Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Lily Brett’s writing is always personal; confessional. Even in fiction, the characters follow the contours of her own life; her family and background. In poetry, this sense of the personal is even stronger, and this is both the strength, and weakness of her work. Poems by Lily Brett includes two recently published collections, In Her Strapless Dresses, published in 1994, and Mud in My Tears, published in 1997. As with Brett’s fiction, both of the poetry books concentrate on the Holocaust, both Brett’s own experiences of fascination and obsession – the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and her parent’s firsthand experiences. There are also poems about love, death, parenting, growing up, vanity, and pain.
In Her Strapless Dresses is the older publication, and is the first set of poems in this book. The problem with the poems in this collection is that they really aren’t poems. Just what makes a poem a poem, and not prose, is a serious and scholarly topic, and a subtle and difficult one too. However, if these were written in something other than stanzas, they would simply be prose, and no one would question it. There is no real transformation; no attempt at saying something unsayable – or illuminating through hint, sensuality, innuendo; no attempt at calling forth something bigger, and more complex, than the words would suggest. There are no epiphanies. The writing is strong, and moving, and at times, intense, but as a reader, I kept wondering why this was written in stanza rather than paragraphs. These could be quite good short essays, or little autobiographical vignettes, but as poetry, the writing is simply too basic; too straight to, and the poetic format seems unnecessary, and perhaps even indulgent. The sentences themselves are good, and the writing is interesting enough for the reader to follow the line of thought which is clear as the simplest prose, forward towards its conclusion. A lifetime’s accumulation of things – clothing, tickets, papers, mints, medicines, and photographs are examined in the first part of In Her Strapless Dresses. In “Old Figurines”, the narrator rifles through her mother’s possessions, and takes “a can opener/a meat mallet/her cake knife/her flour sifter/and her rolling pin.” Her father’s items are “shocking”, while her mothers are immaculate, and both are examined with a kind of sad longing, as if this was all left of these people – the sum of their lives, pain and joy: “if I let them/she would be lost”.
The transitions between the poems are handled well, moving from the items of parents, to photographs which evoke a series of images – her own teenage discomfort, her mother as a young beauty, through to her parent’s neuroses, her own neuroses, fears, life growing up, and finally, the tribute pieces to her husband. What works well in these poems is the intimacy. You feel as if Brett were confiding in you, as if you were stepping briefly in her shoes, and feeling her insecurities, her puzzlement, and as with a friendship, there is a sensation of warmth, and shared pain and pleasure. Brett confides her dreams, her psychosis and subsequent experiences in therapy, her obsession with numbers and compulsion with repetition, and a few images of Manhattan out the window, and outsider taking note of the city. It is all prose; accessible and interesting, but prose nonetheless. The husband poems are much more like poetry, and more complex in their imagery, particularly “We are Knotted” which plays rhyming and alliterative games, “knotted and matted/snarled and tangled/plaited and braided”.
Mud in Your Tears is very much more focused on the Holocaust, and although the tone is slightly less intimate (but still close), and less prosaic than In Her Strapless Dresses, the pieces are in many ways the more powerful ones, delving deeper, and exploring the difficult subject matter on a much rawer, more intense level. Many of the poems are quite long, and at times vacillate between Brett’s natural instinct to the relaxed confidence, and her desire to create that poetic distance, and linguistic transformation. The title poem of the collection “Mud in My Tears” has some nice repetitions, moving the poet’s voice away from the personal and confessional, into a place of pain and horror – the ugly floor of a concentration camp:
I am the daughter
born after the war
but I’ve stalled
I am stuck
like a pig in the mud
mud from the barracks
Mud from the huts
mud from the bunks
mud from my eyes and lungs
Once the reader is exposed to this muddy, and permanently ugly and pervasive place, there is no escape. Hitler is in a restaurant in Manhattan. The Nazi’s and their lengthy, almost comical titles with the black humor of their rhythms: “Untersturmfuhrer/and Unterscharfuhrer/and Surmbahnfuhrer/and Hauptscharfuhrer” are making business with the teeth of the gassed, and the hair of the murdered. The Nazi’s are kissing their wives and children while torturing and mangling children; eating excellent foods while painfully sterilizing girls and destroying babies. This isn’t easy work to read, and the writing is very much focused on telling the real story, revealing the atrocities in all of its power. The reader may have, like myself, heard the stories, and even seen the many documentaries, and films, eyes filling with tears and guilty lump in the throat, but Brett’s descriptions are no less moving, especially as she calls on her own family – her mother, father, uncles and aunts, and highlights the impact on herself, second generation survivor. The irony of her parent’s wanting her to speak perfect German, or the pain, shame and insecurity of Brett’s Jewishness, and its effect on her children is all brought out clearly in poems like “The Yiddish Songs”, and her father’s relationship to food, and its symbolism. The collection ends again with a husband poem, and after the pain, and slouch towards death, it is nice to find once again a celebration poem.
Perhaps the prosaic intimacy of In Her Strapless Dresses provides the reader with a kind of set up for the later poems. It is as if you were made to relax, to take in the simple and quite basic house chatter of the earlier poems, so that you would be receptive, open to the intensity of the later ones. In any case, the two books work well together; the second set serving as a foil to the simplicity of the first. There are times when the poems seem to go on too long, as in “For Mindy”, when the point and its meaning has already been made clear by the first page, or when the poems really don’t work as poems at all, which is a large proportion of In Her Strapless Dresses, which work more like brief prose pieces. Taken together, however, and for anyone interested in the horror of the Holocaust, or in some sense of what it means to be a modern Jew, these poems make for good, engaging reading.
For more information or to purchase a copy of In Her Strapless Dresses , click here: Poems By Lily Brett