Sunday, April 12, 2015

Audacity of Fighting

Reviews by Bill Doughty

"Audacity" by Melanie Crowder (2015, Philomel Books, Penguin) is poetic narrative and historical fiction inspired by the life of Clara Lemlich, who as a young girl immigrated to the United States with her orthodox Russian Jewish family at the turn of the 20th century.

Crowder writes in free verse throughout, describing life in Russia and New York as well as the voyage sailing first to England then across the Atlantic where the salt in the air strung her eyes and the stench burned her nostrils.

Papa and Mama and little Benjamin
take one bunk
Marcus and Nathan
settle into another.
I sling my sack onto a top bunk
crawl up after it
turn my face to the tarred planks
that separate us
from the ice-cold water.

The mattress crinkles beneath me
filling the air with a pungent,
briny scent.
                    What kind of hay  
                     smells like the sea?

I pick at a loose seam
pull out a strand of the brittle stuffing.

The heat at the back of my eyes
the ball in throat
I pull my book of poems
from the bottom of my sack
hide it in the crook
between my knees and shoulders
whisper each line
in time
to the gently rocking boat.

Clara Lemlich, 2010
"Audacity" shows the challenges facing girls who yearn for an education but who live in fundamentalist families "where study is disobedience." 

Her own father burns her books when he discovers them. When she has to work to help provide food for her family she is met with cruelty in the early 1900s garment industry.

Clara sees "her own destiny is gripped in the fists of others," yet she stands up to seemingly intractable violence, harassment, sexual assault and inequality in the workplace.

Throughout "Audacity" images of various birds – starling, shrike, thrush, sparrow, hawk, warbler – fly across the pages, leading Clara from poverty and sweatshops to fighting for better working conditions and the growing chorus calling for women's right to vote.

... Fighting

"Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting" by Kevin Powers (2014, Little and Brown Company) is a slim volume by the poet and Iraq War who is a PEN/Hemingway award winner for "The Yellow Birds."

Like Phil Klay ("Redeployment") and Tim O'Brien ("The Things They Carried," from the Vietnam generation), Powers presents war and peace as stark, intertwined and connected.

War and memories of war follow the warrior into civilian life. Powers presents the images of war in detached cruel realities, exemplified in "Field Manual." As with Klay's opening story in "Redeployment" he makes readers think about how feral dogs in the war zone had to be removed.

Everything can become associated with the shadow of war, even the poems themselves.

From "Improvised Explosive Device":

If this poem had wires
coming out of it,
you would not read it.
If the words in this poem were made
of metal, if you could see
the mechanics of their curvature,
you would hope they would stay covered
by whatever paper rested
in the trash pile they were hidden in.
But words or wires would lead you still
to fields of grass between white buildings.

In poems titled "Meditation on a Main Supply Route," "Death, Mother and Child," "Blue Star Mother," "Portugal" and "A Lamp in the Place of the Sun," the author takes us from Mosul to Europe to his home in Virginia.

Anthony Swofford, author of "Jarhead," called Powers's "The Yellow Birds" worthy of being on the "high rare shelf alongside Ernest Hemingway and Tim O'Brien."

As in Klay's "Redeployment" and O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," Powers shows how the shadow of war can be both dark and illuminating.

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