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Though failure hugged you like heat
and glistened like sweat
it has its winds and its change
like any atmosphere.
And though you wandered wide
and came back empty-handed
you will have as many loves
as you have doors opening on the world.
I have been carrying these two stanzas with me for the past month. Reading and re-reading them. Chanting them in my mind. They are from Naomi Replansky’s “Though failure hugged you like heat” in her new Collected Poems. I appreciate Replansky’s characterization of failure as warm and sweaty. Failure is human and bodily for Replansky, not cold, empty, and lifeless as I previously imagine it. I can embrace Replansky’s vision of failure. And the wandering, then empty-handed return. Reading those lines I know that while the hands may be empty, the mind and the heart must be full. Finally, those last two lines, “you will have as many loves / as you have doors opening on the world.” Those two lines are both an affirmation about love and opportunity in the world, for optimists, and alternately they are a pessimist’s affirmation of no open doors, no love. Their slippery meaning haunts me, making me reflect on love and open doors and empty hands in the world around me.
Naomi Replansky’s Collected Poems gathers poems from her first two collections, published in 1952 and 1994, as well as new and previously uncollected poems and a handful of her translations. Replansky’s earliest poems remind me of Adrienne Rich’s first book of poems, A Change of World, and of May Sarton’s poetry. Like the early poetry of Rich and the poems of Sarton, Replansky writes formal verse with rhyme and attention to stanzaic structure. Even within the form, however, readers can see the edges. Replansky pushes on the edges of form, rhythm, and rhyme to force them simultaneously to contain her and to allow her to break free.
One of the pleasures of Replansky’s Collected Poems is the way it captures a long life of poetry with the many recurrent and disparate attentions of a poet. Obsessive themes that Replansky circles throughout the collection include time, death, and language. The final couplet of “Automatic Writing” captures some of Replansky’s perspective on time. She instructs her hand to write an urban pastoral, but “Instead it took off all on its own / to write of age, loss, death.” This trifecta—age, loss, and death—is an underpinning of the entire collection.
One of the ways that Replansky considers death is in relationship to the Holocaust. In “The Six Million,” Replansky writes:
They entered the fiery furnace
And never one came forth.
How can that be, my brothers?
But it is true, my sisters.
They entered the fiery furnace
And never one came forth.
In “The Six Million,” written right after the end of World War II, Replansky is explicit about the content. In later poems, like “Deep Blue,” the realities of the Holocaust are unstated, but they imbue the world in powerful and haunting ways. “Deep Blue” is written in four rhyming quatrains; it begins, “Sky so bright and you so blue.” This contrast between the brightness of the sky and the darkness of the beloved in the poem continues. Reason appears to argue, “This will pass. . . Loss of sleep and death of hope / Will become an anecdote.” The beloved will “live to tell” about “How the blues once wrapped your round.” While there is the sense of sadness as temporal, as having a fixed end point, in the final line, Replansky writes, “(Ashes! Ashes! All fall down!)” Taken from a childhood nursery rhyme, this line suggests both that the levity, the joy and playfulness of childhood will return and that the optimism of reason is child-like. The ashes become a powerful symbol of the constant tension between happiness and sadness, between reason and truth, between perception and reality, between truth and justice.
While some themes weave in and out of the book as a whole, other issues make brief but memorable and transcendent appearances. “Ceremony,” written in 1939, is one of those poems. It begins with the question, “Who put the mask of whiteskin on?” And offers four affirmative responses from the freckled, the mottled, the pinkcheeked, and the grayfaced. Replansky then recounts who happens to people “without the mask.” Each is a concrete and haunting image of racial segregation. “Ceremony” is a powerful evocation of the “magic of race and face” and the reality that “It is death to enter and death to ask / If you come knocking without the mask.”
Poetry is often the subject of Replansky’s work. She is what some call a poet’s poet; read and appreciated by those who write poetry for her careful attention to craft, language, imagery as well as for her expressions of the joys and the pitfalls of creating poetry. Her translations support this reading of Replansky’s work and remind me of how important translation is to the craft of poetry. It is a discipline I would like to see more serious poets engage. While poetry makes a prominent appearance in Replansky’s poems, lesbianism does not. Very few of these poems express or suggest lesbian desire. This may be a disappointment to some lesbian readers. The one poem, however, which references Sappho, “A Literary Note,” is pure delight for its Sphinx-like Sapphic qualities.
In the first poem of the book, “Foreword,” Replansky asks forgiveness for her “unwritten poems,” the ones that were “trampled” and “ignored.” She writes:
This book is too small.
Under each heavy
hour of my silence
died a poem, unneeded.
Lovers of Replansky will mourn with her the unwritten poems, wanting more of her words to savor and celebrate, but Replansky’s Collected Poems is sweet penitence.
Black Sparrow Books
Paperback, 9781574232158, 176 pp.