Thursday, May 05, 2022

Thorny by Judith Baumel

Ruth Baumel


Judith Baumel, Thorny.  Arrowsmith. 2022. 122 pp. $22.00

Review by Ruth Hoberman


            Recently I’ve been thinking about land acknowledgments—those statements that precede many poetry events these days, recognizing our complicity in the violent confiscation of the land we stand on.  Judith Baumel’s recent collection Thorny, while not overtly political, performs some of the same work—complicating our sense of who we are by insisting on the layers beneath.  Thorny is thorny in the best ways:  tangled, resistant, resilient, complex, deeply rooted in landscape and its histories.

            “Passeggiate,” the book’s first section, is set mainly in Italy—the place Baumel describes in interviews as her “happy spot,” and where she taught as a Fulbright scholar.  “Passeggiate” is Italian for “stroll”:  the poems suggest the rewards of walking, looking, absorbing; but each at some point also digs beneath the moment into the past.  In “Hic Adelfia Clarissima Femina,” for example, a contemporary observer describes the elaborately carved sarcophagus of Adelfia, at Syracuse: “I want to look this way and be looked at this way,” she says, of the husband and wife carved into a fluted shell at the sarcophagus’s center:

Turned toward each other but askew, as if the planes

of our shoulders were made for different

vanishing points and still impose flesh

on each other’s flesh. 

Husband and wife exist in different planes and will, in death, be separated, but with effort come together in life:  “I find him in sleep/from another country, a momentary act of will.”  The reward of “crossing the border to seek that sheltering coast” is sensual intimacy, ample compensation for the “thorny labor of marriage.”  But then the poem shifts its focus as a piece of music might change key: looking backwards to Eden, where joy was already inseparable from suffering.  “When He damned the soil into which we return,/Yahweh gave us the mercy of pains in birth and bread.” 

            These shifts add context and poignancy.  In “Passeggiate and Cena in Erice” (Stroll and Dinner in Erice), for example, sightseers admire cobblestones, shops, flower pots;  but here, too, the present is haunted by “the petitions of the past,” when  intruders arrived in waves—“came and left their Y chromosomes with the Ierodule,” the local priestess-prostitutes. Then the poem returns to dinner:  swordfish and couscous. “The local salt,” its speaker concludes, “was almost rosy, almost sweet/with iodine and tasted of sacrifice.”

            Literary and mythological figures turn up as speakers in some poems.  Meliboeus and Tityrus, for example, arrive from Virgil’s first eclogue to talk over 9/11, placing our disaster in the context of Augustus Caesar’s land confiscations following the Civil War.  And in On the Death of Boys,” the three Greek Fates discuss motherhood and loss with Nyx, Greek goddess of night.  “What were the boys thinking?” Nyx asks, of four teenage boys from the Bronx who drowned in an ill-judged effort to row a boat from City Island to Hart Island on a January night.  Clotho (who spins the thread of life), Lachesis (who measures), and Atropos (who snips) point out the role of bad judgment as well as the ironies provided by Hart Island’s history: “a heap/of bad ideas,” it has been a prison, a hospital, and a Potter’s Field. “Stop,” Nyx interrupts, giving voice to modern as well as ancient mothers’ complaints: “You spin their flesh, measure their nine months, cut the cord so they are not ours.” Don’t finish your sentence, she begs.  But Clotho has the last word, relentless, insistent on the cyclicity of life and death. 

            The book’s second section, The American Cousins A-Z,” is lighter, brisker, in its portrait of Jewish immigrant life, though here, too, history haunts:  In  “Proem: ‘A Vort Far a Vort’” (the Yiddish title of a book by Scholem Aleichem), we learn of those who stayed behind, blurred figures in the German photographs documenting their slaughter.  But each had a name, the speaker insists;  each, in fact, was a “library of infinity.”  In the poems that follow, scenes speed by of Catskill resorts, Alexanders department store, conversations in which the cousins exhibit their acculturation and their anxiety at once. “Long treks ended for the lucky/in this land of pizza,” Baumel notes in “Z: Ziggurat.”

            More specifically, “long treks” end in the Bronx, where many of the book’s final poems are set.  In this final section, “Bound,” the journeys are in time, not space.  “I am assembling those who are gone like a doll party,” one speaker says.  The culmination is “Gueule de Bois” (Hangover), a gorgeous summation of wonder and regret.  Here the speaker contemplates her past by way of Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of Suzanne Valadon looking glum beside a bottle of wine.  “Plenty of mistakes we see coming/and can’t stop, won’t stop,” she says, thinking of her own hangovers long ago.  But now, “a hangover is about time”—the way past moments return, “the way/the smell and the pour bring distant ghosts/forward to the spilled circle, bring regret and promises to bear against the future.” Is what happened next something we could have changed?  Or are we “bound”?  Anyone of a certain age looks back and wonders.  And here both poem and book end, with a hypothetical, poignant supposition:  “As if, perhaps, the future just proceeds/upon the street, the cold of April rain/on the rangy disappointments of forsythia.”

            Baumel’s title sent me back to Wordsworth’s 1789 “The Thorn,” where a thorn tree grows beside a moss-covered mound, the grave of an infant possibly murdered by its betrayed mother. A mass of knotted joints . . . bound/With heavy tufts of moss that strive/To drag it to the ground,” that tree strikes me as an apt image for these poems.  Laden with the past, they speak in a strange, allusive, often beautiful language, reminding us that the earth is littered with such burials.

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