Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds
Review by Diane Wiley
When I read first read Eleanor Lerman’s poem,
"That Sure Is My Little Dog," I was entranced. Starting
with these lines:
Yes, indeed, that is my house that I am carrying around
on my back like a bullet-proof shell, and yes, that sure
my little dog walking a hard road in hard boots.
Lerman had managed to capture the anguish
and resignation of the baby boomers who wanted a better world,
but have had to accept that we are passing on as much of
a mess as we inherited and she does it with such panache.
After numerous lines of hard hitting description, in free
flowing verse, she ends with:
What you want to watch for is when the sky shakes
itself free of kites and flies away. Have a nice day.
This collection is full of gems – reflections of
every day life that are unusual and yet so true.
Lerman's poems are stories: sometimes bizarre, sometimes
mundane, but always well executed. This volume is made up
primarily of prose poems, which weave back onto themselves.
In his review of her work in The Nation, which,
along with the American Academy of Poets, awarded Lerman
the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize , Tony Hoagland puts
Eleanor Lehman in the category of "social" poets, poets
whose work engages the reality of the collective, as well
as the emotional concerns of an individual speaker." I agreed
wholeheartedly. Her stories are rooted in the lives of individuals,
but her themes are universal. Her use of historical references
makes these poems all the more insightful.
The reality and poignancy of people's lives runs throughout
her poems. Her voice is that of someone who has lived, lost,
been happy, been sad, and through it all maintains her footing – though
sometimes only tenuously. There's a cynicism and a realism,
but it's always tempered with a little glimmer of hope – that
we can all get along, alone and together. As in "Jews in
Nashville," where she writes:
We thought that Jews were
welcome everywhere and that anyone who had a
history was ready to put down their guns and dance.
Her use of extended metaphors is exquisite. In
"Starfish," she personifies life by letting life take the
dog for a walk, or letting life hand you a sandwich,
And then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.
Lerman is an acute observer of the human condition – nothing
escapes her notice. By juxtaposing metaphor with descriptions
of real life, her poetry takes the reader into the very souls
of her characters. Note the opening lines of "The Mayans":
The scowl is caught in jadeite.
The flattened face on a green bead
displayed in the orchestral light of the museum
also boards the train on Steinway Street.
The warriors are going to the factories.
It’s her combination of irony and being
deadly on target that makes these poems so compelling and
enjoyable. Much of “social” poetry is angry,
while Lerman makes you think. As in her brilliant ending
to, “Living with the Red Menace”:
Now those were tricksters, he says, idealists–they
how to invent death and sell it to the common man.
But that’s just the cynic in him talking: we were
smarter than that. When we wanted to, we were perfectly
capable of giving it away for free.
There’s no sentimentality in Lerman’s work,
yet her empathy is real. Her images are stark. What I like
best is that her characters are real, that they actually
could live and probably have lived in the real world. The
people in her poems go to work, dream of escaping, wish for
love, give up on love, accept their luck for just being alive.
These poems are not mindless musings. They are not self-involved,
introspective navel gazing. There are no obscure references
to things that are only in her head. Instead, the poems are
observations of universal truths, truths that sometimes
we would all rather ignore. But not Lerman as in "Someone
I wouldn't feel a thing, since I had wised up
to the fact that some women want to see
how much it really takes to kill them;
some women know the answer in advance.
The flow of Lerman’s writing pulls the reader in.
While her descriptions are crisp and direct, many of her
lines are long and unruly. But she has a rhythm that keeps
you moving along with her as she and her characters dance
across the “frontier of history.” Her writing
is simply superb.
The life of our planet also plays a part in much of Lerman’s
poetry, providing contrast and background for the unfolding
of her character’s lives, such as in “The Little
This year, peculiar currents assail the globe: riptides,
ebb tides, blue moons out of phase. Yet Nonya
is serene. She has seen rifles floating in the bloody
river and grandmas sweeping the streets with twigs.
Clearly there are calamities enough without interpreting
She can also be brutal. In "Missing Person," she writes:
Here is the truth: she was a stepsister.
We couldn't stand her. She was disturbed
and dangerous: angry, medicated, mean.
At the same time, Lerman has a wonderfully understated sense
of wicked humor. There are dogs in many of her poems, perhap
her muse. They dance, they walk “a hard road
in hard boots”, they worry about being abandoned, they
adjust the radio, they have pie. This is poetry from a contemporary
minstrel - down-to-earth, yet full of irony. In the title
poem, "Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds," she writes:
This is a dangerous woman they want
to quiet here. A woman who could sew gold into the ragged
of anybody's coffin. Who knows that money does buy freedom.
Who just this morning has obtained a cell phone with a bonus
She has it with her, and I believe she means to use it.
When I was young, whenever anyone in our family talked about
something that they just couldn't believe had happened, my
Grandmother always asked, "Are human beings involved?" These
are poems about humans, with all their fears, hopes, dreams
and flaws, poems that chronicle real lives.
Eleanor Lerman is a lifelong New Yorker. Her
first book of poetry, Armed Love (Wesleyan University
Press) , published when she was twenty-one, was
nominated for a National Book Award. She has since published
three other award-winning collections of poetry- Come
the Sweet By and By (University of Massachusetts Press) ;
The Mystery of Meteors (Sarabande Books) ; and Our
Post-Soviet History Unfolds (Sarabande Books); along
with Observers and Other Stories ( Artemis Press) , a
collection of short stories. She was the recipient of the
2006 Milton Dorfman Poetry Prize and was awarded the 2006
Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American
Poets for the year's most outstanding book of poetry for Our
Post-Soviet History Unfolds. She has also received a
2007 Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment
for the Arts.
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