HELEN EISEN: THE PERMEABILITY OF MEMORY
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|HELEN EISEN: THE PERMEABILITY OF MEMORY|
If you enjoy good writing you should read THE PERMEABILITY OF MEMORY. In CHAI, the first poem in Helen Eisen's collection, she writes:
In America I breathed another air, different than there, other than here.The self-assessment is insightful; the best work in this selection is often centred on moments of life in extremis, a bare-bones reality breaking through social niceties and other illusions. One thinks of the terrific KLEINE MAMELA and BUS RIDE, 1953 or the poem BETGEVANT, which explores the death of the poet's grandmother:
On the day she died some moments after her death my father, her middle child, came into the living room Where the grandchildren were waiting. He might have said then what we all knew or not. What I remember is silence and the look of his face I will never forget.In THE PERMEABILITY OF MEMORY, as the title suggests, Eisen's recurring preoccupation is to examine her heritage. She is the daughter of Polish Jews who survived Hitler's Europe. The poet was born in a DP camp in 1946 and arrived in New York in 1950. This preoccupation might be a dangerous naval-gazing exercise, we might think. Indeed, in one of these poems, AT BIRKENAU, Eisen suggests an air of wonderment when writing about Zyclon-B:
When poured into pillars and given air to breathe Zyclon-B, freed, fills concrete chambers with gasping Louder than the clatter of crystal pellets But of shorter duration.If at first the poem seems baffling when we remember the outcome — on further reflection we see that this contradiction is too flagrant not to be deliberate. The poem cuts to the bone of the problem: what is "off limits" for art?
6,000,000 JEWS, 12,000,000 SHOES explores similar territory, though it is more riveting. Once again Eisen wrong-foots us at the poem's opening:
I consider it a stroke of fortune that these phrases rhyme.As the poem begins we think that it is going to be a pleasant one, but the description doesn't fit: we are later faced with the list
their shoes, their teeth their hair their golden rings ... their shoes, their teeth their hair their golden ringsThe woman she described is MY MOTHER MY MOTHER is an archetype of the mother who starves herself in order to feed her child:
Because she was starving I can see her pushing the food into my mouth I cannot feel I cannot feel the food pushing into my mouthThe simple, essential tasks of daily care are made grotesque. The words
While she was starving all of the life pushed To feed herself To feel herself Starvingbring back to us the sense of history's violent intrusion into the domestic space.
BUS RIDE, 1953 is one of the best poems in the collection. The title is deliberately, delightfully "ordinary". It's the kind of title that requires a good piece of writing to back it up, and Eisen delivers, with a haunting, funny, beautiful meditation on the dangerous hunger for certainty. Such a strong poem inspires our confidence in the poet: justifiably, because nothing about this collection is complacent or dull. Its mix of poems offers variety a high overall standard, and a bottom line of absolute confidence.
My personal highlights in the collection include the haunting domestic story of survivors in SCENE 2: WITH STAGE DIRECTION IN PRESENT TENSE, the compressed, luminous poem CHOBODANKA, and the wonderful MEET ME IN ST. LOUIEE, LOUIEE, with its wonderful sense of humour. But the pleasure of reading this collection extends beyond the discovery of individual poems. It's an accumulative experience, based on the pleasant sense that the next poem could take you anywhere.
One of the most humorous poems is on the subject of dining in, where Eisen writes about her mother eating:
She swallows the cottage cheese, small curd, Licks her teeth clean She repeats Life is strongEisen's prose poem POINT OF VIEW is a stand alone piece as, not only is the subject different from that of other poems, its images concise and particular, and its form an achievement, it is also a balancing act between simplicity and skill. Here are the first few lines from the poem:
you are a bird in a yellow storm on a yellow canvas brush strokes heavy thick concave convex moons applied with finger and nails the bird has one red eyeIn the title poem, THE PERMEABILITY OF MEMORY, A PORTRAIT, there is a thread invoking the poet's past running through the poem as we see her metaphorically pulling the past forward and making it part of the present:
time folding over, rhythmically forward, as though pulled by linesEisen treads lightly, never overpowering her themes with misplaced guilt or sanctimonious moralising. Faith instead guides, supports and has helped her shape her life. As she realised in the final poem WE WERE RUNNING AND LOST ONE SHOE
I could not bring back nor fix the pastTHE PERMEABILITY OF MEMORY is a wonderful collection with one outstanding poem after another. There will be some scenes you may recognise right away, but there are also many surprising scenes that you may not know about, or have escaped your memory, and they too catch the light and make this book a very interesting read.
|reviewer: Patricia Prime.|