Joseph Zaccardi's review of Bare Branches by Stephanie Mendel
Bare Branches, by
Bare Branches, published by Red Berry Editions, is a work of art; from the way the poems are placed on the page, to the font by John Baskerville, whose letter “J” levitates above and anchors below, the lower cased letters. And to the art of Art Riggs, whose peaceful and monochromatic photograph of branches along a river wraps around the entire book.
The first section, “Listen,” opens with the title poem, “Bare Branches.” Its tone is prayer-like. The last stanza, a couplet, ends with these words of inspiration and contemplation, “Soon, I hope snow will come. Like a poem, / a miracle each time it arrives.” What follows are poems of loss and loneliness. The poems rise up from experience, from remembrance of a lived and shared life with Stephanie’s husband John. The impressions build from poem to poem, from place to place: Pittsburgh, and the imaginary “…town of Lionel,” to a child’s tale and a childhood’s end, to the 1960s World Series baseball game. This is not confessionalism, these are the day to day happenings that we recognize in ourselves, because Stephanie Mendel writes about the universal, she writes to and for the reader. We become a part of her joys, her hopes, her love, and, yes, the tragedies of her life.
These poems feed the heart as surely as blood in the veins feeds the body. Why do these poems of loss and sorrow bring us, not toward hopelessness, but rather toward the truth: because, as the poet writes, “…I couldn’t tell this to anyone / only interested in logic.” (p.33) Perhaps there’s an analogy here, that one must experience hunger to fully appreciate fulfillment. The opposites of satisfaction and deprivation strengthen both the body and the spirit. There are in Bare Branches poems that are meaningful but playful, such as “Secrets,” and “When Bill Mazeroski Hit His Home Run.” And in “Visitor to Vinahaven,” and “Ode to Living Alone,” poems of pleasure. The unhappy and joyous parts of all our lives are celebrated in these songs and poems. The poet raises her voice, and says that each day will become smaller, a reminder of the ones we have loved and lost; that each day there will be minutes that no one else can find. We become a choir. The breath inside the body itself. There are shadows in Mendel’s poems, they exist and they are not left unexpressed, they are not floating in the nebulous. They are discernible and solid.
In the second section, “The Beginning,” Mendel takes us through the horrible day, Tuesday, September the eleventh, 2001. She relives, relates, and tries to comprehend the terrible acts committed on this day and how it affected all of us; not just in America but throughout the whole world. She recalls the conversations between relatives and friends. The phone calls. The ringing and ringing. How we all struggled to return to some kind of normalcy. I’m reminded of the poet T. Carmi who wrote about an equally difficult time in Israel and Lebanon that took place forty years earlier. I quote here a few lines from his poem, “Diary Entry:” “I keep to my schedule. / First stop: the accountant. / What can be accounted for on such a day? / The pocket calculator lights, turns off, / adds up; it stores, remembers, / predicts what is to come.”
The final section in Bare Branches is “Every Moment a Threshold.” That title alone makes me hold my breath. I know what will transpire; I know her beloved husband John is going to die. I say to myself, I will read these last poems slowly. I will hold each page between my fingers and let what must come to pass settle in, slow down time; even back away from the threshold; let hours pass before going on to the next poem, maybe let a day or few days go by. I think while you’re reading this you know what I’m going to write next. I read all the poems straight through, almost in a rush. Line breaks and stanzas blurred. And at the end I stopped. I said out loud in a soft voice, No! Then as I promised myself, I re-read each poem with care; let the weight of what they held coalesce.
I find it interesting that Bare Branches comes after her first collection, March, Before Spring, seamlessly, and can only believe that there is yet another book to come that will complete a trilogy. From reawakening to dormancy, where the life cycle is temporarily stopped, to the predictive; before the onset of an adverse condition occurs, to the consequential, to understanding. And to ask of oneself, is it the changing of the seasons that accounts for the absence of the leaves on the branches or the surcease of the life force ― the untimely death of her husband John? It is, I think, both. It is the constant reminder of time passing.
I end this review, this tribute to a fine poet, with a short poem by her entitled, “Entering.” (p.62)
Like the infant’s outstretched arms
that eventually must push away,
you had to listen to death,
and I had to prepare to live.
Branches and March, Before Spring are available at
Amazon.com and from National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association,
NSDA online (no shipping fee or taxes).
This review first appeared in Pacific Northwest Poetry Review, 2011.
Copyright ©2015 Joseph Zaccardi