Saturday, September 24, 2011

Grief Suite: Poems by Bobbi Lurie

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
·         Paperback: 80 pages
·         Publisher: WordTech Communications, 2010
·         Price: $18.00
·         ISBN-10: 1934999954
·         ISBN-13: 978-1934999950
I am one of those people who starts to hiss when I get too much positive attitude pushed at me. You know the kind: it’s storming outside, and they are dancing in the rain. You just lost your job, and they tell you a better one is waiting. Your spouse left you for another, and they tell you he didn’t deserve you anyway. Your foot got amputated, and they cheer that you won’t have to worry about all those socks that get eaten by the dryer.
Take your last sock and use it to slap those ever chipper and shiny faces silly.
The human being is blessed with a wide range of emotion in all shades of dark and light, and most recent studies have actually started to show—hurrah—that denying any of them does us no good. Indeed, overly positive people can start to suffer from repressed emotion and bouts of guilt when they aren’t feeling chipper and shiny. After all, happiness is a choice, right?
To feel emotions, all your emotions, is a healthier and richer choice. Grief may be our least favorite, but deny it, and it will, those studies say, keep you secretly depressed a heck of a lot longer than if you give full wail to the moon when your heart is aching.
So, we have here a collection of poems called Grief Suite by Bobbi Lurie. Brave and poetic soul. Lurie dives into grief in these poems, every last one, and she dives deep. She holds her breath and stays under as long as she can. I confess, by the end of this collection, I was ready to exhale. These poems hurt. They weep, they wail, they simmer in sadness, and they are heavy with a gray grief. But how grand that we have a poet who has the courage to speak in such a dark and poetic language about the exquisite suffering of the abused, the lonely, the left behind, the aging and the dying.
When they finally dragged me in, pinned with stars
and a promiscuous love
for the mentholated bushes,
I was willing to admit anything:
that my life was persistently frightening,
that my stone heart feasted on solitary meals
fed through a slot in the door,
That I am my own suffering.
(from “Soft Fibers Adorn the Diminishing Landscape”)
Lurie’s poems of grief touch on several different variations of the theme. The opening poem, “Traveling North,” appears to address the suffering of a woman in an abusive relationship. Her suffering continues even when the relationship is done, the man is dead, yet still she goes through her life wounded, flinching, expecting the blow. Just as she never knew then when to expect the next strike, or would it this time be a caress, so now she wanders a strip mall, unable to open herself to joy, changed forever, this sheep-like suffering a part of her always.
In “Codependent Nation,” Lurie uses a lowercase “i” to write in first person, so small is the woman in her self esteem who is “held back in my freedom” and then “i was freed to be/a spoke in the wheel but where/was the wheel twirling me.” The couple sees a therapist as their marriage disintegrates, but the therapist appears to be just another abusive husband, in some sense becoming codependent with hers, bringing the couple all the wrong solutions while the therapist’s “miserable wife” is a ghost in the background.
In “Your ‘I’ So Much Like Mine,” Lurie asks “how much forgiveness is sufficient? When you reveal what you/need from the person who hurt you … “ and expressed a fear of being erased.
Many of Lurie’s poems, in fact, refer to these common metaphors, fears, of being erased, of feeling invisible, of suffering amputation. These are threads that bind the poems.
The title poem, “Grief Suite,” is a lengthy prose poem that deals with a daughter’s suffering while watching her mother die, finally at her mother’s funeral. It is written in third person, as if to bring in the sense of distance. The daughter is haunted even as an adult woman by the neglect suffered from her mother: “Everything, even the weather, conspires to speak for the mother.” She is reminded everywhere and by everything of the void left inside her, when she lacked her mother’s attention, reassurance, nurturing.
With poignant lines, Lurie captures that stifling moment when health care providers assure us all is well, even as we lay dying.  We watch the scene of detached reality, everyone denying what is really happening, the unspoken grief thick between the lines. “The male nurse says your mother will not die./ She is fine. The mother’s white skin, white hair like silk, her/luminous body sick and shaking, arms tied down in restraints,/ her heart beats green on the black screen above her head,/blood pressure in red, oxygen in blue. They say she is doing/well.”
Finally, at the mother’s funeral, the son speaks a eulogy, those words of praise few seem to mean: “The son’s words, sanded to a fine finish, float above the mother.”
“Once My Heart Was Wide and Loved the World” describes that positive attitude that shrinks the struggling insides of a cancer patient, now wondering in guilt if grief and pain did not bring about the cancer. This is a poem that surely most such patients will find honest to the degree of shimmering truth: “I lay my life out like a beautiful fabric.”
And so are Lurie’s poems of grief, of suffering, of depression laid out like a beautiful fabric. There is a place for such beauty. Grief must be acknowledged in order to pass through it toward the light again. If this is at times a difficult collection of poetry to read, take it in smaller doses, but take it. It’s through this kind of fire that strength is born, and in chewing this kind of grit that pearls are created.
Bobbi Lurie is the author of three books of poetry. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach: One Woman’s Trek of the Perimeter of Lake Michigan by Loreen Niewenhuis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
·         Paperback: 200 pages
·         Publisher: Crickhollow Books, 2010
·         Price: $16.95
·         ISBN-10: 1933987154
·         ISBN-13: 978-1933987156
Lake Michigan is a short drive from where I live, and I, too, like the author of A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach, have grown up on or near the beaches of Lake Michigan. Yet, inexplicably, I have never connected to it nearly the way Loreen Niewenhuis has or many others who live around me. For me, it’s another of Michigan’s Great Lakes—Lake Superior. Now that’s a lake!
Okay, but I do get it. I get the connection between woman and water, and I absolutely understand the drive to have the adventure. Niewenhuis has an itch to take a very long walk around the lake she loves, to get to know it intimately, and also to test herself in the process. She is a woman in midlife, a wife and mother of two teenage sons. Good for her!
Her 2009 journey begins in Chicago, at the bottom curve of Lake Michigan, and heading northeast and around. Niewenhuis accomplishes her walk in segments, so that the entire journey takes from March to September. Indeed, this may be a bit of a disappointment for those who would want to see her stay close to the lake day in and day out, night and day, from beginning to end. Nor is this a solitary venture. While she does most of the walk on her own, much of the story is about walking with others—friends, her sons (albeit these mother-son segments are often touching), her brother.
Admittedly, I was a tad disappointed when I learned that she would regularly sleep in motels and B&Bs, or be picked up in a car and brought home for a break between walks. At the same time, this is what makes the walk a concept that most anyone can embrace. Such a walk will get you in shape—and she does train for it—but you don’t have to be a world-class athlete to do it.
This momentary disappointment aside, Niewenhuis’s trek makes for a very readable and enjoyable adventure story. The author has a terrific sense of humor, and she makes her journey interesting to the reader, interspersing well-researched background about the lake’s history and geology, its flora and fauna. She frequently makes statements about ecology and the toll pollution is taking on her beloved lake, and that is as worthy as any part of her commentary on her walk:
“It made sense for industry to settle here, but the lake has suffered because of it. If after walking one day through this area I was covered in soot and grime, how much has the lake absorbed over the last century?
“The BP refinery processes over 400,000 barrels of crude oil per day. It is currently completely legal for the refinery to dump approximately 1,500 pounds of ammonia and 5,000 pounds of toxic sludge per day into Lake Michigan.” (Page 28-29)
Per day! Those are horrifying numbers. Throughout the book, Niewenhuis nudges us to consider what is happening to this lake, the world’s fifth largest. She describes the changes in plants, in fish and other wildlife. While the author’s fun sense of humor could make me smile, these wake-up calls to the damage caused by humans often made my eyes mist over. There are aspects of this lake that are lost forever.
When Niewenhuis delves into a bit of Native American culture on the shores of the lake, she reminds us of a lesson we have not learned from that culture, to our own loss:
“The culture of the Native Americans who lived in balance with the natural world is one the rest of us would do well to study and adopt … The question is not ‘How much will we make next quarter?’ but ‘How will this benefit my grandchildren?’” (Page 105)
Ah yes, the concept of thinking seven generations ahead …
The book drew me in enough that I went online to explore her blog,, for more detail, watched a series of YouTube videos she’d made along the way, and viewed photos from her journey. Adding some of those photos to the book would have greatly enhanced it.
Niewenhuis has made a valuable contribution to Michigan environmental books, to adventure stories by women, and simply to good reading. 

Friday, September 02, 2011

Forest Song: Finding Home by Vila SpiderHawk

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
·         Paperback: 360 pages
·         Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2008
·         Price: $15.95
·         ISBN-10: 0981473989
·         ISBN-13: 978-0981473987
As if inviting us into a warm and cozy room, the first page opens like a door, and we are greeted by an elderly woman who invites the reader in to tell the tale of her life. Somewhere in the vicinity of Germany and Poland, around the year 1929, a little girl called Judy Baumann (now the elderly woman) lived in poverty with her mama, her papa and her brother Johann.
Little Judy longed for the woods. Not just longing to play among the trees, but more—she felt the forest call to her in the way that one senses the call of home, almost like a siren call. It wasn’t so much that her family didn’t love her, but her life with them is harsh and anything but nurturing. Judy wants something more … right.
When Herr Schuler, a brusque neighbor, molests her, her parents shrug it off. The man has influence; he shouldn’t be angered. Even her mother sends her the message that she must tolerate such things, that there are “man dangers” for women in life, and that is how it is.
Judy works hard, tries to please her parents, wants to bring a little brightness into their bleak and impoverished life, yet is forever misunderstood or brushed off. It is difficult for the reader not to feel some sympathy for Judy’s mother, who toils away as a seamstress and quietly supports the family, even while letting Judy’s father think that they survive due to his efforts. Yet she borders on, and sometimes crosses into, abusiveness with her daughter. No doubt it is all she knows, the best she knows, and thinks it wise to keep her daughter’s expectations of life to the absolute minimum or risk disappointment such as she knows. It’s parenting that kills the child’s spirit.
Judy’s spirit will not be quashed. She finds it ever more impossible to stay away from the woods surrounding their home. Her father builds an ugly iron fence around the house to keep her in after her repeated attempts to run to the woods. Her mother warns her of the dangers of the forest, telling horror stories in an attempt to instill fear. And still, the little girl cannot resist the call of the forest. Again and again, she tries to escape, and at last succeeds.
It is then that the true enchantment begins, with Judy finding a new family in the forest—of animals and other fairy creatures, of kind witches and beings that shape shift from animal to human and back again, and talking trees. The author paints this world with such vivid colors that it comes alive in the mind’s eye, and one feels as welcome there as if finding home as well, on the page. The contrast between Judy’s two worlds couldn’t be more stark.
Judy grows up in the forest, from girl into woman, and much unlike her human family, here she is raised with kindness, compassion and encouragement. She is raised without fear and without instilling fear. Woven throughout her lessons from the forest folk are an acceptance of the cycle of life and death, a woman’s role in society and in family, a kind of spiritual and equally physical liberation. Nature is shown utmost respect, understood as a living thing that sustains us, and plants and animals as having innate value. In short, many of those lessons we’ve lost in contemporary society.
On the cycle of life and death:
“Death is a natural part of life, little one. If candles burned eternally, you’d have to sleep in their light. And if people and creatures didn’t die, no one could have joy of a baby in the house. We have to make room for that which is new while honoring that which was … Mourn the loss of your friend. But understand that your tears are for yourself. “ (Page 250-251)
On the role of pain and how life is sustained by life:
“’Nobody gets through life without causing pain … We kill to survive.’ She gestured to her plate. ‘… the wheat in these pancakes was once a living thing. The apples were too. Life feeds upon life. That’s just the way it is … We have to do harm to stay alive, and so we do it with reverence for the sacrifice the plants agreed to make for us.
‘Doing what is needed to fulfill your destiny is another means of survival. You could try to deny the work you’re destined to do, but you’d be wretched for the whole of your life. And the person you worry about hurting now would suffer even more for your pain.” (Page 263)
On women’s subjugation to men when selling their bodies:
“The sin you committed was against yourself. You’ve damaged your body, but more importantly, you’ve done great harm to your soul … There’s nothing sinful in joyful, loving sex. But none of this has brought you anything even vaguely resembling joy … You’ve accepted the notion that a woman can be sold, or worse, rented by the hour, and so you insult and diminish yourself … you are not a commodity.” (Page 277)
Many of these life lessons come from Matka Lasu, a kind of grandmotherly elder witch with a kind heart. It is not only Judy who comes to her in the forest for healing, but an ever present parade of broken women and girls. Many of them are pregnant and have nowhere to go. Others are abused or driven by hunger and poverty. All are helped, all are healed, even if some must die—in the cycle of life.
Forest Song: Finding Home is one in a series of books by Vila SpiderHawk. It’s the second by this author I’ve read. SpiderHawk’s work has a haunting, soothing quality, like a warming balm, finding those aching places most all girls and women have and resonating with understanding. It’s a story that can be read by any age group, from preteen to elderly adult, and still find enjoyment and value. While life lessons abound, they are delivered gently, and interwoven seamlessly into the storyline, so that they do not read as preachy or didactic, but rather as the logical steps along a young girl’s hero quest to fulfill her potential.