Review by Gail Fishman Gerwin
I WANTED A CITY
by Janet Marks
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106978
2013, 91 pp., $18.00
We read Janet Marks’s poetry with the expectation that she should have something to teach us. She has lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, a presidential assassination and a handful of assassination attempts, and moon walks. She has crossed the Y2K line, she has experienced parental love and emotional distance. She has gone through divorce and has lived in many locales: urban, rural, crisp, muddy. Indeed she has stories to share.
She has survived with the insight—fortunate for readers—to provide us with a sweeping view of her own history in context of the history of preceding generations. I Wanted a City is her first full-length collection, one that has been building since her middle years. The book’s acknowledgments run the gamut of literary journals and her work along the road to this volume earned awards, a prestigious writing residency, and ongoing accolades from colleagues.
Some of the book’s most resonant poems come from her life in San Francisco, where the poem “Small View of the Big One” takes us to “… 2 a.m., my bed/ has surged with the inhaling-exhaling earth in/ Mill Valley where small tremors haunt the countryside …” She goes on to pull us through a quake-filled day (“I think the driver is playing with the brakes” … “the Bay Bridge has split apart”) on to 5 p.m. when she spots a “black and white dog” that has “bolted through a window in shock.” The dog teeters on a ledge; she urges him to go back, go in, “but he will not go.” In four short stanzas, she addresses the fear in all of us as disaster strikes, down to one of the smaller, helpless beings who can rely only on instinct. Where can we run to escape life’s big ones? What can we do with our fears? She leaves us on the ledge with these questions; she makes us worry. We don’t know if the dog survives. A true Bay Area resident, she is almost casual with her descriptions of the horror, just another day when “houses and apartments/ built on fill are caving-in and burning” while in counterpoint her tender heart enters the psyche of a defenseless creature. We are with her in her shaking bed, we are with her on the bus, we are with her as she walks in the street. Interestingly, in this and many of her poems, Marks does not always use end-punctuation. She maintains the momentum long after the poem is finished; we provide our own periods after returning to reread.
The book’s very next poem abruptly takes Marks back to a distant time and place, to her tenancy in the womb as another trick of Nature—Texas floods—assails the rural population. She notes, “my immigrant mother/ with me in her womb/ climbs a chair/ until father comes to save us.” Deep inside her mother, she is part of the family, part of the “us” that holds it together. She ages several years within two stanza’s of this poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” to allude to her mother’s instinctual response to “my fevered brain … fetching more and more water/ with more and more pieces of herself.” Mother as protector, mother as nurturer, and in “Growing Up In The Thirties,” mother as stern guide:
she wanted me
to be a piano prodigy but intervened
between the piano & me
compelling me to give it up.
In this poem Marks reflects her generation, one where “college was inaccessible” and studying shorthand the practical path for young women.
Mother as someone distant and private, mother as an angry wife who “… raved at father as though he were to blame” for the Depression. (This father was her mother’s second husband; she lost her first love in the flu epidemic.) The poem “Seeking a Life” goes on to tell how this father borrowed money from an uncle who “never let him forget.” Marks’s mother struggles with her own secret demons, her lifetime of stoic loneliness:
forgetting two old parents she’d sailed away from
never seemed to turn back until the letter
came that her mother was gone
she went upstairs & cried alone
—“Growing Up In The Thirties”
Marks inserts some of her own isolation in this poem; she speaks of sailing into marriage and parenting and throughout the book offers glimpses of her feelings about these states In “Visiting Mother” she speaks of a marriage “cracking in ice storms.” In “A True Victorian Lady” her mother, who practiced her Judaism alone, silently lighting the candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, could not accept her daughter’s divorce and showed her distaste: “To her my words were a foreign tongue/ she picked off herself like fleas.” Despite this disapproval, Marks separates herself from the marriage, yet hints at a type of emotional reconciliation with her former husband in “Visiting Mother”: “now apart we’re kinder/ on the porch he brings our granddaughter home offers me/ his car—I walk this time.” She also lets readers know that despite her innate ability to survive as an independent woman, she misses her parents and her children. On one of her walks that populate the book, this time in Golden Gate Park, “I reach for the steel stays of my mother/ Her voice of loss grips me to her” and she imagines her father, who “comes to say there is too much rain/ on the grave where his bones whiten.” She tells us that the “children I have spawned have learned to swim alone.”
Marks, who describes herself as a wayfarer, belies generations of women who remained in sour liaisons. She comes across as a person who has gone through the funnel of hardship and disappointment yet is whole, who is satisfied with the woman she’s become, a woman unafraid to test herself in many locales. She often views these locales—and exquisitely shares the visuals with us—on foot (“and a blob of jelly quivers to my stick/ makes a hideous face at me./ I am not afraid”) or from a seat on a bus. We ride with her “downtown on the 163 Bus/ on Louisiana Street” when she spots billboards with life messages; in San Francisco she’s on the way to a Woody Allen movie by bus when the quake interfered. She climbs hills, she relishes all she encounters wherever she lives: the animal sculptures of Bufano in Sausalito, at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park pier, where she walks “near the edge of living” with “fourteen Cambodian students …”
Janet Marks has given readers the gift of her youth, the gift of geography, the gift of history, and the gift of her maturity. Yes, she has a lot to teach. She teaches us how to take routes that help us cope with what we cannot control. She teaches us how important it is to embrace the past and to see the present as adventure with no age limitations. And she teaches us how to create a work of art that combines specificity and metaphor. In “I Open My Eyes and It’s Spring,” she carries apples, eggplant, and Sunkist (oranges?) up Masonic Hill; “It’s cold without sun,” she says. Just when we become comfortable with the familiar, in the next moment we see that “the wind heaves me into the Pacific.” Where is she going? Why is she flying? Then back to a beggar at Portsmouth Square who says “all of my former lives were insane.” No insanity here, just a gift of tale. Janet Marks wanted a city and so she created a universal city that transcends any single place in this beautiful collection that mandates several readings to wrap our senses, our emotions, and our eyes around what the poet sees. I Wanted A City is a collection that needs to be read and reread.
Gail Fishman Gerwin’s poetry and reviews appear in journals including Paterson Literary Review, Lips, Caduceus, Pirene’s Fountain, Journal of New Jersey Poets, and The American Voice in Poetry. Her memoir Sugar and Sand was named a 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize finalist and her new collection Dear Kinfolk, was published in 2012. She is associate poetry editor of the journal Tiferet. A Paterson, NJ, native she lives in Morristown, NJ, and is principal of the communications firm inedit.