|All night in the new country
by Miriam Bird Greenberg
|Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013
What do we become when stripped to our barest selves? By delivering us into an apocalypse laden with memory of the world that came before, Miriam Bird Greenberg’s All night in the new country goes a long way toward answering that question. A catalogue of grisly images and bittersweet hope, these poems inhabit a new era that illustrates what could happen were society reclaimed by nature and ruled by caution, panic, fear, and desire – the most basic animal sensibilities.
Greenberg’s strength in this chapbook is her ability to craft sensual images in very few words. Her sweetheart steams “a pot of wild mustard flowers / by the roadside, rain sizzling on the lid.” Ghosts patrol “eagle-eyed / for half-smoked cigarettes.” Each detail adds a perfect note to the nightmarish lullaby she sings, her voice threadbare from “twine-bound tobacco that throat-parched and ember- / spat well enough to do anyone in.”
Among these images, hope and despair are juxtaposed to create a space wherein life is always at its most dire. This is a landscape where
go out to the woods (no – are sent) with shovels.
Fallen fruit sweetening the air, pungent
where saplings will sprout from the stones
in spring; but the pits they are digging
are meant for a different thing.
More than just a play of birth against death, these lines employ an ominous correction and a dramatic pause to ramp up Greenberg’s creepy atmosphere. Her poems are delicate balances, the entrance of a violin’s soothing moan just before the worst scene in a horror movie. “Remember” introduces a boy who dies in a well; his friends “boil tea from melted snow” to deal with the lack of clean water. Young girls in “Knowing” wear necklaces of feathers “speckled like the guileless / faces of dice loosed / on dim floorboards just before / loss.” A few lines later, the dice become freshly-pulled teeth in a grotesque divination. In this new country, sweet comes always with grit, and smiles with blood.
Yet, for all its misfortune, there is real love here. A clever break ends the first poem’s opening line with a caring address to the reader: “Before the world went to hell my sweetheart…” Despite searchlights and militias, war and devastation, Greenberg’s new world retains compassion, even faith. She suggests
There are many ways to talk about loss;
it is like a body walking next to you in the night, ghost
of the lost one keeping you
company, or only your own grief stumbling
beside you in the darkness.
Later, a girl tells the speaker, “They didn’t say it would be / like this… empty as a smile.” Somehow, we are as comforted by our own melancholy as we are by strangers suffering the same calamities as us. If truly “there are ways to make violence / into an offering,” Greenberg accomplishes that transformation in these poems which remind us of the community we are driven to make even in the most dangerous and desperate of times. It is that natural urge to come together and go forth that saves the people of Greenberg’s new country, that sensibility which steels them to believe in the face of continued struggle:
The lavender fields where we first arrived
were forever symbolic to us, the scent
not somnolent but a promise
of our new future.