Languages of Loss and Silence

In her seventh poetry collection, Threshold (Copper Canyon Press, $12), Shirley Kaufman, an American-born poet living in Jerusalem since 1973, gives a fearless account of life in her war-torn home. These are poems of witness: bullet casings on the ground, children playing war games, “the flaming rib cage of the bus.” Kaufman is always even handed in the telling of these events. Nothing is glossed over, but the poems never spew hate at those who have committed violence. “The trouble with anger,” Kaufman says, “is that it spills all over/won’t/be contained.” The war poems are juxtaposed with the poet’s private losses: the realities of aging. and the death of close friends. I was touched by Kaufman’s childhood reminiscences. In They are all we are all, Kaufman mourns the loss of drinking milkshakes at Jamison’s drugstore “for only a nickel,” and comments that “you have to be old/to start/talking like that.” But even in more solemn poems where a sense of loss weighs heavy on the reader’s heart, Kaufman always finds hope. As she says in a love poem to her husband, the act of writing is in itself an act of hope: “I collect these words/…they add up to/just enough to/keep going.”

The Knot Garden, Allison Funk’s third collection (Sheep Meadow Press, $12.95), also explores art as a mode of healing. While Kaufman’s words pour out onto the page. Funk’s voice is more reserved. In fact, it is the silence of women—its origins and manifestations— that Funk examines. Among the most illuminating of these explorations is the poem sequence From the Sketchbooks of Vanessa Bell, told in the voice of Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. Bell, a painter, lived a life marred by the death of a son and intense sibling rivalry. The poems depict the jealousy fueled by Woolf’s flirtation and possible affair with Bell’s husband. Bell is shown to be at the mercy of her sister, and speechless as a result: “I, who cannot speak of my pain,/Virginia, always wishing to be forgiven,/ and Clive, who learned from her/the words to betray me.” I was most taken with Trained, Wild or Translucent, a long sequence portraying the poet’s suffocating interactions with a dominating father. Here is where her silence took root, but it’s also where she found her voice as a poet. “I couldn’t have said then what I wanted to find—a language to hide in.” Funk’s style—while opaque and enigmatic at times—is always magnetizing. I felt that she was right there in the room with me, whispering her haunting words into my ear.

Wendy Wisner’s first collection of poems, Epicenter, will be pub­lished by Custom Words Press in spring 2004. She teaches writing at Hunter College.