The Post-War Child
by Shelley Armitage
Land of My Father's War, by Phyllis Meshulam, Cherry Grove Collections, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2017, 110 pages, $19.00 paperback, www.cherry-grove.com.
LIKE ITS BOOK COVER—a collage—Land of My Father's War, poems by Phyllis Meshulam, speaks through layers of experience, memory, and imagination. The lines of a pillared landscape, wintered over grape vines, and a detail from the Florence Baptistry ceiling merge between brackets of World War II letters, signaling the rich and complex voicing to follow: a daughter's narrative and lyric search for the wholeness of family history.
The prefacing poem, "Adopted, Relinquished Country" sets the stage as the narrator identifies Italy as the land where her father served in World War II. "Country aflutter with gestures," a place of "Pinocchio masks," Italy will become a mimetic key to the power of her father's storytelling, but to glancing truths as well. In the initial section, "Land of My Father's War," we learn that the narrator's sister thought the years their father was away in the war were the best when the extended family lived under one roof in a "[c]lapboard homestead…[s]urrounded by endless fields of creaking corn." Born after her father returned at the war's end, the narrator reveals her own wars are to come; in "Early Days, Later Daughter," she asks "I had hidden, I have hidden, I hid. I hide./ Why, my whole life?" Returning as a teen to Italy, she finds herself "[c]limbing these heights, following him./ Becoming unbecoming." In "Large Brown Box," she recovers her parents' war letters, "In the box, Vesuvius?" she asks. And with the death of her mother recounted in the section's penultimate poem, we learn in "Toothpaste," where she and her father shop together for hospital items for her mother that "[by the time the second tube/ was empty, he, too,/ was/ gone."
The thread of this narrative—family relationships, coming of age, plunging into the future as the past surfaces—is brilliantly elided through recurrent imagery in the various sections. "Vacation Moon" and "Summer of Moon Landing" set up later references, which develop emotional states of desire, love, and longing. War is a major trope, including not only World War II, but Vietnam and the Taliban, the ironic effects felt up close as with Uncle Pete who loses his leg while her father escapes harm in a non-combat assignment. Allusions to Greek gods, to Cassandra and Penelope, deepen the family characterizations; love amidst war perhaps the greatest tension. In "Confession," the daughter admits to the lasting effect of her father's death, but deepened by a seeming casual description of the sun as "a dog tag holding its heat." Later this reference will be echoed in a visit to a museum installation about the war where hundreds of dog tags dangle like wind chimes and death knolls. In the poem "Wholeness," we follow the looping of witness/description into idea/character (slip stitch, slip stitch):
Outside my room there is a field.
Thistle winking purple. Gray-green
frothing bushes with small gold blooms
that smell of sweet grass, may be sweet grass,
a plant I only know by smell because
at home we had a sewing basket made of it.
My mother would have taught me how to sew.
The months she was away, her sister did instead.
In the central section "War Letters" come the parents' war letters. The poet tells us in her Notes that these are from actual correspondence but retold in a language using "elision, erasure, collage, and occasionally inserted words." Still, they are documents and maybe monuments of how war may be profoundly understood through the personal. The narrator's father, though dutiful, ironically finds himself in wartime coursing Rome and Florence piazzas, reporting on the war as if a cultural adventure while his wife, taxed with working and raising a daughter alone recounts domestic difficulties and longing. The strength of the marriage also is told here too. But an ironic poet reminds us midway through: "Her letters of this period have been lost."
In the section "Pilgrimages," the issue of letters emerges again in "In Lieu of Letters." The narrator dreams her father asks her to dance and mentions his loving letters to her sister "not for me (the post-/ war child)." In what is climactic description of her father, "he kindly stopped," but also danced away "some unreturning time." Despite—and maybe because of—the languages, letters, connections lost, the narrator presses forward, revisiting his Italian friends and places abroad, reshaping memories into her own immediate experience. In this section as in all, the concluding poem, "Pillars of Creation," brings the section to point. Here what was foundation and past—the Roman colonnades—meet Blake's Jacob's Ladder in the new vision of Palomar, "swarms of new stars appeared." She concludes: "You found your wrestler angel/ as I find mine./ These colonnades may be our shrines."
The trope of poet, creator/creation, plays out in the final section in images of the maternal connected to the aesthetic. These reflect the reversed roles of the narrator now as parent and aware of the efficacies of mothering. As she wonders about how to nurture and accept her daughters' uniqueness, the reader can't help but remember in a previous poem her father's advice. In "Advice to a Young Woman," he says, "I don't mind discouraging you now,"/ …"If you have that writer's demon, it will find an out." What the narrator and most likely the poet has found is not an out, but an in. There is no hiding here. In the exquisite poem, "Necklace," she writes: "all my pasts (dead bird, cramped labyrinth,/ letters unsent) long to listen to your present…" "links/ reaching through space as well as time./ and you remain my melon sun with dark seeds." In the concluding poem, "O," set at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, England, the travels, the searching throughout the collection seems settled. On the site of a stone O carved by Neolithic sculptors "stirred by landscape," is a dwelling place. Clouds mimic mountains, but mountains "surely copied clouds/ in their first and ongoing creation."
This is a beautifully sculpted book, full of wisdom wrought from yearning, masterfully experienced and made. It's a book I will return to again and again. Each poem is like a perfect water drop poised on a greening leaf. We see through to the vein of things—maybe even glimpse ourselves.
Shelley Armitage is an author and Professor Emerita of English and American Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Among her previous works are Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place (2016) and Women's Work: Essays in Cultural Studies (1995).