Marengo Street: Selected Poems
by Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel.
Moon Pie Press, 2012,
paper, 89 pages, $12,
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History slips by us like exits on an expressway — fleeting signs for towns and streets that we will never see since the accelerator is pressed to the floor and we are bent on arrival, getting where we want to be. As a history teacher and poet, Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel knows that too often we drive past what we need to remember. To counter our forgetting, she asks us to go where we do not want to go, and to see what we have conveniently forgotten.
Wrobel tells us of a world that holds the “unholy egg / conceived in Auschwitz,” where “legal minds / split . . . hairs over a definition of genocide.” She writes of a “crushed and ailing humanity” desperately trying to repair itself. We are asked to stop our headlong rush to be something or someone and to instead pay attention to what is happening to us. That is no easy task, since, often, our busyness is a way to avoid the horror surrounding us. And that is the question: How can any of us go on with our mundane activities when, if we pay attention at all to the news — to the violation of our land, of our fellow men and women, and of our children — we might as well throw up our hands?
Rather than throw up her hands, Wrobel embraces the world. In the poem “Rosh HaShana, 1992,” she contrasts fears for the new year with a lovely recounting of a day’s pleasures:
You know when you want that
hot morning shower to never end.
Or the baby to sleep on one
Evermore peaceful dreaming hour.
Times alone in clean rushing water,
Early morning solitude . . .
Soft whistling of
Little loved one breathing sleep.
She then contrasts such solace with the agony of knowing that:
We stand in hot morning showers
gathering splintering bones together.
Inhaling courage with the steam. . . .
And finally, she unites the two emotions: “Wearing anger as an amulet / and mercy as a glove.”
Living with a sense of history requires us to let the “ungloved hand / reach down inside,” to “see [one’s] open heart . . . in the strong slanting rays of / the sun we nevertheless share.” It requires knowing the essential in our lives. In “These Things First,” she captures such moments:
The first thing I have to do is make my bed
so when I return home
it may be unmade
in a ritual . . .
of closing what is open
and opening what is closed. . . .
That is the poet’s task, and it is the charge that Wrobel fulfills in this masterful collection: to let us see what is hidden and to make it fresh, so we can find acceptance — but never resignation — in what is wrong, as we strive to make it right.
— Bruce Spang