Mystery of Meteors
I am out before dawn, marching a small dog through a meager park
Boulevards angle away, newspapers fly around like blind white birds
Two days in a row I have not see the meteors
though the radio news says they are overhead
Leonid’s brimstones are barred by clouds; I cannot read
the signs in heaven, I cannot see night rendered into fire
And yet I do believe a net of glitter is above me
You would not think I still knew these things;
I get on the train, I buy the food, I sweep, discuss,
consider gloves or boots, and in the summer,
open windows, find beads to string with pearls
You would not think that I had survived
anything but the life you see me living now
In the darkness, the dog stops and sniffs the air
She has been alone she has known danger,
and so now she watched for it always
and I agree, with the conviction of my mistakes.
But in the second part of my life, slowly, slowly,
I begin to council bravery. Slowly, slowly,
I begin to feel the planets turning, and I am turning
toward the crackling shower of their sparks
These are the mysteries I could not approach when I was younger:
the Boulevards, the meteors, the deep desires that split the sky
Walking down the paths of the cold park
I remember myself, the one who can wait out anything
So I caution the dog to go silently, to bear with me
the burden of knowing what spins on and on above our heads
For this is our reward: Come Armageddon, come fire or flood,
come love, not love, millennia of portents—
there is a future in which the dog and I are laughing
Born into it, the mystery, I know we will be saved
-from The Mystery of Meteors
The Magellanic Clouds
In the age of discovery, the Large Magellanic Cloud was already
to the naked eye.
It presided over tragic ocean voyages and massacres, the
libraries and temples, ritual burials and the uneven exchange of
Looking through his spyglass, Magellan himself thought it had a
though his was just a feeling. Later, scientists were able to tell us
that the problem with the Large Magellanic Cloud is the Tarantula
Measurements indicate that this nebula is actually the core of the
Large Magellanic Cloud even though it appears to be off-center
from the rest of the galaxy. Ah. Always off-kilter, pursuing
its own heart,
the Large Magellanic Cloud hugs the horizon but lurks around all
Sometimes the Large Magellanic Cloud experiences light and
but more often that not
it knows nothing but trouble. It is pierced by comets. It is
in a transition state and grows bigger and more unwieldy every day.
But there is hope! The Large Magellanic Cloud has a companion,
a little twin called the Small Magellanic Cloud.
On photographic plates, it sometimes appears blurry but believe me,
it is there.
It may be hard to see, but it has a kind and spiritual nature.
The Russians have been studying it since the Revolution.
Nixon thought about it a lot, so do people who believe that
their airplane is about to crash.
Who else thinks about the Small Magellanic Cloud?
People who have problems in their love life and their work
(I, for instance, have had it in my mind for years).
The Small Magellanic Cloud knows about our disappointments
and it sympathizes.
It worries for us sometimes, so we can sleep. But the
Small Magellanic Cloud, whose inner heart is perfectly centered,
It follows after the Large Magellanic Cloud and picks up the pieces.
Loving us, loving us, loving us, the Small Magellanic Cloud.
Puzzles the astronomers because it seems to have no purpose.
But we know better. We whisper its name to our children so they
may be comforted.
We tell them that every day, stars are born in the Small
and then spin of into the universe, remembering us, wishing us well.
-from Our Post Soviet History Unfolds
Eleanor Lerman was raised in the Bronx and Far Rockaway, and has lived in New York City all her life. Her first book of poetry, Armed Love (Wesleyan University Press), was published in 1973 when she was twenty-one and was nominated for a National Book Award.
While Lerman quickly became known as an exciting young poet with a direct, new voice, she also faced criticism for her overt tone. A reviewer for The New York Times stated that if poetry were rated, Armed Love would receive a "double X." Lerman published one more collection, Come the Sweet By and By (1975), and then, partly in response to the backlash against her first book, which looked frankly at sexuality and popular culture, she did not write another book of poems for 25 years.
When Sarah Gorham, president of Sarabande Books, started the press, she approached Lerman, whom she had long admired, and asked if she might have a book for Sarabande. Lerman compiled a manuscript of poems, and in 2001 Sarabande published The Mystery of Meteors, followed by Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds (2005), which was awarded the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets of American Poets for the year's most outstanding book of poetry.
On choosing the collection for the Marshall Prize, poet Tony Hoagland wrote: "Eleanor Lerman's poems have sociological savvy, philosophical rue, historical recognition, and vernacular resilience. They sing a song that is bravely gloomy, but they sing it with a fierce and earned dignity."
An Interview with Eleanor Lerman by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I usually don’t ask questions about people’s lives (or even about a poet’s larger of body of work) in these interviews. I like to focus on the poems featured—how they work, how they came to be, etc, etc…
But you’ve led a very interesting life. Do you mind explaining your history not only as a poet but in the many other professional capacities you’ve found yourself in?
Eleanor Lerman: I’m glad someone thinks my life was interesting: I think I mostly let it go awry too much of the time! But to try to be brief, when I was eighteen, in 1970, I moved to Greenwich Village because I had gotten a job managing a workshop that made harpsichord kits. (It was the quintessential hippie job: we sat in a warehouse all day hand-making harpsichord parts, getting high and listening to Richie Havens on the radio.) There was a blackboard that we were supposed to use to list what parts we needed to order: instead, I wrote poems on it. One day, the man who lived in a carriage house in a lane behind the workshop—who also, at the time, happened to be a Famous Hollywood Film Producer Hiding Out in New York, so of course, I just assumed he knew what he was talking about—walked through our workshop because we shared a mailbox, and he stopped in front of the blackboard to read something I’d written. He said it was pretty good and I should try to get it published. Well, eventually, I took his advice and my first book, Armed Love, was published by Wesleyan University Press. It was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review section and they said, “If a book of poetry deserved a rating, Ms. Lerman’s work would be a double X.” Well, from that one line came my fifteen minutes of fame, which I was totally unprepared for.
I was about 21 by then—an angry, and, I’m told, sort of strange girl from the Bronx who was essentially parentless, uneducated and possessed of a lot of dark ideas—and who had no idea how a minor cultural icon was supposed to act, react or even breathe. (The book, by the way, is hardly deserving of anything near an “X” rating—but it was 1973 and young women were not supposed to be writing about homosexuality, drugs, handsome vampires, etc. etc. Who knew, back then, that vampires would turn into an industry all by themselves?)
I did have another book of poetry published, but then I thought I was supposed to do something else—something bigger, like write a novel. I was pretty bad at that, but I was offered a chance to work with a friend doing some comedy writing, so that kept me busy for a while. I did also write some nonfiction but I didn’t get back to poetry for about twenty-five years. (Where does the time go?) And I only started writing poetry again because Sarah Gorham, the publisher of Sarabande Books, wrote me a letter telling me that she had admired my work when I was younger (which kind of wised me up to the idea that ahem, I wasn’t young anymore) and thought that maybe I might want to publish again. It took a long walk late at night with my very surprised and weary dog to decide that yes, I could try writing poetry again. And once I did, I couldn’t stop—it was like Sarah had broken a spell I was under and released something sleeping in me that had been waiting a long time to get its power back.
I have since written three books of poetry (my next, called The Sensual World Re-Emerges, will be published by Sarabande in 2010), a book of short stories called The Blonde on the Train and Other Stories that will be published by Mayapple Press in February 2009, and completed a novel based on the life of Carlos Castaneda—finally, I think I’ve figured out how to write long-form fiction!
AMK: What sorts of changes do you see in your poems as a result of all of this? What has influenced these changes?
EL: When I was younger, I romanticized self-destruction and I thought there were odd, mysterious things going on in some other realm of reality that I couldn’t access, but wanted to. Now I’m fifty-six and I am amused by the idea that I could ever have seen self-destruction as romantic or admirable. I have a happier life and so I want to cherish it, not throw it away and I think that’s reflected in my work.
However, I am more sure than ever that there are odd and mysterious things going on somewhere and I’d still like to figure out what they are and what they might mean. So, I guess I’d sum up the focus of my work like this: I was a strange, angry kid; after that, I made a conscious decision to be relentlessly normal, but that got boring; now, I feel an edge of strangeness coming back but I feel better able to balance between those two extremes.
Technically, my work has changed simply because I finally admitted to myself that it’s not cheating to do rewrites. I think I used to be under the impression that once I wrote a line, there was something unethical about changing it. Now I know better—though I still don’t rewrite a whole lot. Also, since I’ve been writing almost daily for about eight or nine years now, whatever mental muscles I use have just gotten stronger. It’s an interesting phenomenon that as I find myself succumbing to the disturbing memory-related things that happen as you get older—you can’t remember some movie star’s name or the word that means light blue—that never happens when I write. When I work—so far—everything seems as smooth and clear to me as a perfect sheet of glass.
AMK: Moving on to the poems featured here, I think that one thing I like in particular about “The Mystery of Meteors” is that much of it is made up of statements. By statement, I mean a sentence that contains images and movement but is primarily concerned with the reflective nature of the speaker as she observes the world around her.
I mention this because, typically, statements seem to weaken a poem when used as often as they are here. Good poems are usually more interested in the experience of the speaker than whatever thoughts he/she may have about those experiences—narratives of thought are typically less interesting than narratives of actual events, experiences, etc… But the reflective nature of the speaker here acts as the driving force behind the poem. After all, there are no meteors to be seen, so what else is there but the internal mind of the person staring up at the overcast sky?
What do you make of this reading?
EL: That’s very perceptive because I made a conscious decision somewhere along the line to try not to just write about me, me, me—how I feel, what happened to me last Tuesday, etc. So while certainly, the person writing is me and the experiences being filtered through the poetic line are mine, I am trying to be something of a witness to the wider world and the inner one, as well—not just self-absorbed (though of course I’m self-absorbed; I just pretend not to be).
I do try to be a reflection of my work rather than its sole subject. Now, the truth is that once a writer finishes a piece of work, that story or poem or essay goes out into the world and whoever runs into it somewhere probably hears it say something different than the writer intended. But that’s just fine: when a writer is writing, he or she feels something specific about their work because the writer is a unique bundle of good and bad experiences; every reader is/has their own unique bundle so nobody can relate to a piece of writing (or a painting or a dance or a movie or a song, and so forth) in exactly the same way. But, as I said, that’s just fine. That’s as it should be.
“The Mystery of Meteors” is one of the few poems I’ve written that is based on a direct and specific experience, but even so, I tried to turn it into something moving outward—away from just me, personally—instead of just complaining about how overwhelmed I felt at that particular moment.
AMK: It’s interesting to look at how this poem proceeds almost as an exchange or negotiation between imagination and statement.
For example, there’s that wonderfully imaginative moment at the end of the first stanza: “Leonid’s brimstones are barred by clouds; I cannot read / the signs in heaven, I cannot see night rendered into fire,” which then moves the speaker to another imaginative moment in the first line of the following stanza, “And yet I do believe a net of glitter is above me,” which then leads to a straight-forward statement about the self in the lines that follow, “You would not think I still knew these things / I get on the train, I buy the food, I sweep…”
The rest of the poem can be read this way as well, and I’m wondering if this is a sort of form or structure that, much like a more classic form, determines the basic movement of the poem, line by line/stanza by stanza… is form something you consciously thought about as you put the poem together, or is it an aspect of style? An element of voice rather than structure? Is there a difference?
EL: I wish I could plan things out that carefully! The truth is that mostly, with words, I’m trying to create images and with the succession of lines, I’m trying to create a rhythm that I don’t think I could explain but I can hear somewhere inside myself. I once read a thesis about my work in which the student analyzed my use—or non-use—of periods at the end of lines and never had the heart to tell that person it was my editor who usually put in the periods; I tend to leave them out but there’s no real reason for that, only a feeling that some lines just shouldn’t have a definite ending. But I obviously don’t feel strongly enough about that to object when editors do add periods.
My only real structural focus with every poem is on the last line: the whole poem has to be driving towards the end, and sometimes the end should veer off in a completely unexpected direction. I have had that concept burned into my mind for more than four decades, since I read a poem by Leonard Cohen in which the last two lines, actually, seemed to go someplace completely unexpected, and to me, that was masterful. I’m lucky if I ever come close to achieving anything like this, from the poem “Travel”:
Now I know why many men have stopped and wept
Halfway between the loves they leave and seek,
And wondered if travel leads them anywhere --
Horizons keep the soft line of your cheek,
The windy sky's a locket for your hair.
I consider myself lucky in that I never took any formal writing classes and never heard anyone discuss poetry as an art or practice or anything else. (I mean that just for me, specifically. I would never have listened to anyone try to teach me much of anything, so it would have been counterproductive.) So I have no guidelines other than studying the work of people whose work speaks to me. Leonard Cohen, James Tate and Richard Brautigan I read over and over and over again. Nothing is wasted in the structure of their poems, nothing is arbitrary and every word is perfect in its relationship to every other word. At the same time, they all take enormous chances—Tate, in particular, can sometimes seem to be just throwing words up into the air to see where they land in relationship to each other—but the result, while leaving you breathless (since you’re not always sure where they’re going) is often magnificent.
So, it’s hard for me to answer questions about structure and technique though I know I am employing those concepts or tools or whatever is the right way to describe them—I’m just doing it on a visceral level that I don’t think I’d ever be equipped to parse out.
AMK: One of the things about writing poetry that drives me crazy is simplicity…it seems fairly simple to write a simple poem and, yet, this is rarely the case—think of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball or Roger Federer panging an ace down the line.
But, then again, there are those poems that do come to the writer fairly easily and that are fairly simple to read while maintaining a high level of interest, insight, and beauty. I feel that both “The Mystery of Meteors” and “The Magellanic Clouds” are such poems. And I love to read them. But I’m very suspicious of this sort of thing when it happens to me as a writer. I find myself wondering Is this a simple poem or is it just boring? Have I achieved something worth reading or is it simply easy to follow? And on and on and on.
What do you make of this?
EL: Here (below) is Richard Brautigan being both simple and perfect. It would be interesting to be able to ask him if he struggled over this extraordinary poem or just tossed it off one day. As for me, I usually think that a lot of what I write is too cute or too maudlin or just plain silly. But what do I know? A poem I wrote called “Starfish,” which I now think of as incredibly sticky and sweet, has turned into something like the Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun”—it apparently gets read at weddings, funerals, graduations, sweet sixteen parties and once, I understand, was chanted at Burning Man. Garrison Keillor read it on the radio. So writers are probably the worst judges of the quality of their own work. The best thing to do is just to enjoy writing while you’re doing it and then not worry too much about whether it was good, bad, or just plain boring.
"The Sister Cities of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hiroshima, Japan"
By Richard Brautigan
It was snowing hard when we drove
into Los Alamos. There was a clinical feeling
to the town as if every man, woman and child
were a doctor. We shopped at the Safeway
and got a bag of groceries. A toddler
looked like a brain surgeon. He carefully
watched us shop at the exact place where he would
make his first incision.
AMK: Do you agree that “The Mystery of Meteors is a “simple” poem, at least when it comes to the reading of it?
EL: What I can tell you about that poem is that it’s the first poem I wrote after that now much-discussed twenty-five years of not writing poetry. And it’s sort of a report on how I made the decision to start working as a poet again. There really was a small, grim park (bare trees, ruined benches—that sort of thing) across the street from where I lived and I really did march my weary little dog around its paths for what seemed like hours, deciding what I should do. For a lot of complicated reasons, I knew that if I went back to writing it meant breaking up my family, moving from where I lived to someplace else—all kinds of enormous changes.
And yes, indeed, there was a meteor shower that night and I was trying to see it as symbolic but it wasn’t, it was just a meteor shower that nature had scheduled that night, just as nature schedules this meteor shower on this same night, or thereabouts, every year. So I put all those elements together and decided that even though my wandering through the park was not in itself transformative, I was going to turn it into a transformative experience by writing about it. And so that’s what it became. So boil all that big stuff down and what you get is a fairly simple poetic narrative about a walk through a “meager park” and a meteor shower. If you think of it that way, sure, it’s very easy to read and it’s not much of a story. But of course, my whole life is also lurking in there somewhere, deciding which way it wants to go. All the dog wanted was to go home, so that night, we did. But all the following nights, we went elsewhere—poetry took me elsewhere, and the dog had to come, too.
AMK: Do you mind discussing your use of punctuation in this poem? At times we have line breaks rather than periods or commas. At others, we have periods, commas, long-dashes, etc…
EL: I don’t have any strong feelings about punctuation one way or another. However, I apparently write very long and complicated sentences when I write fiction and editors are always slashing away at these unruly constructions—and more power to them if they can wrestle my work into submission. So, I guess the best answer I can give you is that again, somewhere inside myself something just feels right—a comma, a semi-colon, a period, no period, or whatever else. Perhaps I just have too much to say all at once.
AMK: Exploring the book fair at last year’s AWP conference with a colleague, we were flipping through books at the Sarabande table, stopping to read the first lines of poems we thought were worth sharing with one another, when a young man approached us and asked if we’d read your new book. We said we hadn’t, and he flipped it open to “The Magellanic Clouds.”
I’ll never forget the brief conversation about the poem’s use of imagination, humor, images, and so on and so forth. But what sticks out most was the last thing he said, “It’s touching.” I think he really hit the nail on the head. “The Magellanic Clouds” is one of those rare poems that reminds us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves and yet does so without getting preachy or using elevated language.
Without asking you to give too much away, I’m wondering if this is a poem about God. Or faith itself? That need to believe that something kind and powerful is out there looking out for us?
EL: My brother has suggested to me—and I think he’s correct—that what I do is take a whole bunch of unrelated things that no one else would ever allow in the same room and throw a party for them to see if they’ll all dance together. That’s what this poem is: it involves the fact that I still own and often look at a book I was given when I was a little girl called “The Golden Book of Astronomy,” from which I derived a life-long love of stargazing; thoughts about my uncle, a strange, troubled and sad man whose great love was teaching (he was a physics professor in a poor college in New Jersey) and whose ideas about alternate universes and other dimensions I also remember hearing in my childhood; the fact that I just accidentally happened to see the phrase “the Large Magellanic Cloud” in a newspaper story about science; the fact that I seem to drag the Soviet Union and Jews into half the things I write (I am Jewish, my grandparents fled Russia long ago so it’s a complicated love/hate relationship that I think about a lot); the fact that I sometimes can’t stop myself from being funny even when I shouldn’t be; and the fact that I hope something, somewhere, does love us. Loves us desperately, kindly, with a forgiving heart. I have faith that it does.
AMK: Do you mind discussing how this poem came together over time? I can imagine sitting around thinking to myself, Man, I should write a poem about the Magellanic Clouds, but I can’t imagine actually accomplishing what you’ve accomplished here. How’d it happen?
EL: psychic Edgar Cayce used to lay down on a couch, close his eyes, put his hands on his stomach and somehow—supposedly—make contact with the universe. He’d do readings for people and tell them all sorts of things: what ailed them (and where to find just the right remedy to fix whatever was wrong); who they had been in a past life; what was going to happen to them next—all kinds of things.
I know I’m stretching that image quite a bit, but I sort of do something like that in a very, very small way. I kind of just open some door in my mind and say okay, whatever’s waiting out there, come on in now. And what’s waiting out there are words, images, phrases, stories, bits and pieces of things that have been interesting to me that day or that week. Sometimes memories pop up, sometimes just a few words—like “Magellanic Clouds.” Sometimes an answer on Jeopardy reminds me of something—really, there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this.
But it all goes back to that walk in the park with the dog: once I decided to write poetry again, some barrier in my mind just fell down and the world poured in. It just keeps coming and coming. All I do is try to control the flow; sometimes I have to think about the grocery list or the train schedule. But other than that, my mind just wanders and brings back all sorts of things. As I noted, the “things” are often unconnected; the fun is in figuring out how to put them together.
AMK: One of my favorite aspects of this poem is its range. I mean, it doesn’t just describe a bunch of dust out there in the universe. Magellan makes an appearance. You directly quote a scientific paper. Stars are born and comets fly past. The Russians. Nixon. And of course there’s that voice making jokes about his/her failed love life and exclaiming “there is hope!”
Is this range something you consciously think about in your poems; an element you use to keep a reader interested, expanding and transforming the poem into something larger?
Or is this a poet having some fun? Can it be both?
EL: It’s everything you’ve described, it’s all of it. But mostly, I’m amusing myself. In the end, isn’t that what all writers do? You try to please yourself; you’re working out your neuroses, getting even with your enemies, yelling at your grandparents, complaining about your love life, wondering if there’s a God, wondering if you have any talent, if there’s any chocolate in the cupboard and somehow, that all goes into the blender in your mind and comes out as poetry or stories. Unless you’re John Grisham or someone like that, most writers—and poets especially—have to face the fact that they may never get published. Nobody may ever read what you write. (I am still amazed that people read my books. Really.)
So, you have to absolutely love and be driven to write. It’s like an endurance race: the ones who are still at it can’t quit because they can’t live without what they’re doing. For me, personally, writing also—always—involves telling a story. I have always loved stories, any kind of story. I love to hear people tell me stories. I love to watch stories on television. I wouldn’t mind if people stopped me in the street to tell me stories. So if no one’s around to tell me a story, I tell myself one and presto chango: the story becomes a poem.
AMK: What is it about space that so fascinates you?
EL: I want to know what’s out there, in the dark. There must be something, or somebody—or lots of somebodies.
When I was a child, I heard the sound that the satellite Sputnik was emitting (I remember a kind of soft beep) on a short-wave radio that someone in the neighborhood had rigged up. And I remember feeling sad—not scared, as Americans supposedly were, that the Russians were beating us in the space race.
What was I sad about? That poor little satellite (I was at an age when I imbued all kinds of inanimate objects with human qualities) wandering through the stars all by itself, destined to crash and die. Maybe I equated it with Bambi or something like that. Anyway, now, when I look at the sky at night I am sure something is looking back at me and waving hello. Maybe it’s just Sputnik’s spirit (which would also help explain all the Russians in my poetry—what accounts for Nixon popping up now and then is another story). But I also remember my uncle explaining that television and radio signals drift through space forever (which turns out not to be totally true, but I’ll go on believing his version) so I’d like to find out where they end up. And if whoever is watching I Love Lucy on some distant planet likes the episode where she and Ethel work on the assembly line in the candy factory. That’s my favorite.
AMK: Thank you.
An Essay on Eleanor Lerman’s Poetry by Tony Hoagland
Of late, American poetry has yielded some interesting species of "social" poetry--by which I mean poetry that engages the realities of the collective, as well as the emotional concerns of an individual speaker. There was Anne Winters's arresting collection The Displaced of Capital (the 2005 Lenore Marshall winner), which contains meticulous meditations on ATM machines and immigration. And Ron Slate's The Incentive of the Maggot, which opens with a jump-cutting, cinematic meditation-narrative about how the collapse of the Argentine peso conveniently coincides with the speaker's ability to buy a fine leather jacket. Both of those books, encountered by the casual reader of poetry, might transmit a shock, attending as they do not just to seismographic vibrations of inner being but to the riptides of the world at large and in particular. Winters and Slate possess a savvy regarding the wide world, and an appetite to understand it not commonly associated with the poet. Poet-MBAs, poet-economists: Are they our future?
Of course, a rich tradition exists for social analysis in American poetry. The lineage includes Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Simpson, Adrienne Rich, C.K. Williams--these and many others have diagnosed the complicities of empire, the erosions of modern selfhood, the all-you-can-eat lotus blossom of consumer culture. Some of these poets are editorial, some are detached observers, some ironic rhapsodists. But new times require new tones, and some of the most recent work in poetry shows the possibility for innovative penetrations.
To the above list we now can add Eleanor Lerman, whose intriguing contribution is tonal. In the very title of her book, Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, Lerman designates a context for the American self. It is a psychic twilight zone that exists in the wake of burst expectations, both historical and personal. Lerman's poems are set among shadows of events that didn't happen: the cold war that didn't become hot; the '60s awakening that went back to sleep; the reckoning that may be on its way. There's an eerie science-fiction atmosphere inside these monologues, as if set in a dystopian near future where we "private/citizens," with our lost faiths, are still functioning among the skyscrapers of late-stage capitalism, in stairwells and sublets, in lounges and office cubicles. But there is a furtive, anxious quality to our lives, and our expectations are more indefinite than ever.
Lerman is distinctly a baby boomer--born in 1952, raised in the milieu that mixed LSD and SDS, excess with idealistic overconfidence. Her first book, published in 1973, was titled Armed Love, and her new work retains some of the swagger of the postrevolutionary. "What else did you expect from the/braniacs of my generation?" she asks in her opening poem, "The survivors, the nonbelievers,/the oddball-outs with the Cuban Missile Crisis still/sizzling in our blood?" Her work also betrays plenty of post-Aquarian irony, like the testimonial in "About Patti Boyd and Me": "I'm not complaining, Patti:/I survived it. I ate it when I had to, liked it when they said to./I killed it when there was nothing else to do."
Behind the tough stylish talk of the survivor can be heard a steady background hum of Absence--the absence of vision, the absence of large hopes. In "Starfish," the speaker takes the measure of such reduced expectations:
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?
Here, tone is all: a voice whose flat reserve is not exactly scornful of the offerings of daily life but hardly giddy, a tone against which that word "finally," with its wary hopefulness, sounds especially poignant. But Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds is not a book of nostalgia for the bygone--often what one feels in the poems is dark presentiment, the approach of something large and impending. Lerman isn't joking. One poem is titled "Why We Took the Coastal Evacuation Route." Another, "Sunset Hammers," anticipates and predicts the nameless emergency:
When the phone rings in your office, receive the news
as calmly as you would another memo. Another inventory.
Sheet detailing cost and value. The price of the goods
we have in stock is fluctuating. The physical integrity
of the materials is of concern. And as calmly as you
would write an answer (then stabilize the prices: restate
our faith in the process and manufacture) get your
coat and get out the door. Your
colleagues will remain
at their stations: behind their business of blue eyes the
phone will go on ringing and must be answered. Even
with faith, with planning, there is just no other way.
And so. Go into the city of tunnels. Of bridges, of
Lerman's poems move most often by litany; their style is the flat declarative, emotionally muted but telegrammatic with knowingness. Pushiness is one of the delights of this poetry. There is a dash, too, of New York School brio, urban verbosity, the self-celebration of the streetwise. It is a mode not above trashing its own pieties, as in the poem "The Anthropic Principle":
Africa, the prevention of nuclear war. If I were free, I would
suggest that this is how we do it: more sports, more food.
Certainly, more television. Ducks in funny costumes, wielding
hammers, quacking out a song. That's how we conquered
Communism: the ducks alone brought down the Berlin wall.
In the wake of deflowered ideals, after the downsizing of heroic individualism, intimacy is the only remaining salvation. "Come near," she says in "The Causeway." "The day is closing down. Dinner is/burning, the eternal is proving to be temporary, the/divine is showing signs of being cruel. So come near." Finally, Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds is not a manifesto, nor a history, but a tight-lipped spunky report from the indefinite front. It says the situation has degraded, comrade, but we persist.
Yet good poetry will contradict itself, and another kind of moment, too, pops up in Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. Such moments erupt in "Starfish," "The Mayans" and "Tales of the Mohawk Valley," another of Lerman's "Escape From Manhattan" genre, a poem in which political realism is trumped by a more cosmic perspective. In "Tales of the Mohawk Valley" the speaker claims that liberty is still out there (or in there):
At the end of the valley there is a lake with a monster who lives in a deep, cold pool.
That can be our destination..../We will blend in with the
tourists, be indistinguishable from people with money and plans and things to do.
We will ride a boat that glides above the monster's house and
speculate with strangers: How do you think he makes his living?
How has he survived so long, unknown, unseen, and free?
One doesn't have to be a Jungian to feel the promise imaged here that alternative truths exist, that there are realms of permission outside history. Eleanor Lerman's poems have sociological savvy, philosophical rue, historical recognition and vernacular resilience. They sing a song that is bravely gloomy, but they sing it with a fierce and earned dignity. If a strong voice is a blueprint for living, these poems could be said to harbor and defend the old sanctum of poetry, private life--our not-so-secret right to think what we want, and feel for ourselves.