Book Review

In “The Death of the Moth,” Virginia Woolf chronicles a complex moment of seeing. Facing a windowpane, Woolf observes a moth struggling for life. The insect’s erratic wing beats, forming a painfully beautiful dance. The marvelous pity of the creature and her own intrigue bewitch her. “It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life,” Woolf writes, “and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it.”

It is strange. So is the impulse to look at those with the courage to look. It takes a certain amount of pluck to poke, ask, tilt the chin up, and stare into the void. Like Woolf, Joy Ladin faces the relentlessness of our most vexing riddles with grace, musicality, and wry humor. Ladin—the author of seven previous poetry collections and a memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders—is currently the recipient of an NEA fellowship to write I Am What I Will Be: Reading God and the Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Her latest book of poetry, Fireworks in the Graveyard, is not only a work of tremendous beauty, but it brings bracing originality to explorations of identity, rebirth, and the existential churn.

The book’s title, Fireworks in the Graveyard, serves as both a promise and a threat. Is finding revelry in the space of the dead an act of defiance or homage, or both? And what is a celebration, anyway? Is not the body a graveyard, a collection of sacred passings? Is not the thought a tiny firework electrifying our brain’s synapses?

Meditations on love and faith animate this book, but it is anchored by aesthetic choices and cohesive themes. The word “dead,” or its permutations, “dying” and “die,” ghost the pages of this book like a curious draft in an old, beloved house. From line to line and verse to verse, the reader is reminded that there is no escape: “Nothing can stop growing, eating and being eaten,” from the poem “Death.” There is potential, however, and perhaps even freedom, in acknowledging a circle. A cycle is another expression of transformation.

Examinations of the illusory power of words and the complicated relationship with the body elevate poems such as “Corpus.” In that piece, a speaker struggles with how, when, and if we are able to let go: “I want to say goodbye to my body / before my body says goodbye to me.” Quiet empowerment blooms in the articulation of this desire to leave rather than be the one who is left.

In the book’s eponymous poem, the speaker ruminates as “a family sprawls on blankets: / toddler sobs, sibling ahs, parents, stiff and a little chilly, / telling each other they’re glad they’ve come, / feeling for what they’ve lost in the dark, wondering / what the kids—they’re small—will remember when they’re grown.” To remember becomes to re-member. Questions are posed, and a contemplative space is created.

There is a penetrating eloquence in Ladin’s verse—“Block Island” and “Sabbath,” in particular. The word Sabbath is generally understood to mean a time of religious observance and, in the poem “Sabbath,” as in Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” observance is both active and interpretative. As the speaker addresses the reader, the self, and God simultaneously, another input opens to the potential wisdom of the natural world: “Listen, the blossoming evening sang.”

Syntax in “Sabbath” can be experienced as the arrangement of the poet’s words as well as a set of rules for an analysis of that order. Following the code provides clues about the depth of the book’s inquiries into the self. For example, the first word of “Sabbath” is “I,” and it establishes narrative agency, but is quickly followed by the contraction “didn’t.” To begin the piece with what the speaker did not do rather than did do suggests a familiar but evolving dialogue that is studied throughout the collection.

As “Sabbath” continues, the speaker moves from central subject to witness: “I didn’t kill myself last night. / In Nepal, more buildings collapsed. / Helicopters hovered over isolated houses, / tallying the desperate and the dead.” A stanza break separates there from here, where the speaker remarks, “it is flat and green and quiet.” The relative safety of here contrasts with external devastation and collapse, but because the poem starts with “I didn’t kill myself last night,” is this calm fragile, tenuous?

Ladin’s searching quality echoes the poet Claudia Rankine’s willingness to interrogate the uncomfortable territory where the known and uncertain overlap. Take, for example, a scene in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric where the narrator enters into a conversation with suicidality by picking up the phone and calling 1-800-SUICIDE. “You dial the number,” Rankine writes, “Do you feel like killing yourself? the man on the other end of the receiver asks. You tell him, I feel like I am already dead.”

Like Rankine, Ladin employs strategic repetition as a tool of emphasis. In “Sabbath,” variations of “sing” are used six times, foregrounding the ritual element of song as well the distance between ceremony and understanding. The speaker tries but “couldn’t sing to the Lord a new song.” Instead, “old songs” were offered, returning to the tension of old versus new that is leitmotif in this collection. The recitation of old lyrics with new alertness suggests that the speaker may have chartered a new pathway into what has been inherited. “Be happy,” the lyrics instruct, “meet the bride, the Sabbath.

Toward the conclusion of “Sabbath” we see the physical union of oppositional forces, or, at least a sense of balance in what was once unsettled, unsettling. This is symbolized by the image of togetherness: “The unforgiving and the unforgivable / walked behind me, holding hands.” What was previously bodyless, is now bodied and capable.

Never unnecessarily lavish, Ladin is a craftswoman. A carefully chosen word or fascinating lineation will flip a narrative predicament on its head. Tracking the relationship of subtle details yields wonder, and ultimately mirrors the speaker’s narrative arc: “The little void I held inside / opens into sky.”

In Fireworks in the Graveyard, it is not the explosion that turns our heads toward the light. It is Joy Ladin’s understated and delicate touch, the heating of the filament inside the bulb, that creates the space to see.

About the Reviewer

Margot Douaihy is the author of the poetry collections Scranton Lace (forthcoming, Clemson University Press, 2017), Girls Like You (Clemson University Press, 2015), and I Would Ruby If I Could (Factory Hollow Press, 2013). She is the editor of Northern New England Review. @margotdouaihy /