Reviewed by Geri Lipschultz
Kneel Said the Night
by Margo Berdeshevsky
March 2023, $20.00, 127 Pages, ISBN-13 : 978-1951979423
Here is a series of poems, stories, photographs, epigraphs that come together to create a world governed by a powerful and bold conjurer of images and tales that mirror the devastation and beauty and vastness of a journey in a world we will recognize as our own. A stunning cover sets the mood for this hybrid text by Margo Berdeshevsky. The reader begins and ends with a photograph taken by the author. A woman’s face partially in shadow emerges from a glossy darkness, a light upon the contours of her nose and chin, her lips bright red, the glare of an eye. Her beauty is compelling, and then later, at the very end of the book, the image reappears but this time in black and white, where it’s deconstructed for us; by now we are prepared—the image is of a mannikin in a window. The beauty we have projected upon her fails, fails to be real, fails to exist; we cannot pretend otherwise. The image speaks for the stories, poems, material of this world—a world that very much and painfully so, reflects our world. Our world, the world of this text, one and the same. Beauty, there to be destroyed. Either literally or by proof of the illusion.
As readers, we are seduced by the absolute lure of Berdeshevsky’s language, by the weaving of deftly chosen quotations, such as this line of Walter Benjamin: “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” This is a line that punctuates a story titled “My Own… My White Plume”—the story introduced by a line from Rostand, which begins, “One thing without stain, unspotted from the world in spite of doom mine own and that is…my white plume.” Above this quotation, a photograph of a sculpture, a fallen angel, “replica of one on the portal of the Cathedral at Reims,” we are told, and “…here, lost in a flock of pigeons in the grasses of France.” There is weight, ponderous, powerful. We take it in this slowly, this banquet carefully prepared for us by Berdeshevsky: the story she’s written, that lies between these quotation reads in sections, like breaths, like poems. Much white space between the sections, where our narrator, a flaneuse, her fleshy voice, a longing voice, tells us of her day, of how today “Paris is a safe place….” The reference is to our contemporary chaos of bombs, of terror. She speaks of a lover and then of a proverb about “red threads” that connect lovers meant to be together. She recalls “his long thighs, crossed.” She proposes to “edit the past,” and then to “edit the present to a springtime moving of her limbs.” The following section of this story introduces us to another woman, one whose “kitchen table dances with a vase of blood-bright anemones, their black centers so like the center of her right eye cut open for a cataract last week….” The women meet. Our narrator speaks of a lake that accepts human tears. “Who would you give your tears to, I ask her. She leans and kisses me, French style, on each cheek, and wraps her shawl of red threads….” The story ends as our narrator recalls the lover: “Once, after I’d seen the end of the world,” she “begged a stranger” to take her to the lake she’d mentioned, Tamblingan—in Indonesia. The name means “Remember the medicine,’ and she speaks of the ritual of giving up one’s tears, a lake to which “the son of a priest took me to.” We cannot be sure whether this man—a man with jaguar tattoos, as it happens—is the same son of a priest, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she “knelt at the lake’s lip”—and sobs.
Berdeshevsky invites on this journey, from literal image to the image and feeling captured, pinned down by words, and the spaces between them: “half notes” that become “breaths” that trail with “ragged months of global ache” that bloom into a line that grounds us in this journey: “I am the woman who asks how close is death, how near is God.”
There is a dark resonance in this hybrid collection that pulls us in like a powerful wave.
This is a book in five parts, with passages that are complete in themselves, yet somehow remind of Sappho in the feeling of something missing that the reader must provide. There is an eroticism, a sensuality, a serious sensuousness. A defamiliarizing slows the reader down sufficiently to cement the imagery. One story, titled “Tattoo Kin,” starts out: “Our mother had a tattoo. Burned on the inside of her womb….” Later in this story, “The man who planted and who drew inside her…. Mr. Y.” And then: “our mother had been collecting our lives like treasures…once when I had a fever and she petted me all through a night….” Seeming cruelty turns strange with the birthing of the tattoo as “a dark blue baby dragon with a baby in its teeth.” And in another story, it’s a “winter princess” who is the subject: “From the bowels of her own animals, shreds of her body weep as one” in whose kingdom, “sun slides out leaving iridescence on her river….” This is a world that mirrors our own, if we dare look, if we do not turn away., Berdeshevsky does not turn away, and her insistence comes at us in waves of epigraphs from other writers, in collages that she has prepared for us, comes together in its disjointedness, along with the many and marvelous quotations between the offerings which both contextualize and tether down the disparate parts.
Death is more than “close” in this volume; death is “daring to ask without answers”—as if “God” exists in the asking, exists in daring to “learn,” exists in the flora and fauna that comprise the “world…observed. With and without wings.”
Here are poems and stories and drawings and photographs, that disturb, that do not let go. The writing, compressed, resembles fairy tales, their locales: a raped and diseased and dying woman place, a place of drunk and dying mother and too-young daughter; a place of brutality of father and his young sons; a place of ravaged beauty, a place of tarnished art, of skulls, of wounded self and majesty; a place of heartache and fury and disgust that wants to turn its eye toward you, to face and confront that which is not innocent. And no, neither the writer nor the reader may claim innocence, but some of those about whom this is written may, may have—thus the tarnishing.
Berdeshevsky is both mourning and decrying this broken world: “what can/ the scholar cry? Is there a scientist/ in our house (for nothing left…),” then asks the “Sparrow” for an answer.
The idea of redemption comes in “empty thimblefuls of lakes into thirsty canyons,” and this speaker says she will yet “try in the face of finality and endings.”
Where one finds hope, beyond what the natural world will offer, the sparrow, or the flower, is in the art and the artist, the old actress who “will take you into the desert and there I will speak to you in the depths of your heart…love.”
Berdeshevsky’s intention seems to be to push into the interior and blossom, then fold, then pull up the roots and show where the blood is, show where the bleeding is still happening.
She makes her presence felt in every syllable; in every line and page turn, she is there. She, the writer of many books, who has also performed on stage, in film; an artist of every kind is displaying her wares, and she wants you to see the entirety, the vastness of a life that has taken in the contours of the globe, that has taken in the contours of the arts, of the human condition. She is here today as witness. She is here today to speak of that which is grounded not only in what we hear but in what we smell, what has been passed on, and what she is passing on; in her fictions, in her poems, in her quotations, in her photographs and drawings, she roots down; she claims her space, she plants wares on the table before us, demands that we stop our lives to look at ourselves there, there in a world, our lives, our dreams, which are nightmares.
There is a pacing here that reminds me of performance, of words that live off the page. Some that pertains to the disjointedness, the fractured, the fragmented quality, the words that come at you one by one that produce imagery and that yes, stab. The reader is powerless to make this nice, to sugar coat.
This writing is naked. The nakedness is part of its beauty, part of its terror.
About the reviewer: Geri Lipschultz has been published in Ms., The New York Times, The Toast, College English, Black Warrior Review, great weather for MEDIA, and elsewhere. She has a story and poem in Pearson’s college literature anthology, and her one-woman show (“Once Upon the Present Time”) was produced in New York City by Woodie King, Jr. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Hunter College and Borough of Manhattan Community College.