Monday, January 13, 2014

#112: "Her Favorite Book" by Jonathan Weinert

~This poem previously appeared in The Kenyon Review (2008).

Her Favorite Book

smelled of Red Astrachan apples and rust,

smelled of library, the long untethered afternoons

made, like any book, a door

She gripped it as its red
skin puckered from its spine,
she cradled it, the gold
                                      stamping on its boards defaced
                                      by her attentions

Big light blistered through the cunning trees—magnolia,
white ash, Carolina silverbell with sawtoothed leaves     Sharp
electric smells of severed grasses mixed

          with smells of watered dust, of dusted rain
          Little balled-up fists of rain
          hanging in the highest leaves     Hush-a-bye babes, don’t you cry

          she sing-songed to herself, a practice mother
          trying on a kindness

          like a Sunday dress

She read, in August heat, and felt the stitching of her shorts-hem
bite into her thigh     She tasted metal

in the socket where her last front tooth
had fallen out

                          imagining herself a hundred years ago
                          and ten years older—capable, mature,

                          as she and Clara Barton
                          bound up men’s strange wounds with husks
                          there being no more bandages

The book smelled of care and chloroform and suffering,
of pain and battle and the cries

of wounded soldiers bleeding in Antietam mud
or freezing in the drifts at Fredericksburg,
                                                                     swarms of black flakes
                                                                     falling in their faces

Shoeless, gloveless, ragged, wringing blood out
of her laden skirt, she waded to the far
red bank of Acquia Creek with loads of biscuits
and supplies

Virginia, bring that saw and lantern here     She bent above
the vague white faces, speaking to her

now and then of mothers, daughters, sweethearts, wives    

It pleased her to be tending men, despite the grimness
and the strain, to earn their gratitude and curb their pain
Her father, dead already seven years—
beyond her help, beyond her memory

She bent above him, in her favorite book, and sheared
his ruined limb away     Hush my baby, don’t you cry

—each stroke of the saw blade

binding her to him, letting her inside him,

cutting her to bone


I don’t remember where I was when I wrote the first draft of “Her Favorite Book,” but I do remember some of its sources and influences. I had been carefully reading Frank Bidart’s Star Dust when it appeared in 2006. With poems about killer-sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, the architects of the 9/11 attacks, and a shamanic rape and murder, the collection draws alarming connections between violence and the creative impulse. In response, and to make a container for my dismay and fascination, I wrote a sequence of poems tracing the evidence of violence in individual psychology, collective history, religion, and confounded love. The sequence features a recasting of the story of Exodus, an imagined account of my grandfather’s emigration from Romania to the US in the early 1900s, and a serial killer whose latest victim is a young girl named Virginia Child.
            Virginia Child came to represent, in a complicated way, the imaginative freedom of childhood, the early history of America, and the savaging of innocence. But I also wanted Virginia to be an actual girl, and my friend Maureen let me borrow some of her own childhood memories for the purpose. Maureen’s favorite book—a young adult biography of Clara Barton—became Virginia’s favorite book. The accounts of Barton’s ministrations on the battlefields of the Civil War allowed me to investigate the unsettling proximity of violence and intimacy, which merge in Virginia’s daydreams about reuniting with her absent father and amputating his wounded limb.
Just as “Her Favorite Book” tries to imagine its way into the mind of  the young victim of the sequence, the poems around it try to imagine their way into the victimizer’s point of view—not to sympathize with the killer or excuse his actions, but as an attempt to understand. I’m writing these paragraphs just a few days after the Boston Marathon bombings and the events that followed, which unfolded a few miles from my house, in neighborhoods I’ve known all my life. Acts of violence such as these are horrible and repugnant and deeply sickening. But they are, like it or not, human acts, and they are therefore an aspect of human expression. What makes it possible for people to imagine doing such things to other people?
In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, the Twittersphere, both here and abroad, was incandescent with blame and hatred. Before the perpetrators were even identified, two Palestinian women were attacked on the streets of Malden, Massachusetts, because they were wearing hijabs. Hate breeds only hate. It seems to me that the only way to break the cycle of denunciation and reprisal is to attempt to imagine what we normally consider to be unimaginable—even if that turns out to be the inner life of a murderer, or the motivations of two young men intent on detonating shrapnel bombs on a crowded city street. “Maybe the literature of terrorism,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, “. . . can now throw a little light on how apparently likable kids become cold-hearted killers. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: one kind terrifies; the other clarifies.” The need for such clarifying acts seems as urgent to me now as it ever has.


Jonathan Weinert is the author of In the Mode of Disappearance (Nightboat Books, 2008), winner of the Nightboat Poetry Prize and a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the chapbook Thirteen Small Apostrophes (Back Pages Publishers, 2013). He is co-editor, with Kevin Prufer, of Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin (WordFarm, 2012), which has been named a finalist for a 2012 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award. Jonathan is the recipient of a 2012 Artist Fellowship in Poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He lives outside of Boston with the poet Amy M. Clark and their son, Jonah.

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