Hearing Beyond Sound: New and Collected Poems
by Elaine M. Starkman
San Ramon, CA: DVS Publishing, 2013
Paper, 72 pages
Reviewed by Zara Raab
Light Travel, Sound Travel
Fog is universal, but nowhere does it have quite the presence that it has in the San Francisco Bay area, where Elaine Starkman has lived most of her adult life. Starkman’s new book opens with the characteristically unpretentious language of “Alive, Winter, 2008,” in which imagery of pear juice, goblets, and fog establishes a tone and mood that pervades many of her poems:
“Sandy’s Gone, January 2011” captures in title alone her simple, understated language, evoking the temperament of a diarist who keeps a journal, or a faithful correspondent, each letter dated, sent from ports in her travels through life. Reflections on death and solitude intermingle in “Sooner or Later, 2000”: All this will end//[. . .] Loving and not loving knowing/sooner than later we’ll part//Then what we think/ will not matter//Then we’ll wonder/what silences we’ll take//with us/ to our graves.” This poem reads like a letter to a spouse of many years. Many of Starkman’s poems have much of the simplicity and intimacy of personal correspondence. This isn’t to say Starkman’s descriptions aren’t lovely. In “June, 1999,” the line breaks have the purposeful presence of suggesting a necklace of the pearls featured as an image in the poem:
chips of pearl
“Stillness, February, 2006,” set in Green Gulch at Muir Beach, epitomizes this poet’s reflective cast of mind:
I didn’t think
By following the contours and normative turns of her syntax, and breaking predictably, Starkman’s lines mirror her zen approach to life, one of whose tenets might be paraphrased as “the way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” Starkman rarely offers rhythmic surprise, or breaks the poetic line to amplify or qualify meaning – to strive for more than is natural. Although Starkman has chosen to keep her poems free from the strictures of meter and rhyme, she has not then taken on the difficulties inherent in rhythmic surprise, enjambment or complex meaning. Starkman is never overly ambitious in her use of the freedom of free verse. This has a calming effect, slowing down the progress of the poem and perhaps facilitating connection with the reader. It is rather like some of William Carlos Williams’ early poems, before he mastered his brilliant rhythmic patterns in what James Longenbach has called the “annotating line.”
One of my favorite poems, in the section of “History Lessons” drawn from Jewish and her own history, is “Peaches, Netanya, Near the Sea,” an homage to Avram, an “old immigrant/from Eastern Europe” who sells peaches from a cart with his helper, young Yosef, “the singing Yemenite;/ his dark sandaled feet” dangling “over the cart pulled by a donkey,” while their dog Cush runs alongside. The poet recalls Yosef teaching her how to say the Hebrew word for peach, “Ahfarsek,” and giving her a taste. She concludes:
Oh, fruit of the land
Oh, milk and honey.
Where are you now,
“Every Single Day, a Ray of Light” evokes the Jewish Kabbalah, and “Kaddish for the Columbia” discusses “the sketch/ by a boy in Auschwitz” carried into outer space by the space shuttle Columbia, without echoing any of the rich, wrought cadences of the Hebrew bible. Ancient Jewish traditions pervade these poems, while the sparse style remains firmly planted in the twenty-first century. “In the Kibbutz Laundry, 1969,” one of a series of poems set in Israel, is dedicated to Rivka Cooper, whose arm is tattooed with a concentration camp number:
In the kibbutz laundry
Her hands move in an act of love.
“[E]ngraved on her arm/ Lives a page of history/ That all the soap/ And all the rubbing/Can never wash away.”
Family bonds are a rich source of reflection. In “Apricots for Isaac,” the poet savors an afternoon of walking with her grandson in an abandoned orchard; he climbs an apricot tree whose fruit is beginning to ripen. In “Patterns,” she reflects on the links between the generations, the patterns tying her to her mother, and from her mother through her, to her children:
How is it that I’ve become my mother
Stand at the sink wash her hair
The way she once washed mine
How is it that I carry everything
Unnamed between us
Onto my own children
And call it love
“Re-reading Poems of Anne Sexton, 1984” makes evident Sexton’s influence: “The fearless courage of your writing/ nourished my own.” Preoccupation with childhood motivates poems like “Three A.M., November 2011,” recording a dream of a “blue eyed/dark haired brother and sister//I knew long ago,” or the poem “Chicago: Garfield Park Conservatory, September, 2004,” conjuring a neighborhood where the poet “trudged with [her] father through winter snow, spring rains, and summer swelter more than /half a century ago.”
Although Starkman begins her poems with a personal perspective, she is by no means a Confessional poet, and she writes of male literary influences, capturing in brief stanzas the essences of Hemingway, Einstein, and Gandhi, each of whom “lets me know that my life/ is in my own hands” (“Traveling Among Men, June, 2012”).
Never inflated, didactic, or politically correct, Starkman isn’t generally interested in news headlines but in the slow news of family life, as in the charming “In Praise of Old Man’s Pee,” dedicated to her father, whom she visits in the hospital near the end of his life. Starkman celebrates the “men we don’t hear or/read about who give/us their manly gifts//who love us gently/with compassion.” An overarching theme of Hearing Beyond Sound is the need for an inner voice.
No, I don’t want
To know who’s
Who’s having affairs
[. . .]
More news more websites
More blogs more spam
More more more—
There’s lively detail in Starkman’s portrait of the well-dressed man in a wheelchair selling soap on the street corner in “Lost Words, 2009,” and humor in the poet’s recognition that, caught up in the petty trials of her own life, she does not really see him. Starkman is most exuberant in her friendships with women. “Cabana Carioca, New York City,” dedicated to the poet Florence Miller, describes a New York City outing:
We abandon ourselves
To every pan-handler
[. . .]
We swoon at the stocky waiters
In Cabana Carioca on 45th Street.
[. . .]
we samba up the line in step
to the last of the Portuguese buffets
where we pay the counter price
for paella and flan at this lunch of love.
At times, Hearing Beyond Words reads like a travel letter from Israel, Europe, and Asia, and occasionally the line between poetry and good prose is sustained only by the thin thread of the line break. Yet without straining for heightened literary effect, the poet connects with both the people in her stories and her readers beyond the page. Even in sleep, she is traveling, with the notion of some ultimate journey beyond life hovering like a shadow. In “Traveling Toward Dawn, September, 2005,” she writes, “Soon I’ll lie down to sleep/wrap myself in night/ fold its coverlet above me.” Travel is evoked even by this tender collection’s elusive title, referring to the “celestial sound” of the highway, the “angelic humming//from the car tires/ as we pass sandy dunes,” on their way somewhere. As reader, I welcome these missives from other lands. I travel with her.
Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of California in 19th and early 20th Century. Her poems appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast Review. Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.