Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg
Miriam’s Book: A Poem
by Harold Schweizer
137 Pages; Print, $15, ISBN-13: 978-1942515746, Jan 2017
It is rare when we can call a poetry book a “page turner” in the sense of a drama or mystery, but in his remarkable new work, Miriam’s Book: A Poem, Harold Schweizer accomplishes just that. The connective tissue of each chapter, organized as in a novel, propels us forward with anticipation and curiosity. A sentence ends a “chapter” and is repeated at the beginning of the next creating a continuity of thought and circumstance, an ongoing rush of life in its varied directions with repetition of thoughts and actions, the fluidity of past, present and future operating outside the limitations of the traditional framework of time. Its force hits us with the insistence of an unrelenting storm, the personal and universal merge into one experience, and this inner world becomes our own. Schweizer has a director’s eye, creating scenes in cinematic style with flashbacks, recurrences that feel as if they’re happening in present time or possible future scenarios. The yoking of personal experiences and insistent, terrorizing external forces evokes, as he states, “…coincidence between human and heavenly things…” (P. 10, ll. 17-18). This is at once Schweizer’s tribute to his mother’s plight in Europe during.WWII and to Miriam whose story represents the unthinkable agony experienced by women like her, including the loss of her leg, her perseverance and survival, as well as its effects on her son who narrates this journey. Miriam is a Jew and her lover, Heinrich, a German soldier. Theirs is a story of unspeakable horrors and the triumph of love.
The book’s haunting cover design of shadowy remembrances pierced by the image of open scissors hints at the possibilities of what can be severed. The epigraph at the beginning turns our sensibilities around just as Schweizer continues to do throughout the book. He quotes E.M. Cioran: “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” When we think of taking someone into our confidence, it is usually more of a one-on-one private sharing. But a book is shared with any number of readers. So at the onset we are instructed to experience this work outside of typical boundaries of understanding. For instance, Schweizer has much to say about numbers. They are referred to consistently in the ways we count, keep time, measure and attempt to bring order and comprehension to incomprehensible situations, although we are told the suffering of the main character, Miriam, “…never amounts to a number” (P. 29, l. 26). The realm of possibilities coalesces with the unrealized as he states “…but no one/answers for eleven years and she reads his number/aloud so she might hear in her voice the shadow of/God’s wings” (P. 42, ll. 2-5). He even employs the most practical imagery of graphs, photographs and drawings. Their stark visual imposition within the story causes us to note their practical impact and, at the same time, traces the trajectory of certain horrific circumstances such as Heinrich’s fears of swinging in the currents of the river Spree that haunt Miriam, or the metaphor of trembling as in the curve of some twigs breaking under the pressure of Miriam’s elbow. We feel our emotions with very physical references, as if the corporeal could translate the inexplicable to us or, as Schweizer puts it so passionately, “…the way a thing testifies by its material proximity to the/human body borne witness to an unspeakable/suffering” (P. 28, ll. 16-18). A uniform is described as “…prostrate…with him inside of it” (P. 73, l. 13), a sort of inversion of our perception of how material things can inhabit us.
The flow of words impacts us like an impressionist painting as seen in the line, “The windless day has laid glass on the water” (P. 11, ll. 4-5). We receive images in a confluence of thought and effect, words and rhythms structured to guide our comprehension at a visceral level. The morphing of sensory perceptions presents us with unique congruencies that are never trite and offer refreshingly new perspectives with adept descriptive impact. We see Miriam’s “…eyelids flutter/like moths…” (P. 13, ll. 7-8), and later she “…lifts her face towards the spoon and in the/concave reflection of the spoon’s inner curve after it/has left her mother’s mouth Miriam sees herself/hanging inverted in a room…” (P. 13, ll. 15-18). It’s a very clear but unusual reflection of mother and child in a two-way version of lineage. What is up is down in a world where the supposed natural order of things has been defiled by grotesque intrusions of human aberration. Another example of Schweizer’s mastery of poetic nuance is evidenced in the lines “…the black/roots of Miriam’s hair show against the white/pillowcase like commas in an unwritten book” (P. 25, ll. 3-5), the word “unwritten” being an inspired insertion that raises the phrase to a level of premonition and astute insight. Further, he describes the night “…falling like shipwreck…” (P. 68, l. 8), then “…the glistening streets in the fine-grained light/of early morning” (P. 79, ll. 23-24), and he notes, beautifully accurate and ominous, “the moon hangs in a pale white wisp of a sickle in the sky…” (P. 91, ll. 14-15). He later describes Miriam as “…pale as November” (P.108, l.1) and Heinrich’s fingers, crushed by the Nazis, are “…bent like the blades of a garden/hoe…” (P. 114, ll. 6-7). All are startling images of striking detail.
Schweizer inserts many German words and phrases but they are not gratuitous, and posit a realistic underpinning to a mood or location. They convey foreboding, set a sinister tone, a specific time in history and actually manage to do so with a fine poetic sensibility that allows the brutality to express itself authentically without glorification or diminishment. His combining of the German homage to Hitler into one word, as it would be heard when spoken, Heilittla, parodies the salute and strikes us like a slap.
Schweizer often begins a sentence with the concluding words of the previous one, an intriguing split reinforcing the duplicity of thought and circumstance and the nuance of interpretation, the way past, present and future can morph together in the cycles of history, ancient repetitions, recurring scenarios. The surreal becomes accessible and ordinary in conveying meaning. Repetition of words and images is achieved naturally and is never intrusive. Images of birds are frequent with signs, formations and allusions to freedom and restriction. For Miriam, the birds sit “…in long twittering rows on wires and in trees like small dishes rattling in a cupboard…” (P. 16, ll. 12-13), and a comparison to her hands on her beloved zither, a mainstay that anchors beauty amidst destruction, is used “…to quiet her birds” (P. 46, l. 5). This resonates again later on with Heinrich on his bicycle, “…his hands/dreaming songbirds on the handlebars” (P. 69, ll. 19-20). In the following example the word “weight” repeats skillfully without insistence as Miriam and Heinrich “…cross the weight of rivers the weight of/fields in starweight the sudden bends in the street the/weight of fear the weight of hunger to Klaffer/am Hochficht and the /weight of the body…” (P. 105, ll. 11-15), imposing heaviness upon us both internally and externally. Schweizer strings words flawlessly like pearls along the fine thread of our imagination. He is able to describe the most vicious, gory situations in human terms that retain their poetic musicality and emphasize the irony and interplay of good and evil. And in a subtle but astonishing inversion of imagery using omission rather than embellishment, Miriam moves into a space “…where she rents a room with no tree in front” (P. 117, l. 20), the mention of what is not there symbolizing the litany of losses and absence.
This is art of the highest order in an extraordinary blend of narrative, history and an examination of life’s polarities. Schweizer uses disparate imagery, always challenging for the writer to navigate, with such fine references such as workers from a carnival who “tie their clatter to the side of their wagons” (P. 5, l. 1), Miriam’s “…comb’s teeth singing stones that have been given a voice” (P. 8, ll. 3-4), Miriam remaining mute “…as a cry in a stone” (P. 16, l. 1) and “…rolling flour thin as lampshade” (P. 63, l. 21).
In instances where Miriam might be pregnant but then bleeds, the author notes these as premonitions, an expectancy of his own birth to come. “I am not born” (P. 17, l. 14) and then later, “…I am born Stern Krebernick. Whose voice you read” (P. 120, ll. 1-2), splitting the sentences into two, the latter yoking sight and sound. From the lost and broken the author reclaims beauteous connection in a litany of transgressions and suffering that is now in his DNA. He states, “Of the heart we inexplicably have two (2)/of each but for many among the wounded that is not/enough which is perhaps blasphemy” because we are given what we are given and the choice is not to wish for something other but to choose how we respond to the hand we are dealt.
In the final analysis, this is not just a story of Miriam, Heinrich and Stern. It is our own as evoked in the description of Miriam molding dough “…into which is kneaded all the earth that holds the bodies” (P. 129, l. 2-3). In the concluding words of the book Stern feels his mother’s “…eyes dark as falling” (P. 133, l. 10), “falling” being another constant refrain reminding us all of our persistent vulnerabilities, and a final warning to eat, sleep, indeed live, as “…you might not have a bed tomorrow” (P. 133, ll. 12-13). What we can hope for tomorrow is more fine work from Schweizer.
About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz. She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton. Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.