June 6, 2013

Kristin Berkey-Abbott


You will not need the pieces of paper
that used to define
you: the deeds, the degrees, the diplomas.
Leave them behind.

Leave, too, your dollars and coins.
Now your currency will be clementines
and tangerines. The ferrymen
prefer fruit.

You spent decades struggling against your shape,
but now you will be grateful for the extra calories stored
in your hips, the strength
in your stocky thighs.

Dig into your long-neglected
backpacking equipment for your waterproof
matches and purification tablets.
Hope for the best.

Sew seeds into your hemlines.
Seeds will be the new gemstones.
Take all your needles and strong thread.
Cut your hair haphazardly.

Fill your small shampoo bottle with champagne.
You’ll need it for disinfectant.
Pour yourself a glass of wine; admire
the crystal in the candlelight.

Sink into sleep,
one last night of softness
before you strap your sturdy
boots to your feet to set forth.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
Tribute to Speculative Poetry

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December 30, 2011

Review by Kristin Berkey-AbbottFrom the Fever-World

by Jehanne Dubrow

Washington Writers’ Publishing House
P.O. Box 15271
Washington, D.C. 20003)
ISBN 0-931846-91-9
2009, 68 pp., $15.00

We are living in a golden age of persona poems. Poets have always experimented with this form, which allows them to explore other characters, but rarely have we seen so many poets doing it so well. We have poets speaking in the voices of characters from fairy tales, from history, from myth, from religious traditions–and then there’s the more challenging feat of creating a persona from scratch, completely from the poet’s imagination.

Even during this golden age of persona poems, we rarely see a poet create a whole volume in the voice of one character–it takes a lot of talent to create a character so interesting that the character can sustain a whole book. Jehanne Dubrow pulls off this feat magnificently in her book From the Fever-World.

This book follows a narrative arc that depicts the life of Ida, a female poet living in Eastern Europe in the early decades of the twentieth century. The book contains a translator’s note at the end, which reads: “After so many years spent in her company, I feel certain that Ida Lewin (or someone like her) existed in the imaginary Polish town of AlwaysWinter.” After reading From the Fever-World several times, I, too, feel like I have been in the company of a real presence, even if an imaginary one.

Dubrow covers much thematic ground with these poems. From the Fever-World shows a span of a woman’s life, from childhood to courtship to the early years of a marriage through motherhood and all the losses in between. Dubrow’s poems, all utilizing the first person voice, help us understand the happiness and the agony that come into one woman’s life, in part because she is a woman.

[In a Woman’s Life]* serves as an overture to the whole volume, although it comes near the end of the book. The poem shows a woman as a creative force in several areas: as a poet, as a baker of cakes, as a wife. Her work in her house takes on a sacramental quality. In these lines, Dubrow makes clear that women’s work is as valuable as any done by men:

She is the psalmist David
in her chores (sing hallelujah
to the cotton sheets that flap
the wind like pages of an open book)

I love this view of housework as hymn, as song of praise, as hallelujah. I love the word play in cotton sheets (the sheets we sleep on, the sheets we write on).

Throughout the book, we see the imaginary poet using metaphors from writing and academic study to explore her life as a woman. Early in her marriage, she begs, “let him be / a scholar and I the text” ([To Be Studied, the Way]). There’s a physicality in these poems, whether Dubrow explores what it means to be a young wife or what it means to lose a child or what it’s like to be extremely sick. The body betrays us in so many ways at the same time we find joy–and these poems don’t shy away from those truths.

Through the life of this imaginary woman in an imaginary town in Poland, Dubrow also explores Judaism. Many of the poems revolve around Jewish holidays and rituals and the ways they were celebrated and observed in Eastern Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century. Many of the images and symbols come from Jewish life, at least Jewish life as it was lived a century ago. Yet even though some of these practices are alien to me, the emotions explored in the poems are universal.

I’m impressed with Dubrow’s ability to depict a world both imaginary and long gone, and yet to infuse these poems with such universal concerns that the poems should appeal to a wide range of readers. So, even if you’re not a woman, even if you’re not Jewish, even if you’re living in a different part of the world, make some time to spend with these poems. You’ll see your own world with different eyes after you do.


*The poems in From the Fever-World have no titles. I’m following the model that Dubrow gives in the Acknowledgements section.


Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Her second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents, will be published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Chair of the General Education department. She blogs about books, creativity, poetry, and modern life at http://kristinberkey-abbott.blogspot.com and about theology at http://liberationtheologylutheran.blogspot.com. Her website is www.kristinberkey-abbott.com.

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June 15, 2009

Review by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

by Samuel Western

Daniel & Daniel Publishers
P.O. Box 2790
McKinleyville, CA 95519
ISBN 978-156474-478-4
2009, 80 pp., $14.00

When I first saw the title of Samuel Western’s book of poems, I couldn’t resist. A Random Census of Souls: I expected poems that had interesting images and references back to medieval times, perhaps. Or maybe modern ideas of random sampling fused with theological ideas about the soul. I wasn’t expecting to completely rethink the way I approached prose poems.

Right on the cover, the book declares itself as a collection of prose poems. I’m used to thinking of prose poems as short, paragraph-sized chunks of texts, but Western has divided his prose poems into stanzas. It’s a technique that works, but to be honest, some of these prose poems also seem to have deliberative line breaks. Are these poems all prose poems, as the declaration on the cover would suggest?

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