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Gourmet Poems

In her most recent collection, My Kafka Century (Action, $12.00), Arielle Greenberg‘s greatest poetic gift is her subtlety. She’s so subtle that you may not realize what she’s said until quite a while later, after you’ve had a chance to more fully digest her words. In fact, reading a Greenberg poem is not so different from eating gourmet cuisine; at first, her writing elicits a smile, and only later does one sense the depth of flavors and textures behind the first impression, with their satisfying and lingering aftertaste.

We see this quality best in the lines hidden within her poetic strata. Rather than saving her most clever turns of phrase to showcase at the end of her poems, Greenberg, confident in her own abilities, offers these wonderful little surprises deep inside the body of her poems. Her endings don’t fall flat, exactly, but there’s no big bang either. What you get is a charming little love poem like “Diptych,” written, appropriately, in unrhymed couplets. Smack in the middle is this: “I’m still flushed. Still. / We had a neverending.” And on the poem goes. And then, six couplets later, it’s over, and you think, “We had a neverending?” And so the line resounds.

Greenberg’s other great talent here is voices, and she captures some of them with remarkable verisimilitude. The speaker of “Everything Natalie,” whom I picture as a love-obsessed teenage boy, writes with the angst-ridden but snidely self-aware voice so common in precocious teens, and yet the poem contains a hint of troubling darlmess, too. This one-and-a-half page poem makes you want to hear more from this kid—a novel, perhaps?—yet you feel that you know him remarkably well after so brief an encounter.

The poetic “I” is somewhat less successful when Greenberg moves closer to home, speaking in a voice that is more ostensibly hers. In “Valentine,” for instance, she includes some lovely turns of phrase, but the poem is not nearly as effective as those in which she adopts another persona entirely, such as “Katie Smith Says, ‘A Woman’s Body is a Battleground. I Should Know.'” This thoroughly creepy poem is written in the voice of the woman who, last year in Kentucky, made the national headlines when she attempted to cut a baby out of the womb of a stranger. The poem ends with the chilling line, “And do you believe in fairies’.’ Clap your hands if you do.”

Undoubtedly, one of the strongest works in the collection is The Dybbuk, a three-sectioned poem which includes a funny and thoughtful approach to gender roles. The best line comes at the end of the section entitled “Gilgul (Rolling)”: “One day G-d and I will double-date. / and I will get lo know His middle dash up close.” It’s the kind of line, in the kind of poem, that you want to taste again.

Gillian Steinberg is assistant professor of English at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University. She is currently working on a book about Philip Larkin’s verse.