LYNNE SHARON SCHWARTZ is a novelist and memoirist and translator, a writer of excellent prose. And galling as it may be for a poet like me, possessed of no narrative talent, to acknowledge, Schwartz is also a poet of poise and power. No Way Out But Through, Schwartz’s third collection of poems, showcases some of this writer’s many strengths. She’s a stubborn anti-sentimentalist who can write wrenching elegies. She’s an archivist of memories, a celebrant for the forgotten or nearly forgotten, who also writes eloquently of the undertow of oblivion. She’s an anthologist of anxiety dreams. Irritated by Cordelia and partial to the Fisherman’s Wife, she’s a contrarian reader. At all times, Schwartz’s poetic voice is piercingly honest. Her tough-minded intelligence leaves plenty of room for questions and regrets.
Because Schwartz is best known as a writer of fiction, it’s tempting, and perfectly possible, to read almost every poem here as containing the germ of a narrative — an epigraph, an introductory paragraph, a final paragraph, an afterword. And yet, though we may be left itching to know a bit more, each poem stands alone. One of my favorite poems in this collection, “Forgetting,” reads in its entirety:
Absence rarely makes the heart grow fonder,
or so my mother said, popping a blackberry
into her mouth — we’d raided the patch
at the far edge of the woods. Absence, she said,
begets forgetting. And while you mightn’t so swiftly
forget a blackberry’s taste or a thorn’s prick
or a cloud’s sheep shape you spied skimming
low like a darning needle over a lake,
the lineaments of face or voice or touch
Like that! She snapped
her fingers, bolted down the berry.
This outdoor scene “at the far edge of the woods,” those blackberries, the cloud scudding low over the lake, and the pointed mother-daughter exchange (at least the half of the exchange we’re allowed to hear) evoke passages in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where Kitty and Dolly are talking with spontaneous intimacy to the peasant women. Yet “Forgetting” isn’t a scene from an extended narrative tapestry; it’s complete, if a bit mysterious, unto itself. We might be tempted to wonder just what past experience the mother has in mind, but does it really matter?
In any thoughtful collection of poems, the individual poems begin to speak to one another. Accordingly, “Forgetting” leads, in however meandering a fashion, to “Losing Touch.” In the latter poem, fading memories of the departed mother prove the point that very mother pointed out in “Forgetting”: “how fast / the lineaments of face or voice or touch / vanish, / Like that!” Or rather, some memories vanish in a flash, while others (as in “Losing Touch”) are slow to fade.
I’m losing touch with my mother. She used to come
whenever I called, her round face crowned
by fuzzy orange curls, a loop of flame.
She floated in mid-air, smiling
But lately she comes rarely,
as if she’s sliding further into the ether,
or maybe I’ve stopped calling for her
I miss those visitations, the rosy face,
the hair aflame.
Finally the daughter comes to miss the memories which, since they no longer visit, are evoked only through the poem that notes their dwindling.
Other memories — unwanted ones — can stubbornly outstay their welcome. “The Two Supers” depicts with Schwartz’s signature candor her regret at having clumsily hurt the feelings of a super who once asked her out to dinner. The super leaves, is superseded by another, unwounded super. Decades pass. The friendly new super plays the harmonica for the speaker’s grandchild. The poem could well end with the joyful image of “the glee” on the child’s face. But no:
Indelible, the glee that’s on her face.
Almost enough to erase
that other face.
Those last lines both nail the painful memory and fix this poem in the reader’s memory. They also, eloquently, rhyme (just as life has rhymed) “face” with “face.” As Schwartz writes in “Leaving,” “memory regurgitates each crime.” “The Two Supers” could be — essentially is — a short story; but again, as a poem in two stanzas, just as the incidents it recalls form two episodes, it is complete unto itself.
It isn’t only in memories that our pasts and our dead visit us; they also manifest in dreams. Schwartz writes with casual cheerfulness:
Some nights my dead drop by, they’re looking well,
they linger over coffee in the kitchen,
then say their time is up, like Cinderella.
Or, one wonders, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father?
Schwartz writes abundantly and well about dreams — most of the first section of No Way Out But Through draws on dream material, and the section of elegies for her sister is also riddled with dreams, not all so casual or cheerful. But the power and vividness of dreams, and of the work she does with them, don’t prevent Schwartz from asking, at the end of “Nocturnal Repertory,” quoted above, a question at once skeptical and salient:
Is sleep presenting me with gifts, to hoard
until the words return? Or rather leaving me a sack
of junk to carry on my back?
That unanswered question, like the hurt face that won’t leave the mind’s eye in “Two Supers,” demonstrates Schwartz’s characteristic gesture, a turn of style which is both too simple and too vague to label irony. One notices in these poems a recurrent and recognizable kind of undercutting, undertow, distancing — a faintly acerbic quality discernible more in the tone than in the words, akin to a shrug. Things are not simple, these poems’ endings tell us in their various ways. There’s no closure; the happy toddler’s face can’t efface the sad super’s face.
Perhaps time’s technique, as Schwartz explores it throughout this collection, resembles that described in “Advice to Modern Spies” — the original message written on a naked scalp is concealed over time by the growth of the illiterate messenger’s hair. But it’s not encrypted, not obliterated; shave and scrub the head and the message is still there, which was the point of the exercise. It’s odd and ominous that the message quoted at the end of this poem turns out to be a line from “Kubla Khan,” “ancestral voices prophesying war.” But come to think of it, there are quite a lot of ancestral voices in No Way Out But Through. In “Taking Out the Garbage,” we hear the speaker’s father’s voice, or think we do — but in fact the daughter is decoding his eloquent body language. Like the ancient Greek messenger in “Advice to Modern Spies,” the father is speaking, perhaps inadvertently, through his body rather than with words:
He stomps on the paper bag he just deposited.
He stomps his foot on the garbage hard, merciless,
over and over. Take that, you pillaging Cossacks,
you Jew-hating animals delighting in pogroms,
who grafted on our arms the yellow band, take that,
you gougers who made us pay in blood for schooling,
who tossed my brother into the ditch at Babi Yar.
Take that, and that! This
is my father, the human trash compactor.
My favorite ancestral voices are heard in “Yiddish,” a poem in which the child misreads her accurate observation that old people speak Yiddish better than younger people. Knowledge of Yiddish, she reasons, is something you grow into with age:
I knew I’d improve with time
and when I was truly old but straight-backed and beautiful
like Esther, my voice would be hoarse
and would acquire the old-world gargle,
and from my tongue would flow a consummate Yiddish,
a lifetime’s worth of perfecting.
Other ancestral voices chime in too, even those of inanimate objects, as in “A Dress Laments.” In “Till You Walk in Her Shoes” and “Mist,” Schwartz gives eloquent life to her late sister’s boots, or to how that sister taught her
of spray-on cologne. Forget, she said,
the dabbing at wrists and collarbone.
Spray a column of air in front of you
then walk through it, preferably naked.
Walk through the mist. The mist will cling to you.
The sister’s advice constitutes its own form of language:
I suspect she was speaking in metaphor,
some lesson about life I can’t decipher.
I want it to signify something, like an heirloom
with a tale attached. Something to unwrap
from time to time and contemplate.
But all she’s left me is a fragrant mist
that shapes itself to my skin, a shower
of scented particles that cling.
Like the dream residue in “Nocturnal Repertory,” this lingering aura is surely the raw material of poetry.
Schwartz can manage rhyme and meter deftly, as poems like “Young Blood,” “Leaving,” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row” demonstrate. But she isn’t chiefly drawn to many of the formal elements of poetry, nor is it primarily those that we should look for when this novelist dons her poet’s hat. The vivid images, the insistent memories, the probing questions, the stubborn honesty — these qualities, consistently yet also variously achieved, offer themselves more generously with each rereading of these rich, tough, and durable poems. It’s worth bearing in mind that making us care about a dead woman we didn’t know, involving us in filmy memories of someone else’s dreams, memorializing childhood memories or departed ancestors or high school teachers is not easy, while the desire to do all this is very natural. Sentimental poems by the dozen attempt such feats and fail. Schwartz succeeds — even while, with her signature, slightly uncomfortable shrug, she acknowledges that the messiness of life persists. In “Something Is Wrong,” a poem that begins by describing a fanatically neat roommate named Marcus, she writes:
Our composition was blundered, the patterns of mind
and heart disjointed, shifting endlessly
like colored bits attempting to correct
a flawed mosaic or botched tapestry,
the stitches veering every which way.
Marcus could never speak of this precisely,
the nature of the matter being so unstable,
nor can I.
But as Robert Frost wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” a poem “ends in a clarification of life — not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Even if something is wrong, Schwartz’s poems present us with many such momentary stays. And I think Frost would agree with the sentiment expressed in her title.
Rachel Hadas’s most recent books are Talking to the Dead (prose, Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and Questions in the Vestibule (poems, Northwestern University Press, 2016). She is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University–Newark.