by Sarah Wetzel,
Anhinga Press, 2010,
98 pages, paper, $17.00,
Buy the Book
Reading the cover of Sarah Wetzel’s mind – shaking debut volume of poems, I was struck by Timothy Liu’s comment that he saw this book as a “dialogue between the Middle East and Manhattan, between a Bathsheba depicted by Rembrandt on the one hand and mythologized by the Old Testament on the
other. . . . ”
I think much of the conversation here occurs, in fact, between the selves that Sarah discovers within herself as she tries to learn the map of her own heart.
We are surrounded by conflict. Every day another portion of the world erupts, and yet we worry about being on time for our appointments, meet friends for dinner, call our children
from the back steps as evening comes. Wetzel lives in Israel and Manhattan, and the activities of daily life that fill her poems stretch like bridges between razor – wired borders. They speak not only of the conflict between countries, but of how infiltration occurs within hearts, within families. Her lines hum with tension and pause to catch moments of beauty and terror with either hand, because any moment could explode. Reading this book is like riding a rocket that may fall at any time. Even a short quote from the poem “Rehearsing for Rockets” loads the tension of impending violence against the plan for survival:
The six – year old girl under my hand squirms
as I fit a gas mask to her small face.
Behind a chemical toilet we’ve stacked
canned food and bottled water, crayons
and coloring books. We’re practicing
for when the rockets drop.
Wetzel’s language here is as straightforward as a catalogue, but behind it lays the fear, the one eye and one ear that must always be focused on the sky while trying to comfort the child. What is not written in these poems often has a greater presence than the words. Can one learn to be ready for the sky to fall ?
While the language is often, of necessity, commonplace, the images and the spaces between them hold a greater song. Consider the first half of her poem “Sighthounds, for Gai”:
My best friend wrote she’s gone blind
in one eye, diabetes exploding
the small veins in her eyes. She loves chardonnay
and cake, said things
might get worse.
In the last world war,
one out of four planes shot down from the ground
were friendly. More on cloudy nights
when the radar failed. Tonight though, the sky
is clear, a full moon bleaching each corner
Even the shadows gleam,
and my small dog, foolish in the glow, barks
How immense the grass smells.
Somehow she manages to write the way we often think, jumping from her friend’s letter to the fate of things not seen clearly, then to the moon on the garden. She creates an abundance of the visual until the last line of the stanza, when the sweet smell of grasses becomes larger than the world. We do not think twice about the distances we cover in space or time, but leap willingly, as eager for the next line as we are to open ourselves to the night sky, while gazing at the face of the moon.
As Wetzel maps herself and the landscapes she lives in, emotional and geographical, we see the tracks of animals who wander through her: Borges and Bernini, Rembrandt and Plato. From beauty and dust, from the deaths of children and the hunger of refugees rise poems as if they held to the power to scatter everything into its component atoms. These are not poems that pretend to answer. They say what is and has been. We are left, like the poet, to find someplace to stand. How is it that we live with conflict and war ? With love or without ? The poem, “Letter in the Hand of an Illiterate Woman,” with the epigraph, “After Rembrandt’s painting, Bathsheba at Her Bath holding King David’s letter,” continues to describe her quest for understanding how even love is fraught with danger. Though Bathsheba cannot read David’s letter, she feels the keen edge of each word:
Black ink brewed from the residue of oil
etched on papyrus thinner than skin
of an animal. The smell on her hands as if
something burns. She traces the pain taken
over each word, the geometrical rhythm
of angle and slope, curves like caves, their
mouths wide open, lines crumpled
and bent, lines crossed and combined.
He’d placed dots and dashes beneath
particular letters. She knows those marks
insinuate ahs and ohs
of speaking. She can’t read, yet sees
each word has an edge. What kind
of man sends a letter to a woman
who can’t read it ? What kind of man paints
her portrait holding a letter ? —
how carefully she keeps turning it over.
In each of the poems in this book Sarah handles words as though
each were a bomb and a treasure. As Bathsheba traces the letters
she doesn’t understand, she finds “the smell on her hands as if /
something burns.” Wetzel concerns herself with fanning the
flame of understanding. She shares openly the worlds she
lives in: New York art museums, Tel Aviv bomb shelters, her
dying garden. As she says in the poem, “Infidelity,”: “Yet if we
can’t speak / of deceit / to one another, how can we speak of love ?”
The poems here rattle the cages of complacency. In a world
that seems content to gloss itself, being startled reminds us to live.
— reviewed by Michael Macklin