Rock Vein Sky
By Charlotte Mandel
Reviewed by Cynthia Hogue
What quickly strikes one about Charlotte Mandel’s seventh collection of poems—the resonantly, imagistically entitled Rock Vein Sky—is the depth of response in the work. The combination of heart-felt image of current event is powerfully moving as Mandel takes us through some of the last decade’s major tragedies—9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, the Indonesian tsunami of 2005, to name a few—and some very personal meditations. In “Front Page Photo,” Mandel writes of the vast tsunami: “A father rode the massive wave his son in arms now his / head now the child’s / above water until smacked against an edge." It is all but impossible to write of such devastation, but this image is, I think, chillingly adequate: one parent’s doomed, heroic attempt to save his son, multiplied 200,000 times. The poem then moves deftly into a revisionary allusion drawn from H.D.’s Trilogy:
Bitter la mer el mar marah—salt
reclaims what came from it
H.D.’s “marah-mar” passage was alchemical, a ritual formula to cleanse the feminine denigrated in Western culture. In Mandel’s succinct revision, the child is unbirthed: “bitter sea, salt takes back its own.”
Mandel’s collection opens with poems which contemplate in telling detail a lost child, as in the poem above, a coveted child (“Flying with Infants”), an aborted child (“Talking Theology to a Pindrop of Cells”), and cherished children: “I only want that the world should love them,” says the future mother escaping pre-World War II Poland in “Mother Out of Chaos Theory.” These children have, in the compressed irony of that poem’s closing lines:
hitch-hiked ahead of genocidal ovens
to the 21st century of a world that loves us, arms
hooked to embrace
hugging explosives to its breast.
The scope of Mandel’s vision is bold—the course of a new century tracked in familial history. The world is full of danger as well as beauty, and Mandel does not close her eyes to that fact. She celebrates the world and our lives upon it in poems that, as she writes of Jewish music in “Infinitives,” dance their “sadness.”
Mandel has an exquisite—at times excruciating—sense of time’s passage. The young girl become a young mother grows elderly, speaking “in that force field of incoherent/ crosshatchings,” while her daughter murmurs “weak-tea verbs” and “warm-milk nouns” in “Insomnia for a Mother”; the honeymooning couple “progress towards our skeletal hinge, // spine curving to question mark” in “Charting Married Bliss.” In the haunting “Tracking Eden,” the speaker, out for a walk, happens upon “a scorched pair of gates/ bramble-thorned fallen open,” and steps into what was once a cultivated garden:
upon twigs stems seeds
pulverized by drought and age
seated on grey ground
who leaned against a splintered vine
The figure is “bent with grievance,” and the poem hovers between the worlds of the past and the present, living and dead, pre- and post-lapsarian. The speaker hears a voice speaking “of want/ for garden caretakers/ unwisely discarded”:
I sat a while as company
then turned again
to the world
given to our own careless keeping.
Eden is overgrown because its caretakers were evicted, and the “something-someone” is, it seems, a contrite and unwise God. The poem is grounded in actual, observed details, which gradually loose their tether and float free. When the speaker, also a visitor to Eden, returns us to our world, it is with grievous insight: We, too, have unwisely discarded our “garden caretakers,” and playing god, have subjugated the world to “careless keeping.” The insight is quietly devastating.
Mandel’s command of craft is impressive: Rock Vein Sky includes one of the best contemporary sonnet crowns of which I know, “Afterimage,” a poem which takes as its large metaphor the insouciant, revisionary phrase, “all the world’s a film.” We play our parts—we rage and sing, ride the train of life, and at last disembark, as in the sestet of Part v:
The train glides beside platforms, people leave
or step into cars. My constant fear smothers
filaments in light-bulbs capably installed.
Above ground or under, the stations arrive
according to plan, one after another.
I disembark when the right name is called.
Mandel is so skillful with rhymes we hardly notice them, complex, slant, unexpected. The metaphor is imaginatively sustained, and the tone is simple, elegant. It’s a pleasure to savor the formal in such good hands.
There is a richness to Mandel’s work that accrues from her combined sources—feminist midrash, cultural if not actual Yiddish (see, for example, the marvelous “Anatomy of a Yiddish Word”), the personal lyric infused with projectivist formalism (make special note of Mandel’s fine elegy for Robert Creeley, “Passing”)—and thus, the volume’s power gathers until the last poem, “As He Gazes at His Daughter,” which is both personal lyric and ars poetica. A father watches his young daughter playing in a brook, creating a stream flowing around “the fixed animal of her foot,” a foot both literal image and poetic—
as if things once made
could yield again
as does her still
transparent skin tracing
The child as/is future, the “made,” in Charlotte Mandel’s condensed distillation of image, of flesh and word.
Occasionally, Mandel feels so deeply that a poem veers from its spare, lush lyricism into the terrain of the sentimental. However, she is such a precise poet that I accept the move as a risk she takes consciously, in order to maintain the rigorous honesty that characterizes her poetry. The collection opens and closes on bell-like notes, as if an invocation to a more hopeful time. The poems are at once intimate and ambitious. The poet casts an eye across the century’s roiling, violent seas, and in doing so, enlarges the scope of the lyric poem and what we can expect of it. Mandel might have glanced at the front page one morning, for example, and glimpsing unspeakable pain, turned away. But she did not look away. She incorporated the moment into the poem. Her gaze rested on the image, which she detailed, making it unforgettable: “Instead of sand the shore ripples babies / ringlets / rumps.” The volume’s tenor is sounded sonically in such lines, such images, with fraught concision and thoughtful compassion.