Book Review: THE GLAD HAND OF GOD POINTS BACKWARDS by Rachel Mennies Goodmanson
|The Glad Hand of God
Rachel Mennies Goodmanson
|Texas Tech University Press, 2014
Faith is a lineage: cultural, familial, political, a heritage in some ways inescapable. This is by no means a new idea, but that doesn’t stop Rachel Mennies Goodmanson from exploring it in active, surprising ways in her debut collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. These poems arrest with their images, leading readers through unexpected turns that take us from 1930s Europe to contemporary America. Along the way, Goodmanson paints and repaints the history of Judaism from her place as woman in the world. This is not self-indulgence, but a calling from Torahic mothers like Sara, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, who, Goodmanson writes, “had the hearts of the bodies we stand on tall as arks / had the shawl to wrap around my bare and sloping shoulders / had the soil to force into my fists and turn my body west.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, this early admission that faith is an imperative thrust upon her by the matriarchs, many of Goodmanson’s poems explore the difficulties of faith. The morning after Kristallnacht, her great-grandfather’s Jewishness becomes an impossible garment: “A glass overcoat waits, open / on the sidewalk: sleeves of debris / for his cold arms to slide inside.” This poem, like many in the collection, thrives on the unsaid. “Today, he learns how clothes betray,” the speaker tells us, and then later, “old customers pass / kicking aside findings with a steely toe.” The tiniest details are employed to depict the vulnerability of being Jewish in Germany during the second World War; we know who these old customers are. “The Glass Overcoat” shifts from its central metaphor to the speaker, who tells us, “From him, I learned to mend.” But even she, mending in contemporary America, cannot always find comfort in her coat—her hands kept from warmth by a pocket mistakenly sewn shut.
Goodmanson follows this poem with one about her grandmother, “How Grandmother Paid Her Passage to New York.” The poem opens with a list of all the belongings Goodmanson’s matriarchs had to give up to pay the price: “One by one her mother sold her silver spoons / and heirloom bracelets; goodbye, porcelain bear, / silk blouses, patent-leather Mary Janes, the scarves…” At first it seems that Goodmanson is simply reinvesting immigrants like her grandmother with power, reminding us of lives led before they came to America with nothing to their name. But then there’s a stanza break and objects take a sinister turn as Goodmanson bids goodbye to
the neighbors, the schoolmates, the mothers dressed so well
at services, the men with businesses who stayed behind
one week, two weeks more. What stylish
objects they became: the coins from fillings
and wedding rings, the soap, the wigs, lamp
after lamp to light a thousand decorated homes.
Stated in its simplest terms, this list leaves readers to realize the meaning behind Goodmanson’s words—the grisly origins of this latter set of objects. Again, faith is made to bear an impossible price.
But faith isn’t all horror for Goodmanson. “The Jewish Woman in America, 1941,” a member of the diaspora, reminds us that the love for one’s culture and home can be retained in spite of past pain. Goodmanson allows the woman in the poem to make a fantastic nightly escape:
… alive with immigrant sweat. The scrubwoman
dreams at night in German, she flies over oceans,
first a bomb, then a boat. Das Glas covers her body,
shards glint like small stars.
The glass of Schönwetter’s overcoat becomes this woman’s dazzling dress, supernatural bauble to decorate the complexity of her homecoming. In “Grandfather Onion,” Goodmanson hints that Jewish faith is like Jewish food, “its complicated / briny odors.” Indeed, food metaphors seem to be one of the ways she can best articulate this concurrent grief and love. As she asks the reader in “Huevos for Seder,”
Who’s to say dirt never
made a meal better, some sour
blackness against the yellow sun, grit
in the gift of sustenance?
If the first four sections of Goodmanson’s book set out to depict the complicated nature of Jewish heritage, then the final section, “The Jewish Woman in America,” articulates her celebration of those complexities. We get a hint of what’s to come here in the fourth poem of the collection, “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010,” when Goodmanson writes, “My God accepts // the muddle of our lives.” This last section is all muddle—mixing of history with the present, heritage with new perspectives, and especially body with body. For the first time in the collection, female sexuality becomes a major theme. Like the speaker in “To Those Still Godless,” the Jewish woman in America is called upon to revise mythology: “you shutter your parents’ house of lessons, you write your myths / on the backs of your lusts…”
Love and sex, in this world, aren’t always beautiful, but they are a reclamation of the body. They are ways to control the unappeasable appetite from “Eating Animals Without Faces,” where “what we seek / alone at night stays hungry, always hungry” and “My Sister the Diviner,” where love is eaten along with food, “that closed mouth, / fit always, despite ourselves, to bursting.”
And so, 65 pages after her list poem “Matriarch,” Goodmanson gives us two final lists that turn all the old rules on their heads. “Rapture” meditates on peaches to give us a new idea of perfection:
…Peach God, rapt for carrion,
turning above us in the heavens, waiting for
us, ripening, to satisfy ourselves;
come to him pitted, come to him
finished, made rotten by
your sweet time in his sun.
Here, as with fruit, our wasting away can be a sweet thing; “the very taste / of sin” rewritten as rapture. The final poem continues to muddle the sacred and profane, telling the reader, “Our bodies // naked before men are God” and “The lungs expand with our God, God / in the scream, also the moan.” Then we zoom out, back again to the original pains and gains of faith and heritage: “The broken limb // and its setting right. God in / the remembering and the forgetting.” In the way we write and rewrite our worlds.