The Thrill of the Liminal
by Joan Gelfand
The Day You Miss Your Exit, by Jacqueline Berger, Broadstone Books, Frankfort, Kentucky, 2018, 70 pages, $18.50 paperback, broadstonebooks.com.
WHO SAYS YOU can't tell a book by its cover?
If a successful book cover telegraphs what is inside—then Jackie Sackheim's photograph on The Day You Miss Your Exit does its job: a wide Los Angeles boulevard at a mysterious in-between time, dusk. Are we Mid-City? San Fernando Valley? Or, perhaps, on "Pedestrian Pico"?
Here, Berger considers the impersonal byways that crisscross the megalopolis:
Boulevard of two-hour meters,
uncelebrated, utilitarian alternative
to the freeway, a cross-town scar
down the body of the city
(from "Pedestrian Pico")
It's unclear exactly where we are in Sackheim's photograph, but one thing for sure: we are not at Los Angeles's sexy edges; not at the storied coast, the ocean beaches of Santa Monica or Venice, nor in the dramatic mountains that ring the L.A. Basin.
The Los Angeles depicted on the cover is lined with iconic palm trees, long, anorexic trunks topped with hairdos of flouncy fronds. From "Paradise":
…the WPA planted 40,000
from downtown to the Westside
for the '32 Olympics.
Now they are nearing the end
of their natural lives.
Tempting to replace them
with something drought-tolerant,
though to lose the dreamy skyline
they make of dusk, doesn't every
vision of paradise cost?
Apparently. But whatever the cost, L.A.'s twilit sky is inviting. Shapes in shadow, the giraffe necks of the palms, street lamps, road signs, telephone wires, and a few low-slung rooftops. In the lower corner, the sun sets to the west.
Berger, a Los Angeles native, examines if not the dark underbelly, then the shadowed reality of calling Los Angeles home. And, though Berger abandoned the city, L.A. looms large. From "My Father Has Outlived Johnny Carson":
Because under the sheen of irony,
Johnny wasn't funny,
exactly, but something else—
He must have looked around
and found, even from that height,
My father would have understood this,
though he wanted, like all men,
to have the chance to really see
what wasn't there.
Once at dinner, my father
told us he was miserable, almost always.
Adding to the poem's irony is a family gathered at a restaurant table, under "…caricatures of famous people on the walls,/ their quick-drawn exaggerations/ absurdly framing the singular/ moment of honesty."
In this competent poet's hands, we are led out of the Southern California sun and into shadowed ambiguities. From "Did My Father Work on Bombs?":
Business trips to Oak Ridge,
could not be smelled or tasted,
seen or heard or felt,
back when we still believed
its clean science
would keep us safe.
Inspired as an homage to her parents, who died within four months of each other, Berger utilizes her skill to sort out what it meant to be raised by a physicist and a mother who taught special ed.
Berger, winner of three prestigious poetry awards: The Bluestem Poetry Prize and the Northern California Book Award in Poetry (then the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award) for Mythologies of Danger, the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize for Things That Burn, and the Autumn House Poetry Prize for The Gift That Arrives Broken, often looks to science for inspiration, perhaps a legacy from her father.
In the exceptional "Air Museum," we experience no less than nineteen types of air. Here, just a few:
…air that combs the fine hairs of the skin,
air that shivers, alerts.
Air that holds aloft the song, though the car
has already rounded the corner and gone.
Air that loiters under the lamppost,
pulls up its collar against the coming cold.
In this poem, we begin to fall under the spell of Berger's penchant for incantation.
Berger's poetics is a generally straight up narrative arc made compelling by the use of recombinant rhyme, wacky analogies, inventive metaphors, and humor. From "Remains":
Because the cassettes jostling in the wooden box
as I carry them to the dumpster
sound like horses returning to the stable—
Against cancer, heart attack, stroke
there's lasagna, tamales, meatloaf.
Rare blood disease—
roast chicken, barbequed ribs,
baked ziti. Sudden infant death,
the stray bullet—brisket, honey-baked ham.
The recombinant rhymes: (lasagna/ tamales, disease/ ziti) and the crazy juxtaposition of deaths that inspire platters of comfort food delivers layers of meaning cooked up by a poet with a sharp pen and a finely-honed wit.
In section two, "From the Middle" resonates with the dusk of the cover. Here is the examination of a life lived to the half-way point, an inventory of successes, failures, the abandonment of certain hopes and dreams, resignation but still the will to discover what's around the next corner.
In the eponymous poem, "The Day You Miss Your Exit," she wonders: What if you ended up in another life?
In several poems Berger wanders into a groove of mesmerizing repetition. These poems pack a punch; these are the poems that haunt. With a lesser poet, these works could have ended as simple list poems, compelling but limited; Berger elevates the list poem by the repetition of words and concepts, magnified by strong metaphors.
But the body is tethered to its shadow,
black dog that leads or follows,
there's no slipping the knot of ourselves.
In "Without," the poet poses twelve important questions. What exactly in your life could you live without? The inquiry ranges from the obvious (job title) to intimate (the robe, glass of water by the bedside) to banal (toaster, Dutch oven, cast iron) to conceptual (your dead, money in your wallet.) The questioning insists: Ask yourself, and ask now: What really matters?
In the final poem, "Day of Atonement," a list of exhortations is another sort of incantation:
carve our names in the wood plaque
next to the joke moose or elk,
etch us on invisible sheets of wind;
write our names in tears or spit,
god of optimism and error…
And that is only one packed line. By the end of the poem, we are beset with the same feeling as a day spent in synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is Berger's prayer, her wish, her hope: that despite all the time spent wondering and wandering in the middle place, the misery, the struggle, to simply be allowed to continue is the prayer, and the wish.
If readers have written off poetry as 'inaccessible, dull, navel gazing and irrelevant' then let Berger's collection prove them wrong. May this collection inspire readers to be embraced by poetry for what it does best: Embrace us in the thrill of life's complexities distilled into compact puzzles that wake us up to the joys, sorrows, ironies, and pleasures of living.
Joan Gelfand is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Long Blue Room. Her newest book, You Can Be a Winning Writer: the 4 C's of Successful Authors: Craft/Commitment/Community and Confidence, has just been published by Mango Press. See joangelfand.com for more information.