Thursday, February 28, 2013
Tugboat Warrior by Ruth D. Handel
Poems by Ruth D. Handel
Review by Dennis Daly
Ruth D. Handel, in her book of poems Tugboat Warrior, reframes her mother’s historic life in a series of personal, sometimes achingly personal, poetic fragments, each one set at a slightly different angle. The collection expresses a line of narration that Ernest Hemingway would call, "one true sentence." Its multiple facets of heartfelt observation, positive and also negative, deliver this truthful sense of a heroic, flawed, and driven woman.
One of 12,000 female naval and marine enlistees during the First World War that freed up more men for shipboard duty, Handel’s mother, Florence Gluck, was both a feminist pioneer and an unabashed patriot. Although the Navy desperately needed stenographers, typists, translators and other office help to deal with the huge amount of war- generated paperwork, they had a problem. Every enlisted yeoman had to be assigned to a ship and women were not allowed on ships. In grand bureaucratic fashion the Navy solved their problem by assigning all 12,000 women to a sunken tugboat from the Civil War era. Thus the title of the book!
The first poem in the collection entitled Fragments serves as both a mini- introduction and microcosm of what comes after. The poet details a list that sums up an image of her mother,
seamen’s manual of arms,
Browning’s Pippa Passes
inscribed "To My Hula Girl,"
red checked blouse,
the Dodge sedan
she drove to the beach,
on the cover of the phone
book by her bed,
the closed bedroom door.
You can’t help but feel the sadness and the intensity in the poem’s final line. The very next poem, Bricolage 1, expands on this sadness but shows the trade- off. The poet notes the sources of her creativity,
using whatever comes to mind
from anger, from images of a shadow mother
who lacked tenderness, but not pride,
who once rose alone for a patriotic anthem
and by example drew the assembly up,
her nine year-old daughter unwilling at her side.
In the poem Mother as Little Girl in White Hat, looking at a portrait of her mother, Handel speaks out her admiration,
What do you hope for?
Are you rehearsing the self-willed woman
you will become?
The portrait is almost one hundred years old.
Paint cracked. Frame loose.
Face full of light.
There is no doubt about Gluck’s pride in serving her country. The full length photo in front of an American flag on the cover tells all. Handel describes that photo in the poem Brooklyn Navy Yard this way,
She poses proud, white skirt to her ankles,
white jacket one stripe on the sleeve,
floppy bow tie, straw hat. In winter,
she’ll change to blues and a flowing cape.
Handel adds that her mother is issued a Bluejackets Manual that "every man on board ship must know." The poem ends with not a little irony,
Service done. Florence is rated
Proficiency in Rank: Good
Sobriety, Obedience: Excellent
and given medals to commemorate
the Great War to End All wars.
Handel admits to jealousy as a child of seven, a not uncommon jealousy to be sure. But her emotions were frozen in time by awful circumstances, and never blunted by accommodation or reconciliation. The poet in a poem called Wind-lashed Rain complains,
The glassed-in sunporch.
Wind rises to hurricane.
Arm around his shoulder. Sheltering.
Wind at hurricane.
Here is how Handel concludes the poem,
I am seven. My brother four.
Three years later, she would be lost to us both.
Emotional separation from a parent can maim a child deeply. Handel recalls such a wound in her poem Crabmeat with this intense image,
Home from second grade
I find my mother in the dining room
Eating seafood, white mound
On a green glass plate.
She looks up but doesn’t offer a taste.
Her fork flicks aside a tiny piece of shell.
Some facts of Gluck’s story are repeated by Handel in different poems, but they each come from a different direction with originality and even surprise. The poem Bricolage II begins this way,
Florence stood as the national anthem began.
No one else in the hall was as quick to rise.
I whined and struggled as she yanked me up
and for a moment we were the only ones standing,
me in the angers of 9 year-old embarrassment,
she at attention. My arm felt her sting for years.
When I marched for civil rights, walked
a picket line, worked for women’s causes,
protested war Florence was not in my line
of sight, yet in memory she was always standing
In spite of the friction between them, Florence Gluck became the poet’s role model for feminist rights and another, equally important, kind of patriotic service—protest. Another bit of irony perhaps!
These generational poems do justice to an imperfect but admirable woman and her equally remarkable and talented daughter. One true sentence, followed by another and another— isn’t that what poetry should be?