Book Review

Among the hundreds of poets publishing each year, some are most at ease in the Zen master’s or rabbi’s chair, slyly considering and distilling a fresh urban folklore, suitable to the twenty-first century, or offering hymns of praise or comfort in grief. The thematic patterning of these books, and of Jacqueline Berger’s The Gift That Arrives Broken, invoke family (parents, children, spouses, ex-spouses) and their entailments (desire, disappointment, reconciliation, loss, grief) in domestic settings (kitchens, bedrooms, parks, patios, cars, restaurants, sometimes in the classroom, often in the past). You can sometimes tell them by their titles, like Chana Bloch’s Mrs. Dumpty, which chronicles in keenly perceptive ways the breakdown of a husband and a marriage.

Rich in sensory details, Jacqueline Berger’s new poems present scenarios that invite us to think about their meaning and suggest ways we should think about them, see them afresh. The poems do all this effortlessly, much as a parable might, not offering simple prudential morality à la Aesop, but demanding reflection on the earthly role of human beings, on language, on randomness and purpose in the universe. Indirectly, in thoughtful, sometimes humorous, sometimes sardonic ways, they inculcate virtue without seeming to insist or dictate.

Jacqueline Berger, a San Francisco poet and winner of numerous literary prizes, succeeds very well in the loosely defined genre I am describing here. In The Gift That Arrives Broken, Berger takes moral storytelling to a new level. Here she’s a rabbi telling midrash—subtle, epigrammatic, and wise. The first section centers on the poet’s parents “holding the last handful / of their years,” and by extension the poet’s own death. Facing the loss of her mother, she says,

Years later, I'll still think of things I want to tell her
And I'll have to stop myself mid call,
The fingers carrying the memory of numbers
Though the combination no longer connects.

She warns us, early on in the book, of the limitations of language. Using a concrete narrative in a classroom, she asks us to think about an abstract idea—and suggests that language will fail us if by success we mean reprieve from the inevitable. She uses a similar device in “Why I’m Here”—concrete situations described in sensory terms—to set the reader thinking about the philosophical idea of a random universe, and observes that, “it’s good to treasure the gift, but good / to see that it wasn’t really meant for you. / The feeling that it couldn’t have been otherwise / is just a feeling.”

Steering through the social wreckage of middle class America, Berger charts the turns and the toll family life can take, how “in this world / we sit in the shade of a grafted tree. / …Contentment leans its soft flesh / against the spine of dread.”

In this age when few of us can rely on conventional societal precepts to guide us through the treacherous waters of relationships, we’re offered new or validating ways of thinking about love and family. In “Gin,” about happy hour with her husband, the poet says, “In some moods we’ll fight about anything / just to make the other / carry the weight of anger / we lug all day through our lives.” And “in the delicate economy of marriage,” as the poet points out, teaching her husband to swim,

Giving costs less than receiving,
The thin wire of power
Threaded through the soft body of need.

Even when she’s slyly giving a moral directive, Berger’s language is smart and original: “It’s good to have a great love of your life,” she writes, “but marry someone else. / Good to keep this great love / in the weedy outfield of the mind / to alternately worship and despise.” French women have been saying this for centuries, but when have American wives been given this kind of sensible advice? Using recurrent canine metaphors, she writes, we are each “like a dog / straining at the end of a leash.” She continues,

...desire is a dog
that's bred to kill,
but we let him in the house
and love him.

In these sophisticate poems, details of a story or incident are hewn away to emphasize a blend of moral, psychological, philosophical and spiritual truth. Moderate and sensible where love and marriage are concerned, Berger shares a willingness to acknowledge the eddies and flurries the mind inevitably undergoes in its Zen-like way while the body is being faithful. Berger goes into a Proustian interlude about her hometown, where

...there's the modesty of trees
Undressing the dark. Like matrons,
They let down their hair, unhook
What holds them in, bend at the middle,
Lean into each other.

Berger avoids the rarified verbal strata of John Ashbery or Milton, an atmosphere only a few can abide. The rest of us take in the quips, allusions, metaphors and slogans around us the way we breathe—naturally, almost without effort. Some of this verbal culture entertains, some of it influences behavior—and changes the culture. The moral nature of the material delicately shapes the contours, the line and stanza breaks as the poem scrolls down the page—reflecting and confirming certain aspects of American culture—individual, tolerant, skeptical, organically shaped and evolving.

About the Reviewer

Zara Raab writes about the fault lines between city dwellers and the poor, rural townspeople to the north. Her poems and articles have appeared in Arts & Letters, White Ink, West Branch, Nimrod International Journal, Poetry Flash, and elsewhere. Her book Swimming the Eel will be out next year from David Robert Books. She lives and writes in San Francisco.