Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012
Ruth Schwartz’s new book of poems starts off with a quote on poetry as an art by Pablo Neruda and this seems like a most-apt and fitting introit to the poetry that follows. Schwartz, as well as being an established and accomplished poet, is a psychologist and the dynamics of interpersonal relations and the life of the mind one would expect from a clinical psychologist is apparent in her writing. While her topics are diverse, her focus on personal interpretation and also on the mind-body relationship are clear in many of them. When she writes about other people, her introspective skills shine through and I cannot help but think she also, in turn, probably employs many of the benefits of her skills as a poet in her work with patients.
“How we shuffle along in our various bodies” she begins the title poem “Miraculum”, going on along on this trajectory with teenage girls, the postman, and an older woman all called in as examples of the variety of humanity and human movement. The poem is at once heart-warming and nearly scientific: it bespeaks a clear sincerity in its tone that is amplified by these examples of people who feel like honest observations from actual life.
The face of the pavement is wrinkled by light.
The dusty parking lot has turned to snow.
And this other dust, the dust of our hearts?
These words conclude Schwartz’s poem “Beginning, Over and Over Again” and offer a prime example of how her word-craft is tight, evocative, and yet almost truncated, edited down to its basal strengths. The biographical paragraph on the back-cover of the books identifies that Schwartz lives in Oakland, California, but there’s something very snow-bound about many of her poems, something of dark skies and cold days. Coupled with this is how she writes about love and interpersonal dynamics of romance—which is from an expectedly older, wiser, viewpoint.
Maybe the lilies pray for us,
for all the ways we keep ourselves
The lines above come from the poem “Lilies at Midnight” which forms something of a spiritual and artistic core of this book and brings forth some of its richest writing and most pure images. Schwartz is able to craft the lily into something far beyond metaphor and enable to the flower to take on many roles in society and literature. The poem reads like a sweeping tour of how people, romance, and flowers interact in the guise of this specific flower, but more than that, it demonstrates why we have florists, why flowers matter and are crucial to so many functions and core events in our society.
“Winter Solstice” is another poem that invokes the roles of nature in human affairs of the heart. Such efforts are not atypical of our contemporary poets and in the hands of some, so many poems in one book focused on romance would seem a bit much unless it was early into the month of February, however, in Schwartz’s skilled craft, her high number of poems on romantic themes are simply delights. In other poems, most notably “Driving Home”, Schwartz is adept at placing the daily human processes of modern life (post-modern life perhaps?) into the eternal and magisterial realm of nature that continues along, always the same, season by season. Our commutes to and from work pale in contrast but they also fit into the patterns of nature Schwartz identifies in this and many of her other poems in this volume. “The Immutable” is another poem of this tenor and this same high caliber: In its expression of a child’s curiosity and the tireless cycles of the ocean’s steadfast waves, it tells us so much about ourselves.
One of the seemingly most straight-forward yet one of the most-powerful poems in this book is titled “Some Answers to the Question ‘Who Are You’” and the poem in fact offers these answers. Perhaps telling of the poet’s training and experiences as a psychologist, this poem interrogates crucial, basal, issues of identity as they come forth in our everyday speech. The “answers” are quite varied and appear to come from different people, with some being very honest and logical such as one where the speaker states she is a cardiologist while others are flights of fancy, such as a pilot who is throwing people one by one off his plane, high over the open ocean. He tells us he too will soon jump into the sea—just not quite yet. It is in writing such as this that Schwartz shows us one of the foremost jobs of the contemporary poet: to ask questions, to postulate realities, to investigate—and to lead her reader moreover to also investigate—the interplay between mind and external world.
Another poem that really stood out to me was “Many Things Are True”, which like many poems presented here concern human relations—mainly those romantic—in the larger metaphoric arena of the wealth of nature. Winter is again conjured up, but instead of presenting any feelings of coldness or barren expanses, it offers a framework of the stoic, strong, environment that our mere human lives move through. Woodpeckers, one example of many where Schwartz brings us animals to help animate her material, natural, sphere for us, peck away and the world—a “new planet” in the poet’s own words—exists in radiance in the background, like the fabled “blazing world” Margaret Cavendish described in her own romantic flights of fancy so many years ago. The crowning power of this book is exactly this quality: it is the rare ability to join the outright fantasy and the very tangible reality—the veracity of the cardiologist and the horror of the suicidal pilot, plus all the lovers found here and there within the forests of Schwartz’s words.
Miraculum is an especially rare book in that it concerns often everyday issues and ideas yet in a way that brings back lyricism to what we call “poetics”. Very much worth reading, I would dare call it even one of the best books of new American poetry thus far of this year.