Review by Jayne Benjulian
Barbara Rockman’s concerns are domestic: marriage, daughters, aging parents, and these concerns she orchestrates as a conductor might lead the late work of Mahler: with the certainty of limited life in which to write it all down. Rockman herself returned to school at 46 to earn an MFA after a career in theater. Beneath her work shines the light of late promise and the speaker’s acute awareness of time: what is the quality of the moment right now, how has it changed from what it was and what it may become. Most accomplished about Sting and Nest, Rockman’s first collection, is how fully integrated all these concerns are. In each of the book’s four sections, one theme is highlighted as an instrument might be highlighted with a solo in the foreground of other instruments. No poem is as small as to have only one concern. In a rich textural composition, the poems play against each other—now marriage, now daughters leaving home, now parents facing death. Underlying all is the poet’s story, her early fascination with the visual world, the sound of her father’s language in an unfinished novel, the joy-pain in having adult daughters, the compromise marriage is, the comfort of memory.
In her introduction to the volume, Rockman she places her own work in the tradition of Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker, Tillie Olson, Sharon Olds and Rita Dove. To that list she told me she would add: “Eavan Boland, Ellen Bass, Louise Glück (in her own subversive way!) Louise Erdrich and Laura Kasischke.” Still, mother poets, whose work draws form the mothering experience, are few. Why do we not see more poems about those moments when a mother understands her daughter will never again need her in the way that she did as a child? I don’t know a mother who cannot pinpoint the moment when her intellectual certainty about her child’s growing up and away from her is swept away by that concrete realization and its consequent torrent of emotion. These are some of the most deeply etched moments of a mother’s life. Surely, it is not because such moments are not written about, but because such poetry is not generally taken by journals. “Daughters” illuminates that moment:
where I had been target they
where they had curled
against my body they shot from me
out of range all the taming
and hovering shredded
their shadows all
that remained in the dim-lit
once upon a time to which
so often summoned
I’d been a promise
their need a given thing
hearts engraved and silver-chained
have worn thin my daughters
go without their given names
Rockman’s poems expose the lie in poetry publishing, and in MFA programs, that domestic subjects are small subjects, for these are not small poems. Restrained, lyrical, they offer a disciplined composition of joy and grief. The language moves unobtrusively in controlled syntax and lines that break to underscore the binary: “where I had been target they / became arrows,” “curled / against,” “once upon a time to which / so often summoned,” “hearts engraved and silver-chained / have worn thin,” “my daughters / go without their given names”—then and now, needing and not needing, hearts attached, hearts liberated.
“I know how to tell the truth,” Barbara Rockman told me. And nowhere is her statement truer than in her delicate, subtle poems about marriage. In “Retrieval” and again in “The Good Cry, the Room, the Dream,” Rockman unwinds the idea of marriage, slowly dropping down the page in three-line stanzas. In “Retrieval,” we witness “a man and a woman of long-standing vows” …
turning the knob from news to concerto
they move toward the made thing that marriage is,
the smooth, long unbroken bed.
There’s no clang of recognition, no hard stop-epiphany. Like marriage, the poem takes time to unfold itself. “The Good Cry, the Room, the Dream” is another poem in this collection that demonstrates discipline in its use of imagery and line to lift the poem’s passions above the personal.
How clean the room is after a good fight
or torrent of tears, the walls holding
a rippling scrim of filtered sun.
here in the slit-eyed morning
I consider dream’s slim information:
silver fish line, I almost tossed
back, unwinding from sky to water,
its slippery wrap round my wrist so my fist
falls open like a sleeping child’s
while the lit thread curls and shrinks
so I think what it means
is: the moment seized, the heart given time,
the eye, in due course, finding beauty.
The night’s argument faded,
I see soft limbs beckon
from behind the lit scrim.
And then my wrist is caught
by a drift of broken filament,
bracelet of light, and I write
How clean the room is after a good fight.
Again, the controlled pace down the page allows meaning to unfold, so that when the first line is repeated as the last line, we feel we are witnessing a consciousness discovering the meaning of her experience with new clarity and resonance for the reader. But the dream’s “slim information” is suggested, never explained. We collaborate in making meaning of the metaphor. It is this gap of the unstated that suggests the poet’s understanding of how not to tell too much—how to let the reader find meaning.
And we do find meaning in the insistent, careful orchestration of the extraordinary in the ordinary. To lift the domestic into the poetic is quietly radical. In “Walking Beneath,” the volume’s closing poem, the speaker takes a walk in her neighborhood the morning the Challenger explodes over Texas. She sees a jay tangled in twine and hung in a willow, passes her austere neighbor walking his German shepherd. A family of quail crosses the road; so pronounced is the speaker’s excitement at witnessing the quail so unexpectedly, that the neighbor acknowledges her with a rare nod. It is a small communion that changes everything. All, all is the context for Rockman’s ordinary life-filled poems, which unfold with carefully modulated detail. Reading her poems, we feel as if we are seeing the world not as what we have heard it might be but for what is newly revealed before us. The poems embrace dark, and the dark gives way to light; they uncover death, and death reveals its beauty. The Challenger burns; the sky opens. Lines from the final stanza of “Walking Beneath,” could be her ars poetica:
unfold that which is folded
once considered sacred
Barbara Rockman’s poems appear widely in journals and have received two Pushcart nominations. Her first collection, Sting and Nest, won the 2012 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award and the National Press Women’s Book Prize. She is the editor of the anthology, Women Becoming Poems. At 46, after a career in theater, Barbara entered the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in writing, where she earned an MFA. She teaches writing classes at Santa Fe Community College, Renesan Institute for Lifelong Learning, the Wingspan Poetry Project with victims of domestic violence and in private workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Poems by Jayne Benjulian have appeared in numerous journals, most recently in Barrow Street. More work is forthcoming in The Rappahannock Review, The Delaware Poetry Review and Poet Lore. A compelling reader of her own work, in the past year she has read at The Frost Place and in Sausalito at Why There Are Words. She served as Fulbright Fellow in Lyon, France and Teaching Fellow at Emory University and holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. In previous lives, she was Apple’s Chief Speechwriter and Director of New Play Development at Magic Theatre in San Francisco.