Book Review

Victoria Redel delivers the harrowing exodus of her extended refugee family through the frame of exile from Eden not as punishment but as an inevitable escape—it is these narrative inheritances that shape the speaker’s own story of survival. Redel reimagines the exile from Eden narrative, offered through seven poems spoken through the voice of Adam or Eve, by offering the characters agency. No one was persuaded by a snake, there was no trick: “there was never a fall / We stood; we ran.” Instead of the progenitors of all of human kind’s wickedness and woe, the figures are vivacious and tangible.

Conventionally, the promised land is always beyond, always across the next forging. Paradise is always lost. So the most radical shift in perspective that Redel offers us is the breaking down of barriers. “There was a gate & through the gate / another garden—” “& some claimed one side was Paradise.” The world itself is Eden, there is no separation. The wall around a lost paradise is an imaginary division between the very real here and the imagined promised land. Boundaries become prisons. It is not expulsion, but escape.

And yet a feeling of inevitability remains in the story. The forbidden fruit placed at the heart of the Eden narrative is like Checkov’s gun—if it is revealed in the first act, it must go off before the last. By simply being placed in the story, the forbidden fruit must be eaten. By being able to leave the garden, the characters must, “When we found the gate, / of course, we opened it.” A paradise assumes its own expulsion.

The speaker of the Eden poems reminds us that their story is archetypal. Losing paradise is an ever-present reality: “Darlings, we imagined you. Over & over, how / you would break each other. Wound this garden.” “But doesn’t every story begin with expulsion?” The book leaves these characters, only return to them in the final poem of the book—but the tone of exodus is struck and it rings through the following pages.

The shift between the persona poems of Eden’s exodus to explorations of the speaker/poet’s ancestors who were forced to flee Europe during WWII is subtle. There is no section break, no signal to the reader. The speaker changes, though the “we” pronoun remains, emphasizing a consistency in voice that blurs the distinction between the Adam and Eve characters of the book’s opening and the speaker/poet’s parents and relatives.

These poems explore the violence of expulsion: being forced from one’s home through violence (“Men arrived. A gang. A mob. / More by night. Fires were set”), losing pieces of identity through language (“our name twisted to local consonants”), and not only receiving trauma, but history’s attempt at erasing that same trauma (“don’t look / back where another child now sleeps in your bed”). A shadowy narrative forms behind the poems of the speaker/poet’s family’s displacement from their homes and journey across wartime Europe to eventually immigrate to the United States, but the poetry offers no assurance of fact. The speaker shares the uncertainty with us: “Is this actually what happened?” By not promising us facts, the speaker delivers us to something probably closer to truth. “Her father announced that leaving, she’d choose one dog . . . This is isn’t about some little dog, my mother says, this is about your life.” Leaving behind what makes home home is gutting, but what remains is the unhealable fear of losing what you love at any moment.

The poems walk boldly into the difficulty of communicating such horrible realities—not just difficult choices, but the impossible circumstances under which to make those decisions: “What would you take if you knew you’d never come back? / What would you take if you lost track of the children?” Horrible realities which have never been more relevant. There are currently 281 million people who are displaced for reasons of work, violence, and climate and political unrest, according to the United Nations World Migration Report. At the end of 2021, there were 89.3 million refugees, those forcibly displaced (according to the United Nations Refugee Agency). “Why does any of this old story matter? Read the newspaper. Please, / read it now. Do you have a map of the world? The map keeps changing.” By beginning with a cosmological origin myth of humanity in Eden and traversing to her own life, Redel reminds us that displacement is a never-ending occurrence.

The most dramatic shift in tone and focus occurs at the book’s section break. We leave behind the narratives of exodus and instead turn to direct poems of the poet’s life. Larger familial context moves to personal narratives and confessional tones, but the through-lines of longing and survival remain the same: “day by year, I conjured / fantastic survivals, leap / & flame.” The second section reads like a collection whereas the first is a dedicated project. From poems concerning the poet’s experience of spending years in a body brace to relatable poems celebrating and lamenting the process of aging. The shift can be disorienting at first, but these later poems are grounded and contextualized by the first section.

Aging teaches the speaker to focus on the beauty of overlooked, intimate moments of real living: “All those years of worry when I might have chosen wonder. / O, that I could persuade that fevered stomp of girl to look up. / There, a woman at an open window, shaking out a yellow blanket.” These moments are like miniature zen gardens—representations of a larger world, yet perfectly contained in a tranquility that requires a slower pace to living that youth disallows. Perhaps these poems serve as an exodus from youth, its pleasures but also its blindness.

By ending the book with a final persona poem of the exodus from Eden, a circularity is completed. “We had yet to imagine / something we could not imagine.” As the subject of the poem journeys forward into ever new paradises, we are reminded that the promised land will always remain beyond the next horizon, across the next border. But even if we found paradise, we would inevitably choose to leave it.

About the Reviewer

Luke Eldredge holds an MFA from Colorado State University where he received the Crow-Tremblay Poetry Fellowship. His work has appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, the Concrete Desert Review, Figure 1, and elsewhere. He lives in the Colorado Rockies with his wife and dog.