Reviewed by Marjorie Power
The Truth about Our American Births
by Judith Skillman
Shanti Arts Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-951651-26-8, April 2020, $12.95
Judith Skillman’s newest book, The Truth about Our American Births, is a collection of lyric poems which form a spell-binding narrative of the poet’s family history and its impact on her. The story has roots in her Jewish heritage followed by emigration: “They dream of falling/ from great heights, sailing/ across deep waters/ to no harbor.” (from Polish Mother, p. 53). Immigration involves Americanizing “the names of the newly dead” when her parents “hold hands in the car,/ decide to become citizens.” (from the title poem, p. 58). Hope is often haunted by hopelessness, described with refinement and clear-eyed strength, suggestive of the ancient and repetitive story of Jewish exile and displacement:
…for one weightless second
the old woman this baby was named after
limps from a pocket of limbo
into a poor version
of the afterlife. (from p. 58).
But sometimes the haunting falls back:
Only Bess could spread the octaves
and bring them together again.
By this I mean she knew how to sew
the highs to the lows,
even without lessons. (from Blue Note, p. 55).
This collection has much to recommend it: sensuous and profoundly original imagery; mesmerizing descriptions of nature’s allure, healing powers, and indifference; the craftsmanship of individual poems; their placement in the narrative; fascinating characters; stories told, half-told, buried. The book is a physically beautiful production. I’ve chosen to address four particularly striking points – the grandmother, transportation, optimism, and storytelling.
The introductory poem brings us a woman whose influence ripples throughout the book. We often feel her presence to some degree. She’s an embodiment of pathos: “One breast gone, her soft arms doughy, raised/ … / she danced in torn slippers…” and “In the foyer/ she blessed us with three quick spits on our heads.” (from My Grandmother’s Waltz, p. 18). The horror and shame she inspired in her grandchildren is translated into disdain, a less uncomfortable emotion: “How had we concocted this underling?/ What could we do to send her back upstairs/ to the room of garments, mothballed, hanging.” (from p. 19). Late in the poem we learn she spoke five languages – a startling, heartbreaking revelation – and loved to read Agatha Christie. In the following poem, the grandmother is described as “…refugee, immigrant, emigrant/ who never came to find a home/ in any of the myriad houses/ you occupied.” (from Chalice, p. 20.) We learn that her father “taught her/ against custom to read and write.” (from Polish Mother, pps. 53 & 54). Then, at sixteen, she was married off. In a sense she lived imprisoned with her intellect while her outer life devolved into primitive actions, dancing a silly waltz in a shift held together with safety pins, and spitting on her grandchildren’s heads to protect them from evil. She was a neglectful cook and housekeeper. The presumed effect on her husband turns up in “Ventriloquist”. Here the poet’s memory is shadow-like, deeper, with no direct reference to the grandmother. Her imprint is portrayed as an object – a wooden puppet, reminiscent of the “contraption” (from p. 18) in My Grandmother’s Waltz. On the puppet:
She wore a kerchief
and spoke Greek,
her apron always spattered
with ink from irises.
Whenever purples grow too heavy
and topple over
he feels less like a prophet. (from The Ventriloquist, p. 76).
“He” is the ventriloquist, whose life’s work would have been to manipulate her.
Skillman employs many references to transportation – trains, mostly, but other kinds too. In the introductory poem we get our first train reference, when the grandmother is counting beats for her own personal waltz: “Always the counting beneath the whistles of trains/ running westward from the town of no money.” (from My Grandmother’s Waltz, p. 18). The train here is ghost-like. It brings a nagging fear of having to escape poverty. Near the end of Section I, Skillman creates the magnetism and excitement of train riding:
How praiseworthy, to be a train,
full of people with dark eyes,
/ … /all those bodies
sitting erect, and the few who stand
due to a lack of seats. (from Mexican Train, p. 36).
Farther on: “A girl plays at being grown up, a woman toys/ with being a girl.” (p. 36). Here we move into the timeless sense a train ride offers. And the strange, chilling ending of this poem:
How little distance has been accomplished
by the machinations of the conductor
checking tickets made out of paper.
Leaving in his wake that shushing
as after a war. (from p. 37).
This ending brings to mind the period after World War II, and well into the 1950’s, when the world barreled ahead with back to normal and many people, Jews included, kept almost silent about the horror of the Holocaust. This “shushing” image is developed here:
If I pay attention to the train’s
whistle I hear certain undertones,
men and boys, or, in the rumbling
tons of metal
those Holocaust stories told
and later taken back,
as if the most difficult facts
come to be handled by time
and distance. (from Blue Note, p. 57).
Another ghostly, harrowing image: “It could be the train carries/ the amputated memory of the caboose…” (from Perhaps, p. 38). Cattle cars come to mind. And in the one poem about a plane trip, we feel the emigration grief that tails those who immigrate and even their children:
Tumble on through the dark
towards a city you hold fast to
as an exile keeps her memory trained
on mountains and sea
Take your mind farther down the map
where deer nod off in long grass
and cattails nudge
the vanishing point you call home (from Headwind, p.39).
The last line here is the most searing in the collection, given the poet’s family and racial history.
Boats appear occasionally. In one we see “the three ghosts – / …/ laughing, talking and interrupting one another./ Leah said, One can always hope.” (from Lifeboat, p. 24). And later: “They trust in the certainty of rescue,/ old Jews, eternal optimists.” Finally: “For whatever misfortune landed them here/…/they blame no one.” (from p. 24). This poem brings a jolt of pure, simple joy. The people in the boat have decided to be optimists, period. We see this same attitude in the figure of Bess, the pianist mentioned earlier. In “Blue Note” we learn that Bess was never taught the facts of life and learned them from magazines, in her twenties. She never married. The poem credits her ignorance and unmarried state for her happiness, at least to some extent. But Bess, like the three figures in the lifeboat, is also someone who chooses optimism.
It’s much more than a feeling; it’s a kind of work to help the group survive.
As if there were,
in the pentagonal shape
of the family, a reason
for the Boogie Woogie, / … /
Bess’ stodgy fingers moved…. (from Boogie Woogie, p. 62).
As shown in the many quotations already included, this collection is a story full of stories, layered and mutually dependent. “Then the old stories began to be told again,/ as if it weren’t tongue being served but some other organ – / the liver, the heart, the pipicles…”. (from Eating Tongue, p. 26). We can feel the change in emotional atmosphere around the dinner table, a shift from feelings of the moment to deeper, timeless feelings. “Mostly we knew everything, as all children know.” (from p. 26). This suggests that the children picked up on stories below the stories being told. “…Our hiding places/ included closets, rooms behind rooms, rooms above rooms,/ and the attic where the wasps lived in the wall.” (from p. 26). The poem ends by developing this image. We feel the sting of what’s left unsaid, or said less than truthfully.
The third and final section speaks of the sadness and isolation that can come from stepping away from the family saga – in this case a mix of secrecy, quirkiness, affection, a high level of intelligence, and patriarchal rigidity – to strike out on one’s own, as Americans do. The poet’s story here becomes much more private and begins to lose its thread, while holding to its shadows. The last two poems are short, tight, whisper-like, both with references to amnesia.
Noxious sky, now return the goose egg
stolen from a star that tried to teach
with tentacles of corona. Black spotted
moon, o moon-flower once borrowed,
due to be returned. (from Can Believe In, p. 87).
The reader is left with no hope – and much beauty.
This review originally appeared in Trajectory.
About the reviewer: Marjorie Power’s newest poetry collections are SUFFICIENT EMPTINESS, Deerbrook Editons (forthcoming) and ONCOMING HALOS, Kelsay Books, 2018. Publications which have taken her work recently include MUDFISH, SOUTHERN POETRY REVIEW and COMMONWEAL.