Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Gift that Arrives Broken – Jacqueline Berger

Jacqueline Berger’s poetry is the poetry of everyday life, through which some insight—sometimes transcendental, sometimes merely intriguing—is seen. This poetry doesn’t have an agenda, isn’t part of a movement, does not aspire to revolution. Each poem is a short personal essay. I suppose you could call it “Flash Non-Fiction”, though most poems are longer than such a genre would indicate. It reminds me in ways of David Sedaris’s writing, but more brief, and not as constrained by the need for cohesion. Berger is free to connect seemingly dissimilar thoughts or observations and watch the light refract off of them. Also, she is not a humorist—the comparison to Sedaris has more to do with her ability to make keen observations based on everyday life in skillful essay-style prose. Aging, marriage and family are frequent subjects. Berger’s meditations on the illness and inevitable death of both of her parents are so prominent a focus that it became a motif of the collection, but Berger’s treatment is neither morose nor lugubrious. In “My Mother’s Refrigerator”, for instance, Berger contrasts her desire to clean with her mother’s pack-rat tendencies. The result is touching:
My mother tells me it’s okay.
I sweep the crumbs, stack
the papers she won’t toss.
Some day they’ll be mine
to do with as I wish.
And the food will be mine
the encrusted, the furred,
apples that soften to their end,
lamb that hardens.
I’ll want to keep it all
just to keep the argument alive.
I appreciate the fact that Berger’s stylistics are not the focus of her poetry. Her prose is pure, and not a hodge-podge of warped syntax. This allows her to be clear, accessible and poignant. One of the things that I liked the most was how in many poems she brings up a thought or image and comes back to it at the end, whereupon it has new significance. It’s not a “twist” at the end, but more of a “click”: you suddenly understand why this particular image is so important. Here’s an example:
At the Table

Those who practice moderation,
their faces mild and benign,
their plates cleared away
with half their dinner remaining,
don’t believe every meal is their last,
but even if this one is,
they’re fine leaving some of it untouched.
Then there are those of us who order the bottle
because the best wines
aren’t offered by the glass.
We share dessert, but share two of them
because we love both chocolate and plums.
Our off switch doesn’t work, Lisa says,
and the next day’s punishment of pleasure
is just part of the bargain.
Her dog tosses a stuffed snake across the room
in the gleeful dance dogs do to celebrate a visitor.
He’s a big dog, mastiff and pit bull,
scary looking with gold eyes
which makes me want to trust him
the way I’d give a thug a second chance.

Joy may be ephemeral
as the full moon swaying on an alpine lake,
but we are like the villagers
in the fairy tale I read as a child
who thought they could scoop
a chunk into their bowls and eat it.
The author intended his young reader
to understand the foolishness of this,
but I loved the villagers,
up all night with their slotted spoons
digging in the milky water.
Maybe they pulled buns from wicker baskets
and shared them with their neighbors,
the floury moon, the custardy moon
one way or another filling their mouths.

The body is a source of joy
but also the servant.
We feel no compunction
keeping it up all night
then calling the the morning for a favor.
And desire is a dog
that’s bred to kill,
but we let him in the house
and love him.

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