Neri
Among the chapbooks in Finishing Line's harvest for this year are four extraordinary collections. Their entry into publication says much for the value of a small press like Finishing Line, for their publication allows new, astonishing voices to be heard.
Three of the poets, Anne Becker, Katherine Young, and Gretchen Primack, work largely in free verse, with occasional excursions into form. Jehanne DuBrow uses form almost exclusively.
Anne Becker occupies a special niche in poetry. She focuses on the body/mind, the eternal element that underlies all the others, the sentient being as it emerges and evolves through language. Indeed, language itself is the second theme of her book.
Anne Becker honors the body, by definition the good body, in all its incarnations, from the womb, to loving, to suffering, to death. She honors it in language which is primal, rich and which will not go out of style. She notes its colors, its appetites, its integration in nature through mind and language and science.
The poem “In the Dreamtime,” describes the body’s emergence into being:
thin as whiskers, our arms antennae
as if we were blind. Perhaps we were—
most likely we were, but of course we didn’t know
words for eyes, for sight.
What we knew was color, the taste
In “The Untelling,” later, “which is: our lives living backwards,” she describes dying:
now curled foetus, now nervous spring;
an ocean of years heeled back,
the great tide of blood running seaward.
The past: a yo-yo climbing up its string;
Until at the end :
this stasis that we forever
fall from untelling and
Early on, there is Becker ‘s delightful “Body as Ideogram:” in which the body calls forth the instruments of language:
Beside—inside—each word, each Chinese character
is a character; a form, a figure: human
they do seem, although no more than
brushstrokes, dark slashes striding,
kicking their legs out in front of them in
joy as they walk or dash, head down,
sweat pouring from the brow, trying to reach the
edge of the page before the ink dries—they fling
their arms wide open to embrace the whole day
or accept great burdens of woven baskets filled
with the weight of living....
Becker gives a workshop entitled "Writing the Body" for those who have experienced life-threatening and chronic illness, and she currently teaches in the Poet in the Schools program. Here is an excerpt from "I Spend My Days among the Short People:"
And one of the smallest of these short
people doesn't abandon me
when all the others dash off to the
next attraction, and we are alone.
"I'm afraid of death," she says, her voice
small in the big day. Short myself,
still, I am the taller person: so I feel
it's my job to push death away—
"But the tumors keep coming back,"
she says, and shows me fine lines
of scars on her small
In the elegiac "Fall 2001," she finds in autumn light “life’s wild thirst." We take in the world, says Anne Becker, and it becomes us until finally "dusk shrugs off its shawl of lavender light." (p. 2) A wonderful poet.
The speaker in the title poem of Gentling the Bones, by Katherine Young, bursts out with:
Today father turned my lover away—
showed proof he is a married man, sore in
debt, widely expected to run away.
I flung my arms about my head, leaving
Mother to fret over Modesty and
Proper Conduct and suchlike.
The poem has an epigraph from a historical record of 1768 in which one of Katherine Young's ancestors speaks of just such a man and his prospects for his son's "poor sister." The poem's speaker says:
.… I hug my arms about myself,
gentling the bones with a stroke that apes
my lovers touch—.…
Were it not for the capitalized nouns, the poem could have been written in either epoch, from within that place and culture, and it thereby gains depth.
In the first poem, "By Way of a Prologue," the poet introduces her family history, going back to pre-Civil War, white America. Her epigraph poems tell of that time, as in "One Negro's Wench," whose refrains of "Let us say..." set up the recurrent denial underlying the inhumanity of slavery:
.… Let us say her skin glowed
of indigo, and in her eyes there shone
the light of unknown stars. Let us say that
she wove a magic around the master; that
the mistress, brought to bed of her seventh
child—a girl—bit her lip and looked away.
The poems without epigraphs, through "Burning down the Slave Quarters," evoke the landscape and culture of southwestern Virginia where the poet grew up, and against which she rebelled. They are exquisitely crafted, as in "Grandma's House:"
sits in the kitchen, still as an icon,
while the walls around her buckle and bulge.
In the unused rooms, the litter of ghosts
ferments the air: tarnished shaving brushes,
moldy pillows, plastic flowers.
. . . .
.… "They said my great granny had small
hands," my mother said. "Died by a rusty
needle: tetanus, of course." We went on
turning over quilts, as if there might be
more secrets hidden there. As if we might
find some reason, some justification
for the pain and poverty—some purpose
rare, remarkable, ennobling. Not just
refusing to quit when beaten, not plain
cussedness. Not the simple pulsing of
protoplasm, mad multiplication
of atoms, molecules, cells, all straining
to produce our unremarkable selves.
Young's later long poem, "Voyagers," sums up the Southern history poems as it moves toward the present. It begins:
The hurricane wrecked the motel; jagged
chunks still litter the beach, twirling rebar
antennae like cumbrous insects. I pick
my way among its leavings:....
The poet hates this beach, where once a boy proposed to her, saying "There's no one better—let's get engaged." She pities "the flame-skinned women toting/umbrellas and diaper bags, beer bellied/papas propelling frightened kids toward/the waves." The poet travels far and wide, finally returning to the beach after another of many hurricanes has hit, and discovers that:
Hurricanes measure how much you have learned,
how much more you will need to know.
The voyager makes peace with the past, says, despite the "Ruined washers [that] stand sentinel along choked off roads":
.... I'm content
with imperfect things: starlight, scent of cut
Intake of breath: as rich a mystery
as courtship among kings, as alphabets,
Meanwhile, the ocean—
… groans ever on
swirling back upon itself, licking at
the fugitive edge of the sky, taking
all, taking no notice at all.
Katherine Young, who has worked as a journalist in the Soviet Union, is at home with history, at home with complexity, a clear-eyed witness to life's unending twists and ironies. The human toll of slavery, of racism, the ignorance and poverty they generated, form the back-story of this eloquent book.
Genocide, as practiced in the Holocaust, is the subject of Jehanne DuBrow's The Promised Bride. DuBrow finds her way into the barbed wire of the Holocaust through the mythical Shulamite woman of Song of Songs (1:5) and her extension in Paul Celan's "Death Fugue." (Paul Celan was a German-speaking Romanian Jewish poet of the Holocaust who survived the death camps and took his own life in 1970. "Death Fugue" was his most famous poem, an emblematic one of the Holocaust’s horror.)
Jehanne Dubrow uses quotes from both Song of Songs and Death Fugue as epigraphs for her book. The name of the "black but comely" Shulamite princess in Song of Songs recalls the Hebrew words "shalom" for peace and "yerushalayim” for Jerusalem. According to John Felstiner, a translator of Celan's Death Fugue, Shulamith is often seen as the Jewish people itself. (For the poem and links see http://osfl.gmu.edu/lsmith/deathfugue.html.)
DuBrow takes these associations one step further. The first poem of the collection, "The Pressed Flower," has an epigraph:
On her own wedding day in the Shulamite woman met a later self, Shulamith.
promised bride of Shoah. . . .
In other words, as Shulamith, the Jewish people become the bride of the Holocaust. Therein lies the title and the daring, underlying symbolism of the chapbook. In the poem itself is a reference to "Celan and Song of Songs." In the third poem, entitled "Shulamith In White," a villanelle, the poet works from images and phrases in Celan's "Death Fugue:"
"Black milk of daybreak" (or "daylight") and his long line, "your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped." The poem ends with floodlights taking the place of the candles one might expect for a wedding:
O daughters of the camps, floodlights
will follow you. Even your Yes
I do will cough with ash. In white
you'll breathe blackdust into daylight.
All the poems in The Promised Bride are not about the Holocaust directly, but their reference to Shulamith in the title, or a line in the poem itself make the ironies more caustic. One example in "Shulamith on the Occasion of Valentine's Day:"—"no doubt/I missed the sharp delight/of knives. . . . "
In "Shulamith in the Library of Shoah" the poet imagines a congregation of books,
...Cover to cover pressed,
because destruction hurries from nowhere,
bonfires ripping at each chaptered self....
Having evoked the library, a revered place in bookish Jewish lives, subsequent poems take up various inhabitants of the library, as in the villanelle "Shulamith Reads The White Hotel, with a line from the novel by D. M. Thomas" in which sex and death and Babi Yar are mixed in a "pornography of pain." Here's the beginning:
I could not stop myself I was in flames.
Was it the shock of words like fuck and cock
or was it Babi Yar, a death that came
after four chapters filled with sex, which shamed
When "Shulamith Reads Philosophy," she does so with lines from a work by Jean Améry on torture. In "Shulamith Picks up Euclid's Elements Again,” here is what section II refers to, under the element “Line:”
Remember that movie filmed at Nuremberg—
ten thousand arms all angled to the same
degree, the red armbands against brown shirts,
a single point now disappeared, replaced
by lines of lines, each one made parallel
and rallying to hear the Fuhrer's words.
And so it goes through point, line, surface and boundary.
In "Shulamith Remembers Babylon," the poem of exile, based on Psalm 137 is linked to a wedding bed and is a love poem, but one in which we meet "the curtains smoldering/with smoke, a pillow pressed against my face…." Almost as disconcerting, Shulamith says of the euphoria of love,
there's nothing riskier than joy, the smell
of salt and green against his neck,
my nightgown whispering as it is pulled
above my head...
And she is terrified, "as when the soldiers ripped apart my dress/in Babylon…."
Finally, after much artfully displayed horror, we find "Shulamith Writes Fuck You" and its directness is refreshing. I would have ended the chapbook with this poem instead of the elegant sonnet based on a Cynthia Ozick line.
This book hurts. It is designed, artfully, to hurt. To shock. It is an erudite, finely crafted book whose purpose is to break every barrier of convention and denial so that we, in a jaded age, will Pay Attention. So that those sacrifices, that abyss, will not be forgotten. Since the western world’s 1940’s holocaust, we have witnessed holocausts in Cambodia, Rwanda and now, Darfur. We need reminding.
As Katherine Young and Jehanne DuBrow stare into the complexities of history, Gretchen Primack, in her collection The Slow Creaking of Planets, incarnates interior experience in our dysfunctional culture, with all its idiosyncratic, often tragic contradictions. The opening poem, "Space," describes her alter ego, Doris. Here are the middle stanzas:
Doris used to want a single
cornet, but now she wants full orchestra.
She wants an aviary of calling birds
the color of apples and oranges.
Tonight, under the pitted planets,
each note dropped a thread for her.
She wrapped them around her fingers
to keep herself here on the ground.
She is a nature poet, one who loves everything, from insects up the great chain of being, and cares passionately about the health of the planet. Humans are somehow, often obliquely, defined by their interaction with nature. In "August," Doris's interlocutor says:
All right, Doris, it's a perfect dusk
for a walk. I've never seen
such a fuzzed mushroom….
…. I've never known one
to show so much gill.
Doris, your profile is dreadful
in the violet light. Leave beauty
to the newts, and these dozen
water bugs, wrestling
with their own bridges
The clouds look
like shovelfuls of dirt.
I'm so exhausted, it's as if
I did that landscaping.
No, Doris, not from anything
in particular: just
and I know you know
what I mean.
Here the characters show a flatness of affect; in other moments, they are elated. In “Forest Floor,” the same character says:
Didn't the shade
press in, shimmering, sharp?
Wasn't grief stuffed
into the marrow
of each trunk? But wasn't
the trunk sugared in joy?
All of it was too alive
with gorged bees and
We walked through with a bright
frog of color at the corner
of each eye, on our way to
the flattened edge of the earth.
The lyric clarity of her lines amazes, the images sometimes close to surreal— as when Doris fits herself into the lung of a bird (p. 26)— but always perfectly pitched for describing the inner life of her characters in snatches of narrative or crystallized dialogue, bringing into the daylight an inexplicable moment in the psyche.
Consider this anti-rhetorical poet’s more traditional poem, "Wednesdays with Mrs. Wolfstein ," a thank you bow to her music teacher:
Johann Strauss waltzed her around
the piano bench all year through clouds
of rosin, a curtain of horsehair;
leaned her across the keys.
She describes a soloist in words that reach to the aim of poets and musicians both:
…. The soloist
has worn her chin to callus
for the chance to be what is sad and rich
and endless, everything that can be lost,
and the loss.
The diction is spare, bordering on the laconic. In a later poem, "Tony's Goodbye," the worst happens: "I wanted to tell you without a rope." The rest tells us that Tony was a glassblower, that somehow or other he tried to say what could not be explained and had to do it even though he loved her:
And should you think what I’ve ended, this task,
was from lack of loving you, only think of my art:
how I stuffed my breath with you as I blew into the glass.
Still, the ground's littered with electric split
seconds, leaf skeletons....
And so I pushed off it,
boosted myself up.
In only 12 lines, Gretchen Primack renders for us what is beyond understanding in the turmoil of this soul.
The collection begins and ends with the title phrase "the slow creaking of planets," reflecting the cover graphic by William Blake, whose sensibility is congenial to that of the poet. The cornet of the first poem returns in the last poem, "Midnight," creating a metaphoric unity. The poet is mourning the loss of a beloved dog of noble ancestry: "The yellow cornets/waited for her to drift through the gate..." and then, tying this loss to the first poem and the graphic on the cover:
But that was the night she gave over
to space, let the pulley of notes raise her as far
as she could go, and stayed.
That was the night Orion slipped out of the bowl,
leaving only his glittering belt, unbuckled
into an aching arch,
and the slow creaking of planets.
Not surprising that Gretchen Primack was named a 2006 Best New Poet for her poem, “Colors.” Here are a few lines on “Fuchsia”:
A Colette heroine
On heroin. Unspellable.
when you cock
your head at me.
In the work of this poet, everything surprises.
These four remarkable poets deserve a much wider audience. Thanks to Finishing Line Press, they are on their way!
Judy Neri is the author of Always the Trains (New Academia Publishing, 2008.) One of her many published poems, it was featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. A Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Maryland, she has worked as a college teacher, freelancer and labor editor.