Poems As A Lens On Life

A Full Range Of Luminous Poets, New And Familiar

In 1995, Itzhak Perlman finished a New York performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with a broken string. Poet Grace Schulman came across the story of Perlman’s perseverance in the Houston Chronicle and found the anecdote worthy not only of a poem but a theme for an entire book. The Broken String (Houghton Mifflin, $22), Schulman’s sixth collection, is the numinous result. Throughout the book, Schulman explores the relationship between music and endurance. In “Kol Nidrei, September 2001,” she writes of chanting Kol Nidrei 16 days after the attacks of September 11th. Later in the book, she writes of hearing bells, “those pebbly ones that top scrolls in the ark.” The poem then moves into the history of a synagogue on Central Park that contains scrolls saved from a ruined temple, paired with a memory of standing at age 13 before the blurred letters of an aged Torah scroll. To unite these various experiences, Schulman returns to the silver bells, heard “through doors of a massive building/whose ark is curtained shut.” Here as in other poems, Schulman delicately moves from a story of perseverance to a lyrical meditation on faith, confirming her status as one of the lasting poets of her generation.

After seeing the work of a seasoned poet like Schulman, it is harrowing to read the posthumous collection of younger poet Sarah Hannah, who took her life in May of 2007. Hannah’s powerful second book, Inflorescence (Tupelo Press, $16.95) chronicles her relationship with her mother, Boston Expressionist painter Renee Rothbein. The main focus of the book is Hannah’s time spent as a caretaker after her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. The poems offer haunting glimpses of Hannah’s childhood with Rothbein and of her mother’s history of mental illness. In “A Daughter Proposes Lithium,” Hannah addresses her mother directly: “The records of your rise and collapse/are all over this place— //In the crags, the squall of gulls,/ The scars on the salt-bitten tree.” Hannah concludes the poem with the tree as a metaphor for her mother: “Some days it seems staid;/ Some days it terrifies.// Still the birds/ Look to it for landing.” This artful extended metaphor allows Hannah to look at nuances of emotion the poem might not have allowed for otherwise. Her metaphors speak in surprising, devastating ways to “the fluid past/ still leaching in the wild blur/ Of lead to glass…” Few young poets are publishing collections as honest and emotionally complex as this one, and the reader cannot help wondering what art she might have gone on to produce had she had more years.

Another younger poet, Carly Sachs, recently published a collection also dedicated to her mother. The subject here, however, is the Holocaust. The steam sequence (Washington Writer’s Publishing House, $12) contains a series of spare, ghostly portraits. The reader is given glimpses of an unidentified Jewish woman, a lost child, and at moments a Nazi soldier. Some of the poems contain no more than 10 or 11 words. Yet Sachs’ restraint is the art of this short book. One poem reads, “the wo-/man’s heart a pear/ the seeds cut/out.” The fragmentation of the word “woman” and the wide space between “seeds” and “cut” give more weight to the poem’s single image and the sorrow it conveys. At other points in the collection, the spare single-image poems are less effective. One wishes Sachs had taken the poems a little further. Altogether, however, the fragments and silences in the steam sequence make for an evocative, powerful response to atrocities too large to grasp within the limits of language.

A rather different collection out this year is Henny Wenkart’s Love Poems of a Philanderer’s Wife (CYCO, Bikher Farlag, $12) with Yiddish translations from Mindy Rinkewich. Wenkart’s lively collection has the English and Yiddish versions beginning at opposite ends of the book, the two epilogues meeting in the middle. Wenkart’s poems are conversational and accessible. She writes with frankness of her long marriage and her sorrow at its dissolution. In “The Last Day,” she writes, “I have lived a sunflower,/ Inclined and turning always/ To love.”

Idra Novey’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Slate, Paris Review, and Ploughshares. The Clean Shirt of It, a book of Paulo Henriques Britto’s poems in her translation, received a PEN Translation Fund Award and was published in 2007.