Reimagining History

Three poets who do it well

What draws us to poetry? One answer may be poetry’s ability to help us make sense of the relationship between identity and history, a theme central to Today: 101 Ghazals (Sheep Meadow Press, $13.95) by Suzanne Gardinier. The ghazal is an Arabic poetic form on which Gardinier’s poems are loosely based, an unusual boundary-crossing choice for a Jewish poet. Gardinier uses the single poetic form to bring concepts together across geography, religion, and even gender, as in ghazal #29, where Jewish prayer (davening) and Muslim prayer (salat) are mingled together. Connections are reinforced by the repetition of images through the entire book, such as the “two women” who appear in many poems, including: in #5 “Two women Not meeting One holding a key,” in #6 “Helicopters and two women dancing,” and in #47 “In the dark Two women Part ash Part angel.” These women appear in different times and different worlds — in one case angels, in another ordinary women dancing. By placing this same image throughout, Gardinier creates her own history, with women at its center.

In her prize-winning collection The Royal Baker’s Daughter (The University of Wisconsin Press, $14.95), Barbara Goldberg takes a more narrative approach to exploring identity, telling the story of a Jewish family of Holocaust survivors, then expanding to examine overarching Jewish and female history. In “Wiedergutmachung,” the speaker watches her mother “Fading, but still holding court / from bed.” As she declines, the mother waits for history to right itself, seeking reparations for the death of her own parents. But a paltry sum arrives, leaving the family’s loss as her daughter’s only inheritance. Another possible inheritance, the Jewish homeland, is also lost, as we learn in the poem “From the Book of Judges”: “Now this land / is a promise gone haywire, a daredevil’s mishap.” While these poems do not provide a resolution to the tragedy of history, Goldberg offers a strong female Jewish voice that continues despite the traumas of the past.

Juggling history and the personal, Yerra Sugarman also reveals a speaker who comes to terms with herself — this time by exploring the figure of her mother. Part three of the title poem in My Bag of Broken Glass (Sheep Meadow Press, $13.95) details the experience of the narrator’s mother at 19, seeing “the rabbi’s daughter Raizel — her friend — shoved / into the boiling blue. // In what language should my mother say / pushed alive into fire?” Sugarman then compares tragedy with the similarly indescribable experience of love—the speaker’s first kiss with another woman. She cannot recall if she whispered “woman-friend-lover, please watch // the raw shaking shadows?” The shadows of the mother’s experience continue to haunt the daughter, but the beauty of this poem is its ability to combine the pain that the mother experiences with the love the daughter finds. The two extreme emotions are not presented as opposites, but as two elements of the same story.

Sugarman writes that “a woman is diasporic,” and clearly the women in these three books find themselves uprooted. However, for each poet, poetry is a way of remaking the home, a place where self and history meet.

Aimee Walker’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Heliotrope, The Paris Review, Rattapallax and the Grolier Poetry Prize anthology. She has an MFA in Poetry from Columbia.