Book Review

Perhaps no singular, spectacular poem blazes off the page in Ewa Lipska’s collection Dear Ms. Schubert, perhaps no singular flower dominates, but readers lucky enough to find themselves immersed in the poems will discover a lovely garden of delights, a flourishing bed expertly arrayed, each pleasant and the whole a more powerful statement than any one flower.

The poems, in a confident translation by Robin Davidson and Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, are pleasant to read—not jarring or sentimental but clever and startling in the way one might be startled when, trailing her fingers absentmindedly in a pond, suddenly feels a fish strike. The poems thrive on personification, simile, and conceits that lure the reader into believing an easy substitution is possible, a correspondence that will delight and comfort, but pleasure in Lipska’s poems comes not from a shawl draped over the shoulders but the sudden revelation that the reader’s been sitting in a palm tree the entire time. Strangeness abounds. A novel is composed on a “Bösendorfer piano, a black desert of veneer,” or we hear “Longing . . . is a hardware store . . . an assembly kit.” Always a pleasure to hear the writer wonder, “Have you noticed how / Time’s been increasingly distracted lately?”

The poems require the reader to stay awake—we have no time to dawdle in the beautiful images; I often found myself puzzling over a mystery, a kind of lacunae, in the lines: Who? What? When? Where? Why? The reader is called upon to perform two tricks—to draw inferences or make connections and to step into the juxtapositions, the swerves. “Sometimes I feel like / a house put up for sale,” the opening of “Home” states, “I stand in all the windows and look out at the tree, / which, like a fragment of unwritten prose, / rustles to outtalk fear.” We don’t ever lose contact with the possibility of sense, but like standing on the deck of a ship a might too small for the waves, we always feel a little off-balance.

I never felt like the mystery or questions overwhelmed the poem; the mysteries and riddles didn’t necessarily need solving. The playful “Mirror,” for example, is another exuberant and strange insinuation that doesn’t point to or seem to need the reader to strive for resolution:

Maybe it’s due to a scar on the glass.
The cracked eye of time. Or maybe it’s just
a star barking in the local tabloid.

These are not formalist poems where if you put in the correct change, you’ll get your formulaic meaning. They have the element of surprise—like a suitcase that shows up on your doorstep and you tease apart the shirts and books and toiletries, drawing on whatever story seems most interesting. In “Illusion” (which is a kind of mirror poem), Lipska responds to a painter who feels “life is a fraud”: “I have been scrutinizing my own image in his self-portrait for years, wiping taciturn watercolor from his lips. I’ll spare you the equivocal origin of all the questions I have and won’t ask.”

Though readers hear only one side of the romance, the sense of loss haunts both the writer and the receiver of these poem-letters. The poems generate their static electricity not from brushing against narrative or biography but rather time, the relentless and diffusing power of being separated. Read as parts of a continuous exchange, the letters tell a story of sorts but only in the margins, overheard or intuited. We come close to learning about the writer and Ms. Schubert in “Safe Mode” when the writer says, “once a man with the face of a hummingbird that’s risen forever into the air wanted to rent us an apartment,” but the description is of the apartment owner, not the lovers, and we hear the landlord’s story instead of the renters’. At the conclusion of the poem, we learn they did not take the apartment and so “find ourselves somewhere nearby, in the very heart of the beyond.” We learn little about the letter writer or of Ms. Schubert: “we, as usual, in a downpour of uncertainty.”

Nearly every poem exists in “the beyond” of remembrance, of memory. In “Black Pianos,” the writer admits “Out of this distraction flows the precise nostalgia of our erotic recordings.” They inhabit music together and remembered walks, but share only time (spent writing or reading letters or in memory). In “Conspiracy Theories,” the writer admits they aren’t really “people” at all anymore but have transformed into music or words; they have become something “else” in their estrangement, and only hope and memory keep them together: “After all, we’ve been part of a secret society for years now, in which I can still read you with sentences from our past.” In the tremulous “Last Will and Testament,” the writer says, “To the Past, I bequeath / our love, which, as always, we postpone to the Future.” As their relationship becomes confined mostly to letters, and in the letters to talking about the past, the future looks more like a tombstone than an open meadow.

Many of the letters in the second half of the collection appear as prose poems. The surprises remain, of course, and the strangeness that marks each poem with grace, but the poems lose some potency absent the formal lineation of prosody and lines. They were already “letters,” and line delineation intensified their uniqueness; I continued to admire the garden, but I’m not sure the pruned roses had to go. In “Playing The World,” for example, I can imagine a different kind of power if the sentences used line breaks to spark different energy: “Once I beat it to death. It moaned, begging for forgiveness, but I killed it anyway.”

The penultimate poem, “Our World,” deflates the playful and optimistic earlier lines: “our world is apparently the handwriting of the Gods, but lacking style . . .” The poem suggests, perhaps, that the love affair is prosaic after all. What should have been—could have been—an ecstatic affair lived in flesh is only passed notes and letters, music that will stir no one out of a seat to dance. And the final poem echoes the regret: “It will be between what we haven’t done and what we will not do.” The memories, nostalgia, and hope for the future are will-o’-the-wisps floating between their time together and the future that might not be realized, a sound started on one canyon wall and stalled before landing on the next.

Do the lovers have a future? In “Black Pianos,” the writer says, “And I’d just like to tell you that everything that never existed has a chance of taking place,” a blissfully digressive way to say just because we are apart now does not mean we can’t be together someday. They do have a “present,” the memorialization captured in each poem.

Lipska’s poems are not tangled; they’re accessible in the way all romances are accessible—from the side, in retrospect, and in flashes of sheer, bright emotion. The poems don’t hector or squeal, whine or shatter; they are not self-consciously stylized or overly ripe with a need to show off. They are subtle, a certain vintage of wine that, after a glass or two, the tipsy hits. They have a bite, yes. As a collection, the poems are not a dog chained in a back yard, irritated at a passerby; rather, they are a pleasure like watching a cat walk along a row of bird-filled bushes, tail in the air. Listen to the bird song. As Lipska writes,” “It’s just an untreated case of chronic echo.”

About the Reviewer

Kyle Torke is a teacher of writing and reading, and he has published in every major genre. His most recent books include Sunshine Falls, a collection of nonfiction essays, and Clementine the Rescue Dog children’s books.