But a Passage in Wilderness by Margo Berdeshevsky captured the Dresser's attention in the same way as Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century did. The Dresser lingered over Berdeshevsky's words refusing to turn to the next poem until fully sated with the meaning, imagery, and beauty of her language. The Dresser believes each poem could bring forth many pages of commentary. Perhaps there is a doctoral thesis in this work.
CASTING THE BONES OF SELECTION
Since the task of properly reviewing this important new work is so large, the Dresser has decided in a random fashion to look at three poems that speak, though not primarily, to themes of music and opera. These poems: "In Possibility," "Every Afternoon," and "Lautrec, I've Heard, Shot Spiders" appear one each in the first three sections of the collection which is divided in a total of five parts entitled "On Frailty," "Whom Beggars Call," "The Story," "On Breaking," and "Best Love." In the world of assembling a collection of poetry, poems that open and close a section and the poem from which the title of a section is drawn tend to indicate important themes and strong individual poems. Therefore, the Dresser will make references to other poems in the collection as they inform the three poems she has chosen to look at in detail.
INVENTING A LOVING: PREY TO PRAY
At first glance, the title "In Possibility" resonates with the word impossibility. Berdeshevsky is nimble at making the reader slow down to hear what she is saying. This making the language new, in the Dresser's experience, comes from Gertrude Stein and this poem turns a Steinian phrase in the sentence: "Let the rose beetle/ invent a loving." The sentence, which appears divided over the last two lines of this poem, harkens back to the opening line "Nighthawk, beetle, how do you pray?" The word "pray" is carefully chosen and leads to "Is landscape your good silence, your breviary" but it is the homonym "prey" that grounds the complex working of the poet's intention. In nature, the beetle is prey of the nighthawk while the rose is prey to the rose beetle. But something sexual and not gastronomic happens in this poem as evidenced by such words and phrases as: "passion," "the first to bite back at spring's dark nipple," "love thrust," and "the pagan's skirts are lifted."
So how does one access the underbelly story of this poem? The Dresser decided to have a look at other poems in this section and noticed that the poem "On Frailty," (also the name of this section) contains the following lines:
Beware oh my Philomel who is not mine, but the sky's,
(am I and am I
tongue-cut and not
nightingale at all?)
Who or what is Philomel? How much time do you have? Short answer: nightingale. Long answer: In Greek mythology, Philomela (also known as Philomel) was raped by her sister Procne's husband King Tereus of Thrace and then when Philomela threatened to tell the world of his misdeed, he cut out her tongue. Through a tapestry, she told her sister what had happened and Procne decided the best way to punish her husband was to sacrifice their son who was his spitting image and serve the child up as Tereus' dinner. All three were turned into birds: Tereus, a hawk, and Procne and Philomela, alternately a swallow or a nightingale depending on whose story of Greek mythology one reads.
What happens in "In Possibility" is not a dwelling on the rape of Philomela, but a suggested transformation that comes with prayer first mentioned as "your breviary" and then in these words "Schubert-singer, ready for the first high G of 'Ave Maria.'" The Dresser discerns a nearly blasphemous irony in juxtaposing the Virgin Mary, mother of the Catholic God's child Jesus, with the rape of Philomela and the sacrifice of Procne and Tereus' son for the sin of the father. What alters this irony is this iconic image: "Let the protector of truth come down from her mythic hill, battered cloche and staff to pierce the ground so swollen with story." Who is this woman in a battered bell hat piercing the ground like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments? Is this Philomela, transformed to seer, with her tapestry? And what about the beetle? In "On Frailty," the Dresser noticed that a beetle rebuilds "her home in the mound" after the recitation of these losses: the village, child, notebook, faith. Therefore, the rose beetle of "In Possibility," always in danger of being plundered and eaten by the hawk, must "invent a loving" and create anew the "vernal nest."
THE LONG NIGHT'S DAUGHTER
"Every Afternoon" is a poem about humility and faith and the struggle to be humble and achieve the spirituality that comes with belief that the next day will break from the darkness of night. This poem appears in the section "Whom Beggars Call" which also contains the book's title poem "But a Passage in Wilderness." "Every Afternoon," a 24-line poem, uses the word "not" ten times, "no" three times and the verb "break" twice. It is a list of negations, paring down to what is "mere." "Am not the precious thread of water or round/ whispered pattern the spider prays and prays./...Am mere, and tempted with wind, and the visiting/ plover." The narrator of this poem is sophisticated in what (s)he denies her/himself: "not the first narrative or aria ever in the sound of days/...then I am poor near all symphony, all love."
An inventory of the prominent poems of this section (first, section's title, book's title, and last) speaks in support of the subject of "Every Afternoon" and mirrors some of its language and images. "This Sentence" (first poem in section two) which opens like "Every Afternoon" with a water reference--"As though it interrupted the rain"--offers words like "broken," "prayer," and "light." "If light crashed.../And if the dark were no heroine with a tragic flaw" ("This Sentence") dovetails with "the long night's daughter" ("Every Afternoon"). Most importantly "Whom Beggars Call" (the poem lending its name to section two) deals with humility in the face of dealing with a diseased beggar. In this poem, the narrator is a self-deprecating actress who exclaims, "I am not wise," which mirrors in "Every Afternoon" "if I am not art for change.../forgive my life.../for making me innocent of genius." "But a Passage in Wilderness," opening as well with a water image, "But a woman prepares to cross the perfumed/ river," also offers words like "broken," "prayers," and "light." The music imagery is strong in the book's title poem--"Sings,/ night-sphinx of rivers, am I eye to eye with your light.../ Sings the thousand prayers." "Holy as a Bird," the last poem of section two, also beginning with a water reference--"Cliffs & ocean-turtles nod/where she is mouthing her terrible thanks,/ her lips smeared with the stillpoint, call it Christ--He would." is the most overtly religious of these five poems. "The hand is the soul, is all over my walls" ("Holy as a Bird") mirrors "am old/ enough to have hand prints in my heart" ("Every Afternoon"). On closer examination, all five of the prominent poems of section two have religious references: "This Sentence"--"the death of Christ," "Whom Beggars Call"--"Christmas stalks toward slouching Bethlehem," and "But a Passage in Wilderness"--"Now they say Our Father, in every language." "Every Afternoon" references the "visiting plover," the wading bird that in some Catholic mythologies has association with Christ's crucifixion or with his mother's sadness following Jesus' death on the cross.
BIRDNESS AND BREADFRUIT
"Lautrec, I've Heard, Shot Spiders," a prose poem, is the first poem of section three which is named "The Story." Section three contains poems about war and strife, particularly the strife caused by natural disasters like the 2004 Sumatra tsunami and Hurricane Katrina of 2005. "Lautrec" (the Dresser will refer to this poem by a shorter moniker) like the section's title poem "The Story" references the Sumatra tsunami, but in "Lautrec," the reference is more veiled--"This is the season of explosions. How can you promise to believe? Trust in the surinam fruit, that its juice will be bitter. Trust daylight to tread water." "Lautrec" provides an interesting segue from section two of But a Passage in Wilderness because it moves from the immersion of religious waters to a crisis of faith. Still it calls for the desire to "baptize a bird," but it is plagued by killings overt and suggested: Toulouse Lautrec killing spiders, the narrator's cat killing a rice-bird, and Madama Butterfly committing suicide. A good deal of "Lautrec" concerns the nightingale and although there is a suggestive reference to the Philomela story--"Sometimes I do not speak for days. Can none but the inventive nightingale know balance," this poem leans more to John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale." Unlike Keats though, "Lautrec"'s narrator is heartsick about not being able to "sing a color, pretend I am that nightingale." The narrator fails to experience the joy that Keats is overwhelmed with. Still hope rears its head in the last line of "Lautrec"--"Ever since the earliest wanderer grew birdness, the palm of the breadfruit has been opening."
If the Dresser has a nit with this poem, it's this line: "What butterfly does not know she dips and bows for the opera's fifth act?" Although Puccini did dicker with how many acts would be in his opera about the Japanese woman who fell in love with an unworthy American who abandons her for a proper white wife, the composer never had more than three acts. That said, it could be that Berdeshevsky has something else in mind and if the Dresser were willing to burn the midnight oil longer, the reason for five acts might become apparent. Nevertheless the point is a minor one.
Berdeshevsky creates a large playing field of interlocking symbols like water (a feminine symbol often suggesting the unconscious mind) and birds (a symbol of premonition and future). In her world, death is countered in equal part by birth. The Dresser plans to keep this book handy and use it like a Chinese seer might use the I Ching. There is a wealth of intuitive knowledge in But a Passage in Wilderness.
Margo Berdeshevsky is the winner of numerous awards including the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America (selected by Marie Ponsot). She has been published in such magazines as The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, and Poetry Daily. Forthcoming publications include a book of her short fictions, Beautiful Soon Enough, and a poetic novel, Vagrant. Visit her blog for more information.
[Photo collages are by Margo Berdeshevsky.]