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Review of Rena Lee’s Captive of Jerusalem – Song of Shulamite
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Reviewer: Dr. Margherita Frankel
Through the last few years I have had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the work of Rena Lee, an Israeli-American poet living in New York City. Her poems often struck me as small gems, self-enclosed small worlds where strikingly original and bold images were employed in the service of domestic little scenes. The ordinariness of everyday life was upended by the unexpected images, becoming a disquieting mirror of fear and sadness.
Unfortunately I do not know Hebrew, the language in which most of Rena Lee’s work has been written and published. But her poems in English, written directly by her in what should have been for her a second language, reveal her to be a powerful new voice that ought to be better known in this country. And there is nothing contrived or awkward in her usage of English. She is totally comfortable in it, proving herself to be that rare phenomenon, a bilingual poet.
Rena Lee’s just published new opus, “Captive of Jerusalem – Song of Shulamite” is a different kind of poem. It spreads slowly along a Prologue, 22 short chapters and an Epilogue. It is the story of a long lost love, it is a love letter to the deceased lover, but it is also a love letter to Israel and Jerusalem in particular. The narration does not unfold in a linear way but in spurts according to the vagaries of memory. The language alternates between narrative tones and Biblical echoes characterized by their typical rhythms, with direct quotations or paraphrases of the Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes. And it is mostly a lamentation of loss and sorrow. What this long poem loses in condensed strength by comparison with the previous individual brief pieces, it gains in the charm of the narration, in the anguish of the foreboding and then the actualization of the loss. The individual turns into the universal, the private grief becomes the widely shared sorrow of a land without peace asking the sacrifice of its best sons.
Rena Lee’s distinctive voice is still manifest in some of her surprising images, like the running nuns “ethereal as if they were ghosts of forgotten Latin phrases;” or “I was… like a forgotten note on a scale.” But her interest here seems to be directed rather to the story and to the predicament of a person torn between two countries and still mourning the never forgotten young love.
The intensity of the feelings expressed in this poem leads one to surmise the presence of autobiographical elements, though to do so is always a suspect enterprise. In any case, whatever this poem represents, it is a deeply felt and beautifully narrated story of love and grief. And it is haunting poetry.
From Captive of Jerusalem: Song of Shulamite
Oh, the things I've never asked you -
Like Jerusalem I'm sealed with stones,
full of unanswered questions.
Stones that cling together to cover any gap,
always conspiring to have the spirit committed.
Stones that know how to touch on the raw
and keep quiet.
Again I was cornered by cobbled-streets, scratched and
bruised, pushed and shoved.
Again I was drummed on by the hard facts of rocks
and stones and dry bones, and the endless tam-tam
of tombs, tombs, tombs...
“Death is the only surety,” you said, yet yours remains
shrouded in doubt. How can I be taken in, I
who have known the blissful touch of your hands,
and their cunning when avoiding me…
“Accidents do happen, especially in the army,”
you said, like a good lawyer preparing his case.
My beloved is gone down into his garden,
to the beds of spices
Again I was marching up and down the narrow staircases of
Jerusalem, like a forgotten note on a scale,
a lost syllable quivering between the lips
of earth and heaven.
The Bird Artists by Laurie Byro (LaurieByro.com)
Byro’s voice is so distinct that it seems possible to absolutely identify an unlabeled poem as hers. Her poems offer Nature as both
refuge and threat. Love is both an incandescent and a consuming fire. Byro’s Green Man wears a battered leather jacket — and leaves
you in shreds in the morning. This small but well-selected chapbook highlights Byro’s gift for dichotomy — “I hadn’t yet decided which
life / was better.” “She cradles me. / She holds my soul over a flame.”
Byro’s speakers confess to the extent to which they overgive themselves in relationships: “I gave birth / to his amber-eyed
bastard who without hesitation / he devoured.” But in the end, they triumph: “I shall make myself / a meal of him,” Byro tells us.
--From the title poem:
When my skin no longer fits, I carry a bag of bones
to the edge of the ocean. I steal the breath from a gull.
In Byro’s skillful hands, pain, loss and longing are transformed into
movement, force and action. From them we learn what we are truly
capable of under duress.
— Grasslimb, www.grasslimb.com