NewPages Book Reviews

July 1, 2009

to be hung from the ceiling :: Canceled Memories :: Translation in Practice :: The Wonder Singer :: Zero at the Bone :: Beloved on the Earth :: 12x12 :: Take It :: Something to Exchange

to be hung from the ceiling by strings of varying lengths coverto be hung from the ceiling
by strings of varying length

Poetry by Rick Reid

Black Goat, April 2009

ISBN-10: 1933354763

ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-76-7

Paperback: 100pp; $15.95

Review by Cynthia Reeser

Rick Reid’s full-length book of poetry, to be hung from the ceiling by strings of varying length, reads like a flip book in which lines have been inverted and language turned on its head. When read through quickly without too deep an analysis, the language evokes the impression of a fractured scene. Not only the imagery, but also the language is fragmented, the poet’s linguistic ear sometimes approximating that of an ESL speaker.

The book reads like one long poem, and there is little separation between pieces. All can be read as parts of a whole. If the poet had dropped an epic poem and it shattered, this is its reconstruction. Lacking titles for the individual poems, to be hung from the ceiling is an evocative image for the book’s format. The poems can easily be imagined as suspended strings: this is poetry as installation art. In this example, individual poems are separated by asterisks:

lie one wave
remember

the shore sky

*

not this in fingers

*

the wheel by
glass
a river

leaving left
arrives

*

square a square
shot or sung
with light

For all the random-seeming effects, Reid displays a cleverly original sensibility in his use of both form and language. Sometimes he uses the two elements to convey an idea, as in the following excerpt, in which the author communicates the idea of a pause or stop with caesura:

a picture
accurate and
cold
at hand
paused
landscape of
again – begin
a stop desire
between
leaves

Sometimes the language and form leave the reader with the sense of bearing witness to the middle of a scene; in these instances, the effect is nearly filmic and functions like a visual snippet or something from the cutting room floor – an effect that is enhanced by the overall sense of one long poem being at work. The end result is a sort of phasing from one thing, image or idea into another from poem to poem in a not-quite-enjambment.

One of the drawbacks to using such random language is that it has the tendency to devolve into ambiguity; for some readers, the randomness may be too random and acquire nearly the feel of something resulting from a text generator, such as in poems like the following:

further that
they’re there
are their
time is
than here
they’re out

But overall, Reid does a nice job of evoking moments in time and parallel images that coincide and entangle with one another to create an overall effect. Reid is able through form and language to capture the transient and intangible notions that usually reside just on the fringes of consciousness.

 

Canceled Memories coverCanceled Memories

Novel by Nazik Saba Yared

Translated from the Arabic by Nadine Sinno

Syracuse University Press, April 2009

ISBN-10: 081560937X

ISBN-13: 978-0815609377

Hardcover: 151pp; $22.95

Review by Laura Di Giovine

Huda Al-Mukhtar lives in a world full of fragile yet vivid memories – of a city before it was torn apart by war and bloodshed; of a loving marriage before it dissolved into two strangers; of a daughter before she was forced to choose between parents.

Canceled Memories by Nazik Saba Yared is a moving family drama set in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Told from the perspectives of an estranged husband and wife (Sharif and Huda), Yared’s narrative is fraught with familial tensions that are at once both alien and familiar. All families fight and the Al-Mukhtars are no different – they have petty fights and disagreements that slowly build up over time; however, the terror of living through a time of war exacerbates even the mildest family argument. Sharif is a mid-level bureaucrat, disillusioned by his dead-end job. Huda is a housewife with a young child and is infuriated by her husband’s apathy. She seeks refuge as a university professor, surrounding herself with her students and her work while Sharif begins to resent Huda’s success and feels neglected at home. They are held together by their daughter Dina, but even their love for her can’t save the marriage. Mini betrayals become major ones and silence and indifference become insurmountable barriers.

Relayed in a series of flashbacks, Yared expertly illustrates the degrading effects of war on the dynamics of a family struggling to stay together. The novel begins after Huda and Sharif are divorced and Dina is 16. Huda wants to show her daughter Burj Square in downtown Beirut, now severely damaged from the war, but a symbol of the peace that existed when Huda was young. Dina resists – she’d never seen Burj Square when it was intact so why should she care now? Huda reflects:

Her memory penetrated the charred walls of the burned-out café, the Pâtisserie Suisse, where they used to gorge themselves with ice cream and cake on Saturday evenings. Was she drawn downtown because it was associated with the most beautiful memories of her past? Or because both the downtown and her past were wiped out at the same time?

These cancelled memories are a powerful anchor throughout the book. They may be painful, but they’re never fully erased, and Yared uses them to passionately illustrate the corrosive effects of the war in Lebanon. Huda remembers when her daughter was young and they suffered through days of raids, when reporters “warned children not to touch tiny balls they might find in streets and parks because those balls might have been parts of fission bombs. I smiled at fate’s way of mocking us: the terms fission and fusion enriched our language while the bombs themselves obliterated our existence!” War was a way of life for the Al-Mukhtars and thousands of others, and it’s no wonder that Huda and Sharif’s marriage collapsed. Sharif felt helpless to protect his family against the war and so he withdrew. His seeming lack of concern angered Huda but he didn’t share his side of the story – feelings to which we surely can all relate:

What was the point of thinking of everything that might have happened to her, to Dina, to me, to our friends? I didn’t want to hear the sound of the shelling or think about danger and death because I couldn’t do anything about them, so I slept. I slept, and everything around me vanished. I would forget that Huda and Dina might die, just as other women and children were dying every day . . . women and children. I drugged myself with sleep. Consciously or unconsciously.

Might we not react in the same way? After the divorce, Dina is sent to live with Sharif and Huda can do nothing – as a woman in Lebanon’s patriarchal society, she is powerless to challenge the courts. And yet, as a single mother who struggles to maintain a connection with her daughter while balancing a career, she is undeniably modern. By taking us inside the minds of both Huda and Sharif, we learn their fears, their hopes and their dreams. In this way, Yared offers a refreshingly honest and realistic portrait of a family torn apart by war, but who copes in the best way they can.

Canceled Memories is a short novel, but it’s packed with emotion, poignancy and a hopeful sadness. We leave the Al-Mukhtars knowing that life can never be the same for them as it was before the war, but that their memories (good and bad) can nourish them and finally help them move forward.

 

Translation in Practice: A Symposium coverTranslation in Practice

A Symposium

Dalkey Archive Press, April 2009

Edited by Gill Paul

ISBN-10: 1564785483

ISBN-13: 978-1564785480

Paperback: 68pp; $13.95

Review by John Madera

Motoko Rich in “Translation Is Foreign to U.S. Publishers,” in the New York Times last year, claimed that U.S. editors “are generally more likely to bid on other hyped American or British titles than to look for new literature in the international halls.” There are exceptions of course, like Graywolf Press and Archipelago Books, as well as university presses like Open Letter at the University of Rochester. And there’s Dalkey Archive Press, an avatar of publishing works-in-translation, boasting titles from many sorely underrepresented countries. And with their new book Translation in Practice: A Symposium, Dalkey is the trailblazer once again.

Translation in Practice is a handbook derived from a one-day symposium at the British Council in London addressing the topic of editing works-in-translation. It’s a “collection of summaries, suggestions, and instructions” from editors, translators, and publishers on “best practices.” Amanda Hopkinson claims in her preface that “anyone who wishes to know more about the path from foreign original to target translation, and who further wishes for it to be as straight as possible, will find this handbook is a vital and stimulating requirement.” Insightful as it is instructive, and written in a straightforward yet fluid style, it’s the perfect primer for potential translators as well as practicing professionals.

Dispelling the notion that translators are mere technicians who coldly convert one language into another, Translation in Practice reveals how the task of translating literary fiction is multidimensional and demands massive levels of not only craft but invention and creativity. Translators must “recreate” an existing “work of art sensitively and seamlessly in such a way that it is true to the original, as well as being equally enchanting, poetic and perceptive.”

The first chapter breaks down the process of matching book and translator, no small task as it involves not only sensitivity to “the style of the original book,” but an ability to “see beneath the words to make sense of the ideas,” a “deep understanding of the culture from which the book derives and is set, as well as the appropriate level of intellect to translate ideas, thoughts, and theories, along with the words.” For those unacquainted with the varying ways translators are selected, this chapter succeeds in demystifying the process.

“Translation Contracts” gets into the nitty-gritty of royalties and publisher considerations like timing, publicity, etc. “Establishing Boundaries” provides further definition of roles, parameters, boundaries of author, translator, and editors with emphasis on style sheets, research, and schedules. “Translation Problems and Solutions” details the distinctive roles of the translator, the challenges he or she faces like finding the right title, for “[l]iteral translations of titles will often fail to grab the audience for the book.” Translators may be challenged to interpret a book written in a stylized language, or that includes regional dialects with “rhythms and patterns” that need to be incorporated, or may have expletives, colloquialisms, humor, and “untranslatable words and culture-specific references,” requiring the translator to come up with a style that suits its particularity. This chapter also helpfully provides a bullet-form summary of the translator’s role.

In “The Editing Process,” another helpful chapter, Roz Schwartz posits that the most important quality in an editor is empathy and that “matching the editor to the book and the translator is as important as matching the translator to the book,” and that “‘[a] good editor is like a midwife – he or she helps bring forth that perfectly formed translation that is inside you but doesn’t necessarily emerge unaided.’” Once again, Translation in Practice offers clarification, demystification, and also ways to improve existing relationships and agreements.

While one may easily question Horace Engdahl’s notion that “you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world,” it’s hard to argue with his rather tame pronouncement that “[t]he U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” With the resistance Americans have to reading works-in-translation, it’s hard to believe that this statement could be considered provocative, could make such waves. American publishers will often forego publishing a translator’s name on a book cover as it immediately affects sales. It’s similar to the way Americans will not see a subtitled film, for as someone once rather startlingly said to me, “Who wants to go to the movies to read?”

Translation in Practice is an excellent contribution to the dialogue of this oft-neglected subject (at least in the United States). It successfully addresses the manifold challenges of translating literary fiction. It offers countless insightful kernels to bring back to the writing desk and office. While “intended as an introduction” to this dialogue, it certainly serves as a means of helping keep prospective translators, editors, and publishers, not to mention readers, from being lost in translation.

 

The Wonder Singer coverThe Wonder Singer

Novel by George Rabasa

Unbridled Books, May 2009

ISBN-10: 1932961690

ISBN-13: 978-1-932961-69-0

Paperback: 322pp; $15.95

Review by J.R. Angelella

In George Rabasa’s The Wonder Singer, traditional genre tropes break from convention and expectation, creating a lovely cliché-bending crime novel with the pacing and plot of Elmore Leonard and the heart and scope of Russell Banks. Rabasa opens his novel with the death of the wonder singer, the operatic diva Merce Casals. His simple-seeming characters wear their occupations as their identity in life, all stuck and starving for an unbridled happiness: the opera singer, the writer, the nurse, the wife, the agent – all searching for something greater.

Mark Lockwood, “only modestly successful in his home-based business – Mark My Words, Inc., freelance writing of just about anything,” helms Casals’s autobiography as the ghost writer, but with her death has an opportunity to, for the first time in his career, write passionately for himself: “Long after he’d given up waiting for a novel to unfold, and money was rolling in for words on toothpaste, insurance and adolescent skin afflictions, Lockwood found himself caught up in someone else’s story.” As news leaks that Casals has passed away and her memoir suddenly becomes a high-price commodity, the agent, Hollywood Hank Holloway, and the new famous biographer, Alonzo Baylor, seek the taped conversations and journals of the wonder singer. Unfortunately, Lockwood has stolen the research and hit the road to finish her life’s story and, in turn, discover his own.

Stylistically, Rabasa juxtaposes a third person, present tense narrative against chapters from Lockwood’s version of Casals’ autobiography The Wonder Singer (the book within the book) written in first person, past tense. What makes this unique is that as Casals rise to stardom is told, so is Lockwood’s – both literally being his own stories. The first person narrative represents his personal story as his words explore another’s figurative story. The idea of perception permeates this complex structure by exploding clichéd wooden characters, twisting them into a tangled web of conflict.

As Lockwood writes in a chapter of Casals autobiography, “You don’t live with a man for fifty years without also falling a little in love with some of the objects that were an indispensable part of his personality.” Here, Rabasa comments on the classic life trap of complacency and passivity, citing that even a person’s belongings become who they are rather than simply being what they own. The end goal: character comes from persistence, not property. The Wonder Singer is a sweet story of stagnant situations made vibrant through love, art, passion, and the pursuit of absolute and unconditional happiness, at all cost.

 

Zero at the Bone coverZero at the Bone

Poetry by Stacie Cassarino

New Issues, May 2009

ISBN-10: 1930974841

ISBN-13: 978-1-930974-84-5

Paperback: 91pp; $15.00

Review by Jason Tandon

In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo's collection of essays on poetry and writing, he has this to say on the subject of sentimentality:

Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake . . . if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.

Stacie Cassarino's debut collection of poetry, Zero at the Bone, embodies such risk. Cassarino has been awarded the "Discovery"/The Nation prize, several major writing fellowships, and has published poems in highly regarded journals such as Georgia Review, Iowa Review, and The New Republic, so I opened her book with high expectations. All were thoroughly satisfied.

The title Zero at the Bone, a line from Emily Dickinson's "A narrow fellow in the grass," sets the tone for poems that fluctuate between love and loss: the heat of passion and the frigidity of absence. Cassarino writes frankly about the body and sex. Her poems are full of urgency and longing, her speakers often expressing the relinquishment of self requisite to falling in love:

The first day it feels like fall
I want to tell my secrets
recklessly until there is nothing
you don't know that would make
your heart change years from now.
("Midwest Eclogue")

These poems recognize that loss is unpredictable, change inevitable. For example, the title poem illustrates the painful result when the heart does change suddenly and inexplicably. "Zero at the Bone" begins with the speaker's plaintive declarations:

First the snow for days. Blankout. Frost heaves. I shovel away your tracks. I expect you . . . I smell you in the sheets . . . March leaves us cold & clung with our heads off . . . the sky's spindrift, loss taking residence in my throat. I touch myself in a parked car . . . Once, I said: you've got to live like everything will hurt you. Now I believe it.

While feelings of recklessness and pain pervade many of the poems, others attempt to reclaim control, as in “Snowshoe to Otter Creek,” “I'm mapping this new year's vanishings . . . / This is not a story of return.” "Alaska Memoir" begins to assuage this grief, this lack of faith in life and love through acknowledgment and remembering rather than repression and forgetting. The poem opens beautifully, vacillating between harsh and soothing sounds, end and internal rhymes:

What I wanted in the early splendor
was to center longing in the flesh,
walking through eelgrass at slack-tide
with the resilience of a predator
in love's presence.

The speaker finds stability in the original poetic act: observation. When proper attention is paid, the natural world becomes a bastion of wonderment, rather than a receptacle for pain: “climbing boulders / among ghost-life: the hulls / of urchins, inky mussels I imagined / as tiny mouths . tell[ing] me it has never been lovelier / to be alive.”

Cassarino's personas represent human susceptibility to heartbreak and loss, yet they also represent the thrills of love and discovery: "I love the Northeast light, how it rests on things, / on this barn setting into darkness." The book concludes with lines representative of Cassarino at a dizzying pitch of lyricism in “Early December, Vermont”:

What if we call this road Dwelling and
place our bodies (Ironwoods)
in the tall air (Stargrass) of this early December,
call the stars (Attendants), call love (Motion),
call on each other not to disappear.

As with any collection, a few poems are less sharp than others. Some lines become unwieldy, such as these from "Summer Solstice": "The black dog orbits the horseshoe pond / for treefrogs in their plangent emergencies." At times, the risking of sentiment becomes repetitive or overly dramatic: "Let me come back / whole, let me remember how to touch you / before it is too late"; "If I'm alive tomorrow I promise to love / you better"; and, "I died once for love and didn't like how it felt." In a wonderful poem entitled "Salmon," however, Cassarino deftly weaves sentiment with exacting imagery and sonic effect:

Somewhere buckbrush burns,
the day turns over, sage in the air.
Around us, the peaks jagged and shifting.
I remember velocity, the giving-in.
The distance feels impossible.
Six million released,
maybe thirty thousand return,
their silver hanging skins, the chiseled hook
of their snouts, streamlined bodies
now humpbacked, wasted.

At her best Cassarino is both linguistically dexterous and viscerally emotive, traits that can be found in many of her poems including, "Northwest," "Field Guide: Boreal," and "Cures for Love." She strives for passionate, sincere expression of experience, which is both refreshing and admirable. She will no doubt go on to publish many more fine books of poetry, and I highly recommend her debut.

 

Beloved on the Earth coverBeloved on the Earth

150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude

Edited by Jim Perlman, Deborah Cooper,
Mara Hart, Pamela Mittlefehlde

Holy Cow! Press, June 2009

ISBN-10: 0977945898

ISBN-13: 978-0977945894

Paperback: 265pp; $16.95

Review by Vince Corvaia

Beloved on the Earth is a timeless anthology, a meditation on “our capacity for wonder and for grief” (“Reconsidering the Enlightenment” by Donna J. Long). The Gratitude of the subtitle isn’t really necessary. This is an elegy, a mourning, a wail for the dying and the dead. Some poets are familiar, some aren’t. Some poems take pages, and some, like Larry Schug’s “Bearing,” barely seven lines:

She bore six sons,
One for each handle
Of her coffin;
Three left hands,
Three right,
Never clung so tight
To anything.

Surprisingly, the longest poem has nothing to do with old age, a common theme in these pages. Its title is “Still Birth: A Psalm for Holy Week.” Mara Faulkner, OSB, marvels at “the secret of your becoming / burned down to a handful of ash / in a little wooden box / meant to hold music,” yet after four pages concludes, “what can I know about loss?”

The best poem of the lot, if one can measure these poems qualitatively, is Rilke’s “The Swan.” “This clumsy living” [. . .] reminds us of the awkward way / the swan walks. / And to die [. . .] is like the swan / when he nervously / lets himself down / into the water [. . .].” It’s a gorgeous simile, gently and skillfully rendered.

Some of the poems are about “that thin stranger / called Alzheimer, waltzing through / the kitchen door like a suitor” (“Potatoes” by Ethna McKiernan). In “His Funeral,” Jeff Worley tells us, “My father was finally unconfused, / the noose of Alzheimer’s snapped.” Some are about the ravages of old age and going naturally: “When she died we said / it was time, at eighty-eight, no / broken hearts here, she had a full / life, she was ailing, she was failing.” Yet at the end of Nancy Brewka-Clark’s “Poem for My Mother,” the poet confesses, “I ache to touch flesh.”

What is striking among the similes and metaphors is the nakedness of emotion, the blunt confessions of longing and abandonment. From Marvin Bell’s “Ending with a Line from Lear”: “They roll, the straps unwind, and the coffin / begins to descend. Into the awful damp. Into the black center of the earth. I am being left behind.” Gary Boelhower, in “From This Distance”: “This grief is a long loneliness of not / feeling the touch you so wanted to give.” Joseph Bruchac, from “Sky Trail,” a poem about his grandparents: “I cannot count / how many times I cried / after they died.”

One wishes such a splendid collection were free of errors. But I counted three that jarred my attention from the content of the poems themselves. In Florence Chard Dacey’s “Home,” “Five days into a comma” should clearly be “coma.” Three pages later, Diana Der-Hovanessian’s “Shifting the Sun” contains the repeated line, “May you inherit his light, say the Armenians,” only in one instance, the comma is missing. Finally, in Thom Tammaro’s “October, First Snow,” the word “to” is missing in the line “and I pretended not notice.” I bring these problems up because these are all excellent poems that deserve better. The book itself, which deserves to be perfect, is the best book of poems I have reviewed so far this year.

 

12 x 12 cover12 x 12

Conversations in 21st-Century
Poetry and Poetics

Edited by Christina Mengert, Joshua Marie Wilkinson

University of Iowa Press, March 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1-58729-7915

ISBN-10: 1-58729-791-4

Paperback: 271 pages; $29.95

Reviewed by Jason Hinkley

In this interesting anthology of modern poetry the editors have chosen to emphasize the craft of poetry, as well as its creations. All too often, either out of a desire to demonstrate important developments or to present only the work that will be preserved for posterity on the part of editors, contemporary poetry anthologies are at least a generation behind. These anthologies seem interested only in “poetry [that] was poetry, not a poet writing. Shakespeare was poetry. Blake and Dickinson were poetry.” The regulating of poetry to the past tense has in a way marginalized working writers, whose craft it sometimes seems is only discussed seriously in MFA programs and literary journals. 12 x 12 changes that by bringing the discussion of craft into the foreground. To accomplish this, the editors had emerging poets speak with established ones who had influenced their writing. These conversations are bookended by selections from each of the contributors.

The selections included cover the spectrum of possibility, from wildly experimental and modern to formalist and romantic. This stylistic range illustrates what Rosemarie Waldrop recognizes as, “a great opening of the field.” As she observes, “there are many more poetries getting a hearing/showing than before. And while there is of course much that I find dull, there is lots of energy – and surprises.” The patient reader of 12 x 12 will no doubt experience this opening of the field, and at times in a very exciting and visceral way.

But the reader will also experience something else. As editor Joshua Marie Wilkinson points out there is a “strange simultaneity of how far-reaching the conversations are, how unique the poems are, on the one hand; and on the other hand, how much overlap, continuity, and shared ground of influence there is among these twenty-four writers.” Both John Ashberry and Emily Dickinson come up a lot. Artistic preoccupations also often reemerge, like how does one make relevant poetry in our noisy modern world and of course are these poems any good?

One topic that comes up in every conversation is influence. Some revolve around it, building on shared admiration and early readings. As Laura Mullen observes in one of the early dialogues she is "always being influenced. The question is indeed the one you ask: by who and when (along with the question of how). So any list I make here is going to leave way too many writers, artists, lovers and landscapes out!" The conversations in 12 x12 not only show the poet at her writing desk but also by her book lamp and record player.

When Emerson said "First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write." it was not an exaggeration by any means and 12 x 12 presents writers who are working through this process of engagement and creation aloud. Hopefully the impressions that these dialogues leave will help to dispel the myth of the solitary American poet, cutoff from society at large by eccentricity and creativeness; and bring about a better understanding of the medium which Allen Grossman described as “the least solitary of enterprises” and its twenty-first century practitioners.

 

Take It coverTake It

Poetry by Joshua Beckman

Wave Books, April 2009

ISBN-10: 1933517379

ISBN-13: 978-1-933517-37-7

Paperback: 62pp; $14.00

Review by Jason Tandon

Joshua Beckman's fifth collection of poetry Take It, a title suggesting both offer and imperative, is the product of a big heart and a far-ranging imagination. Published without titles, the poems read like non-sequiturs, each one unfolding with peculiar associations of imagery and thought. The language can move from high-flowing rhetoric to obscenity in a matter of lines, and the personas are a varied cast of characters. This epistolary piece, for example, could be the satirical jottings of Vasco da Gama:

Constance,
I have left for the Orient. While I recognize that
this may be seen as yet another admission of my bold
and fruitless temperament, I am, at present, little
concerned with such things.
. . .
Oh it's of no use, the Queen wants spices and so spices I am off to find.

One also finds lines reminiscent of French surrealist Benjamin Péret:

I am made of butter, I am wrapped in gold,
I am forgotten as a frialator forgets a haddock,
and then I tell my sweet love that I want to spill
coffee all over her bottomside

The book, however, is not dominated by absurdity or irreverence. Beckman often writes elegiac passages of spiritual crisis, environmental enervation, and human fallibility:

Customer meet the mirror, mirror meet the customer
. . .
Lovely pill, one more time down my throat you will go,
and before long I'll be home—half real with people
on my tv. Swallow. Clean up. Return. And if I
keep doing it, that's what we call my life.

The poems in Beckman's Take It seem to embody the poet Richard Hugo's adage, "In the world of imagination, all things belong . . . not for reasons of logic, good sense or narrative development, but because you put it there." This book will appeal to those who believe the above philosophy to be true or those interested in the results of such a practice.

 

Something to Exchange coverSomething to Exchange

Poetry by Celia Gilbert

BlazeVOX [books], April 2009

ISBN-10: 193540234X

ISBN-13: 978-1935402343

Paperback: 86pp; $16.00

Review by Vince Corvaia

In these beautifully crafted poems, Celia Gilbert explores love and loss and what it means to be a daughter and a Jew. There’s hardly a poem here that doesn’t ache with feeling.

The book has four parts, and by far the most powerful and effective is the second, which thematically recounts a daughter’s agonizing relationship with her dying mother. In “Stroke,” the daughter struggles to maintain a positive outlook: “I swear as long as you live I’ll believe / there is still time to tear you from the wreckage.” In “A Trick of the Light,” she says, “As a child grows to her full height, / slowly you descend to a final horizontal.” From “Yesterday”: “When a person is dying / all we have left is the will / to keep on loving what needs our love.”

Perhaps the most powerful poem in the sequence is “Necessity,” the necessity here being the mother’s transition to a nursing home. Any child who has experienced this can recognize the truth of Gilbert’s lines:

[M]y brother waited at the nursing home door
my proud, irascible brother so estranged from me.
He had wept. And then everything
let go. I cried unchecked for the pain
he bore for me and himself,
having to put you out of your home
where he had tenderly kept you for years.

Elsewhere in Something to Exchange, loss continues to be a theme, such as in “Coming Back”:

Sometimes
I hold your death in my hands,
a small stone I turn
over and over,
wanting to lick it to bring out the shine.

Finally, loss on a massive, unspeakable scale – “July 30, 1944” is introduced with the declarative statement, “The Lodz ghetto is dispersed to the death camps.” The poem is about “[t]he commodification of everything,” the voice third-person, the focus on an accountant who inventories everything left behind. What’s remarkable about the poem is Gilbert’s freedom to list things bluntly, unpoetically:

Received in the ghetto by the end of May, 1942:
clothing and rags, 798,625 kilos;
feathers, eiderdown, and pillows, 221,035;
furs and hides, 8,130 kilos;
used shoes, 69,350 kilos;
used neckties, 12 kilos.

The accountant finds a strange beauty, an “actuarial gratification / of the sanitary numbers, the columns so beautiful / in themselves.” One is reminded of the columns of victims being led to the waiting trains: “They cannot move except carried over / to the next page and the next column.”

Not everything in Something to Exchange is gloom and doom. Yet even passages of joy are tempered by authority, as in “Findings,” when the speaker’s grandfather wants the firehouse to sound its alarm in rejoicing on Armistice Day, only to be told it was illegal and would result in a fine. But “you agreed to pay – / on behalf of your fellow townsfolk, / your new country, your promised new world.”