Periods of Stress, by Irena Klepfisz. Distributed by I. Klepfisz (P.O.B. 56, Van Brunt Station, Brooklyn, NY, 11215), $2 plus 55* postage. Checks payable to author.
This is a strong, honest and highly readable first book of poetry. The poet shares her pain with us, in universal terms so that we can identify with her. We see the images; we feel ourselves caught up with her in her experience and remember how we too might have felt.
The book is divided into six sections and they suggest a movement from origins to current identity and the achievement of self-awareness. The first poems in the book deal with harrowing experiences during the Holocaust —some obviously real, some possibly imagined. These are some of the strongest poems in the book and reveal to us, so painfully, the source of the sensibility later developed by the poet. The poems speak of rape, being left by a father (and given into the care of nuns), the never-ending fear created in the surviving child and mother, and the difficulty of ever really adjusting to a post-Holocaust world.
Part II deals with sexual connections-female to male and female to female. The poems after Part I have a fresh poignancy about them and the complexities of the poet become clearer; her paradoxes point the way to universal truth. “It is unwise during periods of stress/ or change to formulate new theories. .. I am too frightened to venture out alone. I let me stay till I’m secure again/ somewhere else and then leave me alone.”
Part III deals with the poet’s attempts to discover herself—alone and as a woman. This section is developed against the backdrop of Montauk, where most of these poems were written. Located at the extreme edge of eastern Long Island —the last lonely stretch of land jutting out towards both the Sound and the Atlantic —Montauk is remote, windy, with beautiful beaches. For New Yorkers, it has the appeal of the frontier about it —pristine beauty carved out of rock, and sand and natural harbor.
For all our advances in this culture, most feminists, I believe, have suffered the lack of savvy needed to deal with “uncivilized” land and sea —trees, animals, weathering natural rather than emotional storms. Therefore, for Klepfisz, as I think for many women, the feeling of aloneness against the vast expanse of an inhospitable nature is a painful but maturing experience.
Something about this confrontation with nature and her own being has wrought sensitive changes in the poet —changes she wishes to share with us. In Part IV, she takes us to a center for retarded children and somehow we feel her early pain experienced once more through the suffering of these children. But here the poet has become more objective, has gone outside of herself, and has exchanged self-consciousness and a kind of shyness for universality and a rare kind of compassion.
We move with her to Part V, which I feel is not as coherent as the rest of the book. It tries, I believe, to suggest how this new objectivity, this change of vision, can allow the poet to comment on the contemporary scene as well as on her ability to see a lover in a new light. If that is the case, these are not my favorite poems. Other poems of hers could have better suggested this intention.
The last part of the book is strong and hopeful. In a series of “self-dialogues,” the poet allows us to view her transformed self. She is ambivalent —trusting her center and her need to be alone, but also aware of and able to admit to her loneliness—”I would never have placed/you here.. . And yet I’ve been lonely/of late and would not mind/some company.”
We have followed Klepfisz through her periods of stress and we know her now. We can pay her one of the highest compliments from reader to writer —she is us.
Diane Levenberg, a poet and short-story writer, is Poetry Editor of LILITH.