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Now Read These Poems

As a poet and a mother to a young child, I’m always looking to read the works of other “poet-moms.” So I was thrilled to delve into Erika Meitner’s second book, Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, $13.99), a National Poetry Series winner. The book was written when Meitner’s son was an infant, and the poems have that dreamy, awestruck feel. In “The Upstairs Notebook,” Meitner writes about how she balances poem-making with baby care. She has two writing notebooks, one upstairs and one downstairs, so that she can jot down a line or two wherever she is. Meitner writes with characteristic tenderness: “In my downstairs notebook I also try / to write about the way it feels to walk / with my son strapped to my body, / his wet mouth suctioned to the space / between my breasts.”

In the second half of the book, Meitner transitions into a group of poems about her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Her grandmother is dying when Meitner is pregnant with her son, and the poet beautifully weaves together these two subjects. She writes, “my grandmother / is not nearly gone. / She is rising like a deer / from the meadow. She is dancing with a baby / in her arms” (from “North Country Canzone”). In Meitner’s elegy to her grandmother (“Elegy with Construction Sounds, Water, Fish”), she discusses her grandmother’s first language, and how it will live on after death: …

and there is Yiddish —

my grandmother’s Galicianer accent, shorthand for a thumping resilient nameless thing that refuses to leave us, refuses to sing.”

Becka Mara McKay is a poet and a Hebrew translator, and her book A Meteorologist in the Promised Land (Shearsman Books, $15) is a testament to this work. The book showcases her ability to play with language, turn it upside down and inside out. In “Birds in April” McKay writes, “the tongues I’ve learned don’t offer word — / for-word translation. They are glass, aim and / fire.” Her poems resist easy summing-up, but they leave a reader brimming with images, and words that heat and chill the bones. Consider “Excision Sonnets,” her poems about a miscarriage, whose fragmented look and feel mirror the experience of losing a baby:

I’d rather avoid :hemorrhage, curettage, trace tissue, necessary. I explain the body’s strange persistence, border salt, unvoiced I will not lie God arrange conception not your fault.

Not all of the poems are this extreme in their form or language. Many sing quite melodically. Her poem “T’philot (Prayers: Jerusalem, summer),” a short series of images, contains one of the most sensual and memorable lines from the book. McKay writes, “the boy took my breast / in his mouth. Do you love it, / he asked. Hebrew / has no word for like.” McKay the translator challenges the reader to see what lies beyond the words we utter. This is, in fact, what all poems aim to do: to look beneath the surface of things, to tell the truth but tell it slant.

In my own poetry I tend to stay focused on the same subject matter for quite some time before moving on to new subjects. While reading Fair Creatures of an Hour (Loonfeather Press, $12.95), a third book of poems from Lynn Levin, I was struck by this poet’s breadth. There are love poems and existential meanderings on life and death, poems with Jewish themes, gardening poems, a poem about a drugstore clerk, a social worker… the list goes on. Levin’s voice also shifts, at times smart and intellectual, other times soulful and dreamy. In one poem she scrutinizes the idea of the “immortal soul,” and in the next offers a line like “I couldn’t tell my breath / from the new-mown grass” (in “Helium”).

The book seems to go deeper into Levin’s heart as it progresses, including a dramatic, vivid and eerie poem about her mother’s cancer, “Nuclear Scan of the Crab Nebula.” She remarks on the distance she has always felt from her mother, but when they are together in that radiologist’s office she has a flash of memory from childhood of her mother’s loving embrace: “she sometimes / let me rest my sad head / on her big bra’d chest / and held me.” At the end of the poem, when her mother is about to be injected, Levin writes,

I’ll just say that when the radiologist took his long needle and shot the isotopes into her breast cancer I felt that old blue windex-sting in my eyes, and Mom just lay there like a good patient, but I cried.

I love Levin’s simplicity here — a clear and precise description of what happened, an evocative image grounded in daily life, and a moment of passion at the end.

Wendy Wisner is the author of Epicenter, a book of poems; her poetry has appeared in The Spoon River Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere.