Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jacqueline Berger - The Gift That Arrives Broken

In The Gift That Arrives Broken, Jacqueline Berger’s third collection of poetry, the reader finds himself listening in on a conversation about the middle aged consciousness. The poems speak directly to him, to each other, and to the wider poetic community.
The ironically titled ‘The Failure of Language’, for instance, a poem about the many ways language actually succeeds in communicating important human truths, is representative of the themes of the book and speaks directly to Jack Gilbert’s ‘Finding Something.’ The poems share ideas and questions about the sufficiency or insufficiency of love, or utterances of love, an insistence on the omnipresence of death, and the value of both the love and the utterances in spite of that presence. Although the poem begins with a group of students considering whether language “is our best tool” or whether it “fails to express what we know and feel,” and deciding overwhelmingly that it fails, both poets share the belief that “language is what honors the vanishing,” perhaps “what slows the leaving,” and ‘deepens what we know of loss.”
“Is it because they’re young,
still find it hard to say what they mean?
Or are they romantics, holding music and art, the body,
anything wordless as the best way in?
I think about the poet helping his wife to die,
calling his heart helpless as crushed birds
and the soles of her feet the voices of children
calling in the lemon grove, because the tool
must sometimes be bent to work.”
The poet speaks to her readers, asking them the same questions she asks her students, inviting all of them to consider the ways in which “the tool must sometime be bent to work.” When she turned her mind to the same problem, the answer that occurred to her was Gilbert’s poem, not because she’s interested in the sort of poetic allusion that amounts to name dropping but because the poem ‘lives deeply’ in her, and provides an answer in the way it speaks ‘very clearly, but not directly.’ “To me” she said, “those crushed birds couldn't be more emotionally accurate, but they are weird, and that's maybe the only way to get to it.” She speaks to Gilbert’s poem, then, as a way into the problem of making language deal with the important problems of love and death. Gilbert, in the meantime, is speaking to T.S. Eliot’s burnt Norton, evoking his children hiding in the leaves.
“Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
The Eliot allusion closes a circle, bringing both Gilbert and Berger back to the fact that what is actually being discussed is that “one end” always present, especially in midlife as we watch the decline and death of our parents, the last line of defence between us and our own mortality..
The abstract discussion of the utility of language gives way to a story about a friend in hospital that speaks directly to the issue:
“She tells me she’s not going to make it,
doesn’t think she wants to,
all year running from the deep she’s now drowning in.”
When the narrator leaves she whispers “I love you,” words, she says “that maybe have lost their meaning, being asked to stand for so many unspoken particulars,” but which have, in this case, a peculiar potency based at least partly on those many unspoken particulars. The same holds true for the exchange at the end of the poem.
“It’s my friend herself who is fragile.
When I take her out to eat, each step is work.
The restaurant is loud and bright.
She wants to know if she looks normal.
I make my words soft. Fine,
which might be the most useless word in English,
everything is going to be fine.”
Now ‘fine’ is a very flexible word, capable of impressive contortions. It suggests, among other things, something of superior quality, something very thin or slender, something characterized by elegance or refinement, something satisfactory or acceptable, something in a state of reasonable health. It allows the anxious hearer to project all manner of reassuring things onto itself while allowing space for the unavoidable fact that things are less than optimal.
Gilbert’s “Finding Something” deals with the slow death of his wife, and with his own involvement in the intimacies and indignities of the process. “How strange and fine” he says, “to get so near to it,” and that nearness, that involvement looms large in ‘The Gift That Arrives Broken’, the title poem of the collection, a work that reads as a continuation of the stream of thought in ‘The Failure of Language.’ The breakdowns of the body in ‘The Failure of Language’ are closer to home and more explicitly dealt with in ‘The Gift That Arrives Broken’, the contact with the darkness more intimate. ‘Finding Something’ opens with the answer to an unheard question.
“I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,
Because horses is the closest I can get to it.”
It’s a strange opening, and a fairly unsatisfactory answer that refers back to our inability to put what we mean into words. Amy Lowell, in ‘Night Clouds’ uses the same image – “The white mares of the moon rush along the sky / Beating their golden hoofs upon the glass heavens;”- with no more elucidation than Gilbert provides. In fact Gilbert’s opening could easily be interpreted as Lowell’s non-answer to the ‘why’ that occurred to him, sitting on a terrace in Italy thinking about her poem and watching his wife die. “Fly, Mares!’ Lowell warns, “Strain your utmost/ Scatter the milky dust of stars,/ Or the tiger sun will leap upon you and destroy you.”
The narrator of ‘The Gift That Arrives Broken’ returns to the “tempered dark” of Gilbert’s poem but ventures right into it, at least in imagination, then anticipates the coming confrontation with Lowell’s ‘tiger sun.’
“I order something sweet and strong
and we talk about death.
We wander out into its moonless night,
stand in its dark field.
We are near enough to see how the end
might come and willing
to look into the eyes of the animal
that will tear us apart.”
The poem concludes with the same emphasis on acts of care-giving that ‘The Failure of Language’ and ‘Finding Something’ do, and the same insistence on the value of love and the sufficiency of language.
“I come close to telling my brother
I love him, something I have
never said before.
He likes to be the one
to wheel our dad in the chair
when we go out for dinner.
We are a family in our last years.
I hold my mother’s hand.
My brother gets the door.”
“There are no right words,” Berger says, in The Failure of Language, “if by right we mean perfect, if by perfect we mean able to save us,” but she returns here to the ones that will suffice. ‘I love you’ is not, perhaps, a perfect expression of what she feels for her brother, and it may not save them, but it will do.
The collection could have been called “Dayenu,” a Hebrew word that means “it would have been enough” or “t would have been sufficient.” If her father had survived his stroke but it hadn’t brought her family closer together, it would have been enough. If her family grew closer but it hadn’t given her these poems, it would have sufficed. “For a little while” she writes in ‘The Magic Show,’ “amazement is enough.” Life seems to amaze Jacqueline Berger and her poems are full of that amazement, full of appreciation, gratitude, compassion, empathy, and wisdom. Life is a gift, in these poems, and if a gift is given, she tells us, it is enough, whatever state it arrives in.

T.T. In ‘The Failure of Language’ you talk about the way your students answered your question about the ability of language to express “what we know and feel.” The negative response is perhaps surprising from a generation addicted to constant written communication. What do you make of it?

J. B. Ironically, young people who are so busy texting etc. are also very circumspect, very careful not to say anything too risky. I really do think it takes a level of emotional maturity or confidence to be awkward, to go out on a limb, to risk rejection, in life and in poetry. I love this about Robert Hass's work -- the conscious struggle or process as part of the poem. Not easy to pull off, but I really appreciate it.

T.T. Could you comment on the title “The Gift That Arrives Broken.

J.B. To begin with, The gift that arrives broken was a line in the poem, not the title. The line didn't work, but I was very happy that it found its job as title of the poem. I'm unbelievably bad at coming up with titles, so when that one arrived, I gave it not only the poem but the whole book! It really did seem right for the book as these last six years of family life (since my father's stroke and my mother's illnesses) have been our closest ones. As gift, yes, but not a shiny, new one. And don't we all need to be broken to get down to the core? Not that it always works that way, I know. Some breaks are about damage more than awareness or closeness, but for me that's not the case right now.

T.T Your narrators are in mid life, confronting the fact that death is getting closer, and the line of defence between them and it are crumbling, but your poems speak as much to the young as to the middle-aged, with a kind of reassurance that things aren’t as bad as they might seem from a distance.

J.B. I write from my life, and I'm not young anymore and don't feel young -- though I know we're always supposed to feel 21. It's mostly good being not young; I never really liked young. So my concerns are those of mid-life. I'm not sure how young readers respond to this -- I'm sure many of them have experienced far more loss than I have, in all kinds of ways. I'm not sure it's age as much as other factors of personality that draw us to what we love to read. I do think we "read" the same books very differently at different times in our lives. That's not to say our early readings are wrong; books just deepen over time.

Jacqueline Berger is the author of two previous books of poetry, Things That Burn, and The Mythologies of Danger. Her work has also appeared in numerous journals including The Iowa Review, River Styx, and New Millennium Writings. She teaches creative writing and directs the graduate program in English at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. The Gift That arrives Broken is available from Autumn House Press at

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