November 5, 2009

Review by Andrea Scarpino

ALL ODD AND SPLENDID
by Hilda Raz

Wesleyan University Press
215 Long Lane
Middletown, CT 06459
IBSN 978-0-8195-6892-2
2008, 108pp., $22.95
www.wesleyan.edu/wespress/

“We all travel from. / Where are we going?” asks Hilda Raz in the poem, “Objects When the Body Fails.” Indeed, the poems in All Odd and Splendid travel continuously from, into an unknown and uneasy world where genders shift, relationships mutate, and the living die. Organized in six sections around a quote from Diane Arbus, which states in part, “All odd and splendid as freaks and nobody able to see himself, all of us victims of the especial shape we come in,” All Odd and Splendid is a masterful collection of poems that turns a clever and unblinking eye to all the oddities, splendors and losses that make us human.

Reaching widely in form and content, Raz’s work gestures to the past by using Nordic and Greek mythology and allusions to Dante, while also speaking to a contemporary life that includes clown school, deaths elongated by modern medicine, and airplane travel. Sometimes working in formal structures, such as in the sestina “Professional Travel,” sometimes working in free verse, as in, “Funeral, then Flu,” Raz undermines all we hold steady, immutable, and allows us to see clearly the tenderness and grief of loss, no matter how it manifests itself.

In the opening lines of the poem, “The Changes,” Raz writes, “Everything we promised you was so / is not.” She continues,

Your frail spouse
who begged for news, our promise
that he would not have to watch
or lift the gauze, was told good news.
We lied. Each day he tears the tape,
repacks what used to be your breast.

These are hard truths, the promises of a pain free surgery and quick recovery exposed as lies that friends tell to keep each other afloat. The language of the poem is raw, biting, the tone full of sorrow and remorse. And yet, by the end, some comfort is also found. Raz writes,

breath is drowned
then rescued, lost again. We make of this
truth what we will. I cry now because I can.

There isn’t forgiveness for the speaker’s untruths exactly, but something else: an acceptance, maybe, an understanding of the complex places we find ourselves in, and the things we do to survive.

In the poem, “Tyr,” based loosely on the Nordic myth of Tyr and Fenrir, Raz writes,

and Tyr became the god of strength
since he learned what he had to do to save the world
and then he did it.

Indeed, Raz’s collection is filled with characters like Tyr who demonstrate their strength by learning what they need to do, and then doing it. In intergenerational poems that show the shifting landscape of family, in poems documenting the shifting gender of her son Aaron, and in poems concerned with the deaths of dear friends, Raz looks at a world in flux and tells us the stories she sees. And this becomes her strength: showing us a world off kilter, and holding fast to change, the only constant we know, and to our own shifting “especial shape.”

Yet, amidst these changing landscapes of the body and the body’s place in the world, Raz finds moments of splendor. In the poem, “Splendid,” Raz concludes,

If he lies on the floor and hums
If she builds towers and bridges with her fingers
If grey light bleeds lavender onto the pages
What can be said to be missing? What else can matter?

The last poem of the collection, “Thank You Very Much” begins with an epigraph from King Lear: “Never, never, never, never, never.” After listing things for which to say “thank you” that range from “for chores reduced by cold” to “for sweaters at discount” and “for stents and staples, for health insurance” Raz concludes, “for love for love for love for love, for love.”

All Odd and Splendid is above all a carefully and superbly constructed collection filled with music, musicality and breath that provides glimpses of where “We all travel from” as well as where we are going. Even in the midst of uncertainty, on this journey exposing the shifting planes of the self and the losses change brings, Raz sees the lovely and sublime in our strange and ordinary lives, and presents them to us anew.

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Andrea Scarpino is the author of the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press). She received an MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and widely published in both print and online journals. She currently lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is the West Coast Correspondent for the blog Planet of the Blind.