Without a Claim, Grace Schulman’s dazzling seventh poetry collection, immerses us in a richly textured world where “dread-and-joy” are neighbors (“Charles Street Psalm”) and nothing is truly ours: “We rent, borrow, or share even our bodies,/ and never own all that we know and love” (“Without a Claim”). Nothing is truly ours, yet under Schulman’s probing eye, she offers us new ways of seeing and listening; her language soars in song.
Faith, visual art, music, the family, natural and urban landscapes, history: Schulman moves seamlessly through these subjects, often in the same poem, in brilliant associative leaps. Her vision places history squarely in our lives, and there are frequent references to the Holocaust. (Schulman’s Polish father immigrated to America, but his sister was killed in the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943.)
In “Bells,” Schulman begins with an exuberant Whitmanesque list that sings with alliteration and consonance: “I hear the summer bells, the chimes, the carillon,/ the ring of ice cream vans, a bird’s high phrases,/ church bells that bonged out colors, blue for bridesmaids.” The tone shifts as the list of sounds continues: “a wall clock, punctuating my father’s silences,/ his sister lost, cutting through the toneless/ black-white headlines and the radio’s spondees/ loud as tower bells: death camps, mass graves.”
In many of these poems we see music as lament, praise, passion, solace or prayer: the blues of Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, the operatic tenor of Enrico Caruso, “Handel’s Messiah” which in the poem’s opening quatrain asks “the question, still unanswered,/ why do nations furiously rage together?” And in its closing quatrain declares: “Now horns acclaim. I don’t know if Messiah/ has come, will come to save us, or will come/ too late to save us, but never mind,/ let the bass roar with winds that tell the story.”
Schulman addresses faith and art in several poems, including “The Printmaker,” based on El Greco’s painting of Veronica’s veil with Christ’s image. In the stunning poem “Letter Never Sent,” Schulman adopts the persona of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., speaking to Walt Whitman, a poet Hopkins both admired and disdained. We see the two poets’ shared awe of nature: “Let each in his way/ catch the hawk alive in air,/ tongue-tied, stammering,/ in whatever whirled words/ will suffice.” A few lines later: “The more desirous to read you,/ the more determined/ I will not,/ for my eyes lift to Heaven,/ not simply the heavens/ of puffed clouds and stars.”
Schulman’s interest in religion and culture is expansive; her vision is one of unity. In the poem “Havdalah,” as Schulman describes this Jewish ceremony, she writes, “the flame/ tells me that havdalah, meaning separation,/ divides only to join.” In the candle’s flame she sees “yellow for the luminous medallion/ in a Muslim prayer rug” and “silver in a chapel’s blue-green tapestry.”
Schulman’s poems are filled with images of fragmentation and words like broken, chipped and cracked. Yet the poems insist that all people, places and things are connected. Many of Schulman’s poems are dedicated to or inspired by others: writers, musicians, artists—also strangers. This connection moves many of her poems to a place of awe and praise that is deeply moving, never sentimental. The urban and natural world often appear side by side, both deserving of praise, as in “Variations on a Line By Whitman”: “Bless the waters/ that hurry like the morning rush hour,/ praise the audience that chatters/ before the Verdi starts, the small talk/ lifting my heart like tidewater through stones.” Oh, how our hearts, too, are lifted, reading these magnificent poems.
In The Life and Death of Poetry, winner of the L. E. Phillabaum Poetry Award in 2013, Kelly Cherry explores language and poetry in the long tradition of the Ars Poetica. Her own language, as we would expect in this ninth collection of poetry, is exquisite: imaginative, vivid and rhythmic, in a voice that is alternately curious, meditative, mournful, witty, wise.
In the first section, “Learning the Language,” Cherry explores a vast territory: of sounds teetering on the edge of meaning, of words spoken and unspoken, of animals as texts and witnesses, of words that amuse, enlighten, confuse, forgive, “reveal us to our selves” (“A Voice Survives”).
Cherry’s rhythm is masterful, and she delights us with rhyme, often internal, like the opening lines in “Seen but Not Heard”: “A thrill of cobwebs in the trees,/ the breeze strumming gossamer like a guitar.”
The poem “Night Vowels” is full of rich images and skillful end-rhyme, beginning with “Breath of wind that clouds the moon./ Shriek of eagle, cry of loon/ threading through fog.” The final couplets are beautiful: “And is that you I hear, weeping/ while the rest are sleeping?/ O,O,O,O,O/ u,u,u.”
Individual letters appear in another poem, “The Loveknot,” a surprisingly moving poem about stillborn mice: “would-be twins/clutching each other/as if either/could save his brother./ The size of thumbs,/ tails still curled./ Two Q’s/ spelling nothing./ Spelling it twice.”
Cherry often weaves together images of animals and language: “The words have flown/ sprouted wings and taken off/ Your throat is an empty nest” (“Against Aphasia”). And we learn in the villanelle “Ars Poetica” what the muse is not: “No dog, the muse cannot be leashed or trained.”
In “Welsh Table Talk,” a sequence of 18 poems, Cherry explores a couple’s inability to connect during a stay on Bardsey Island. The relationship’s failure is juxtaposed with the bond between the man and his young daughter—whom the woman hopes will become her stepdaughter—and the playful way the daughter and her friend interact. These mournful poems, all from the woman’s perspective, are grounded in bleak island imagery of fog, rain and sea, of “wind from the north shrieking its own sad cries” (“On Bardsey Island”), of “clouds worn thin as slippers” (“A Day Spent Walking and Writing”).
The book’s final section, “What the Poet Wishes to Say,” deepens Cherry’s Ars Poetica in a voice of authority and humor. “The Life and Death of Poetry” is the least successful poem in this section; the connections between poetry and Christ’s life, death and resurrection seem strained. But “On Translation” is thoughtful and witty as Cherry speaks to her students and to us: “Okay,” she writes. “You know already/ that Frost said poetry is/ what gets lost in translation,/ and so it is, standing/ there helplessly, its arms/ by its sides as cars zoom by/ and the sun lowers itself/ into the blue bath of/ evening.”
The fascinating poem “What the Poet Wishes to Say” claims in its first line that it “cannot be said,” and then explores the daunting demands poetry makes on writers, like the idea that “what the poet wishes to say” is “a word-field of music, as it’s less a text/ and more a space of time profoundly charged/ by feeling.”
We trust Cherry’s vision and instruction in this poem. And we feel that what she wishes to say throughout this collection, she has indeed said—with a discernment, imagination and music that leave us enchanted.