Ann Bookman’s first full-length poetry book, Blood Lines, chronicles the anthropologist author’s search to find meaning in over five generations of early deaths in her maternal line due to childbirth, or from ovarian and breast cancer; essentially, from the female condition itself. In detailing the tender with the tragic, Bookman deftly captures a complex ambivalence with these historical losses.
In her prose poem, “Black Satchel,” even Bookman’s pacing builds a sense of poignancy; she lingers to describe her great-grandmother’s medicine bag and establish her as a midwife in the 1800’s before cutting to the quick, “Rivka died in childbirth at thirty–escaping the illnesses linked to the Ashkenazi gene–never held her baby girl.” As she grapples with the family ties that immigrated along with her forebears to America via a steamer ship from Dresden, Bookman expands what might have been a self-pitying topic. Her poem, “The Knotted Cord,” is imbued, instead, with wonder and longing:
Do genes swim in our blood, stroke after stroke, a circular loop?
Haul themselves onto sail-less boats
with no rudder, hunker down, wait
for new passengers to climb aboard.
This memoir in poems begins with a long view of the past and involves many different characters, but this combination of multiple viewpoints guides the reader along a continuous path to a present that is rich with context and perspective. For example, several pieces feature memories of her father, a medical doctor who, in the end, is unable to prolong the life of his beloved wife. These poems act a foil to Bookman’s own experience of loss, an interplay showcased in her poem, “Museum of Natural History.” After describing a childhood suspicion that the taxidermy animals of the dioramas were alive despite her father’s assurances to the contrary, Bookman concludes:
My father was always right
until he wasn’t. And that was not
about stuffed animals in glass cases,
and I was not nine.
Bookman’s gentle candor and occasional use of allegory convey nuanced aspects of loss. For instance, she observes the emptiness of seashells, recounts losing small but valuable items; each memento, a lamentation for daughters similarly left behind, or perhaps carelessly abandoned, and for mothers, stolen, as in the poem, “Elegy for the French Wallet”:
. . . when you lose
something personal, something valuable,
on the subway by mistake, or maybe it was stolen,
you were never quite sure whether
it was your fault . . .
Bookman’s collection offers no salve for death other than a call for fearlessness, a radical sort of acceptance which accretes over time. We view the author claiming her reluctant role as participant/observer, as a bridge between a cultural history of multigenerational trauma and its manifestation in the physical realm. For her, this is the heightened risk of cancer among those of Ashkenazi heritage, evidenced in her family, and diagnosed in her own daughter. And yet Bookman’s bittersweet legacy resonates universally, in all that we unwittingly repeat from our imperfect pasts destined to forever ripple the waters of our futures. Nevertheless, this exposition of one family’s collective loss yields a potent hope, as can be seen in “Shimmering,” a poem of sensory impressions featuring an apparition of her mother:
holding me, giving me a face
I can recognize–hers–
and a space to inhabit
Because Bookman includes photographs of her family at the end of each chapter, the reader confronts the strong family resemblance handed down from her ancestors to her progeny. In viewing this progression of genetics over time, we become complicit, in a way, as co-observers of the author’s legacy. We are given room to pause and recall the old family photographs from similar eras, to take our places along our own Blood Lines.
About the Reviewer
Carrie Nassif (she/hers) is a queer poet, parent, and psychologist from the rural Midwest. Her chapbook, lithopaedion, is forthcoming with Finishing Line Press. Her poetry can be found in Concision Poetry Journal, the Comstock Review, FERAL, and Pomona Valley Review among others and in various anthologies.