Thursday, October 09, 2014

Rending the Garment by Willa Schneberg

                                   Rending the Garment        Willa Schneberg               New York: Box Turtle Press

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

Family has been defined as “a group of people who are closely related by birth, marriage, or adoption”; as “a group of people living together and functioning as a single household, usually consisting of parents and their children”; and as “lineage (or) all the people who are descended from a common ancestor”.[1] Most people have or had a family throughout their lives, unless a person is an orphan, a person without a mother or a father and perhaps without relatives.

                Willa Schneberg’s Rending the Garment is about family: its positives and its negatives, its ups and downs sides; its real and its imaginative sides; its life and death sides; and its religious and traditional sides. 

Schneberg writes about her parents and herself as a Jewish immigrant family adapting and not adapting to the American lifestyle. She has put together a book that many people, especially those individuals who come from Jewish backgrounds, can relate to, can understand. And Schneberg manages to achieve these common bonds through clear, articulate, descriptive writing developed from personal experiences. She develops her writings with the devices of persona and metaphor. She has compiled a 103 page book filled with poems, flash fiction, prose poems, and conjures up past ancestors and historical persons.[2]

This book is not an easy read sometimes. Often Schneberg deals with difficult issues and situations, like in the poems, “Tunnel Vision”, “Grief”, and “Teaching Poetry at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health”. 

“Tunnel Vision” deals with Schneberg’s father’s impending death and her father’s struggle to
outsmart it:

“Tunnel Vision”

Although tunnels never end,
when the young psychologist
he loves like a son
says he’ll wait on the other side,
Ben pretends he’s a rubber ball
that rolls in by mistake:

sick to his stomach,
gulping air,
his heart pounds
like when he lost his wife
at the behemoth department store
on Herald Square.

But the tunnel doesn’t chain him to stone
or cover his eyes with its black palms.
Instead he feels sunlight on his face,
and bellows: fuck-you all,
I licked this thing!

But death eventually does come to Ben Schneberg, as read in “Grief”, which is about the mourning of Willa Schneberg’s father. In this poem, Schneberg understands her family structure has changed and imagines how an almost mystical chaos that is happening because of her father’s passing:  


The sorcerers are bored and frustrated
standing in their glittery robes and pointy hats
in the corner of my parents’ small kitchen
where the cupboards never close properly,
the pilot light always goes out, and
my father remains spindly and mute
as before he died.

They kill time rolling small glass balls
In their palms and conjuring
the electric can opener
to delid all the tuna cans,
but finally the incantations and
wand waving work.

My father is morphing
into his debonair self, tall if carriage
as if a picture were about to be taken
in three-quarter profile, a pipe in his mouth.

He vanishes.
Ashes burn in an ashtray,
the room thick with sweet smoke.

He reappears plumper, but still translucent
holding a bowl with a puddle
of vanilla ice cream and canned peach juice.

He floats down and sits.
The index cards are still
where he left them
waiting for names of uncracked books
and Dewey decimals.

The sorcerers do my bidding
and free him to be
who he never was in life.
Today he knows origami.
Under his hands
library index cards moonlight
as snails, whales and kangaroos.

The sorcerers are delighted with themselves.
Now, in search of my mother
they squish together for a ride
In the motorized stair chair
my father used at the end.

They find her fast asleep in the den
bent over a crossword puzzle.
When she awakens
all the empty squares are filled-in with:

                       I LOVE YOU  I

                                          Y O U

Dealing with the death of a loved one is usually trying, but having to tend with people who are in emotional and/or psychological pain is sometimes just as painful. In “Teaching Poetry at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health”, Schneberg  writes, “I fear I will end up like Anne Sexton,/ a patient in the same mental hospital/where she taught poetry to ‘Mayflower screwballs’/with names like Higginson and Bowditch.”

                In “Teaching Poetry at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health”, she describes her “students (who) subsist in childhood bedrooms,/group homes, flophouses, efficiencies,/having earned their diplomas/from Creedmore, Pilgrim State and Bellevue.” 

Her “students” have mental health problems, as implied when Schneberg writes:

In group they write:
“I hate my finger. It is bent and ugly…”
“Is madness madness?” “…with you, neither female/
nor male, simply both…”
“… but one day I was going and I met myself coming
so I killed myself.”
Schneberg writes about the pain that she senses from her students.

Sometimes while teaching I see myself
squinched up, facing the wall;

Instead of croaking alone,
we O.D. in our poems.

“Teaching Poetry at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health” concerns itself with mental illness – how it affecting her students and the fear of it for herself.  
                Willa Schneberg’s Rending the Garment is a book that deals with tough situations, focusing mainly on inner family issues. It’s about life. This book is a good read.


[1] “Family”, Encarta Dictionary: English (North America), Microsoft Word 2010.
[2] Willa Schneberg, Back cover quote, Rending the Garment, New York: Box Turtle Press, 2014

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:45 AM

    Willa Schneberg will be reading from "Rending the Garment," Tues. Oct, 21, 7PM at the First and Last Word Poetry Series, Cafe at the Armory, 191 Highland Avenue, Somerville.

    There will be an open mike.