Lyrical, imagistic, playful, profound, Maya Pindyck’s new collection of poems, Impossible Belonging, celebrates abundance, welcoming Dickinson’s nobody and Whitman’s multitudes. She grapples with the large questions: what it means to belong to one another, to the body, to one’s families, communities, cultures, and homelands. She illustrates, with a near-pointillist imagery, the personal and collective effects of intergenerational trauma. With equal measure, she revels in the unobserved details of this world: the “minor notes,” “half butterfly” of an empanada, the “knitted octopus’s open iris,” “thin swerves left by bodies” on a subway door. In A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers, Pindyck’s guidebook for poets and teachers of poetry, she seeks to “decrease or dissolve the distances between reader and poem.” By extending her curiosity and wit to both big and small, Pindyck collapses the distance between dialectical categories: the literary and mundane, public and personal, home and exile, god and mortal, mother and child, poem and reader – creating at once an oracular intimacy and a radical democracy. We are invited to commune with ancestors, poets, pears, moths, the “all in small,” where all creatures, peoples, and artifacts, are animated as spiritual equals.
Like many of Pindyck’s poems, the first, “Winter Day Transcription,” leaves space for the reader to become a participant in the performance of the poem. She begins with the trope of a wolf in the forest who is hungry for little girls, yet the wolf’s experience is not centered; nor is he described with agency or voice: it is the girl whose perspective is honored. “She died in the wolf’s body. / She got out before she died. / Well she got back in – well, she didn’t go back in – She died at the entrance.” Though physically alive, the girl has experienced an emotional death, having survived the encounter with the wolf. And what is the wolf today? All rigid hierarchies, abuses of power, the teacher in Pindyck’s poem “A Theory of Art” who she fears will devour her soul, the monster in “Age” that moves her “quietest dress / in uncompromising positions.” Just as we must make sense of the girl’s fate in the opening poem, in “Schrödinger’s Spider,” we are asked to decide if the spider is alive or dead. We, too, have been asked to enter the wolf’s mouth, to kill or save a life, to unearth our own unspeakable experiences.
“Parental Error in the Anthropocene” turns on the life or death of a flower, as a mother and child navigate their prescribed roles and inherited trauma. The mother wrestles with how to teach her daughter about the preciousness and precariousness of life, yet as her daughter pulls out a flower, the mother ironically grabs her hand and yanks it away, “to teach her something about power.” The off-rhymes of smells, chest, breath, obsessed, have the effect of constricting the breath and establishing an increasingly fraught mood. The pressure builds. The mother realizes, “I can already feel my words / turning against us.” Pindyck’s words do take on a life of their own, continually offering a kind of inkblot for self-reflection. Reading her work, I cannot help but wonder: when do I, as a parent, unnecessarily wield psychological or physical force? When am I the hand that yanks, or the animal claiming dominance? What fatal flaw cannot I not see? Later, in the final section, the adroit poem “Losing Power” speaks to “Parental Error in the Anthropocene” and its themes; though here, the daughter’s confidence in how to touch has returned: mother and daughter embrace in the dark with ease, and the daughter’s eczema becomes future flowers: “seeds rising from the earth.” From darkness, comes insight: home, and the feeling of home, invokes enough song and light to survive, and cannot be snuffed out in a storm.
Through the motif of sight and invisibility, Pindyck continues to expand the domestic sphere to include the sociopolitical. In “You are a Witness to What You Don’t See” she explores how exile shapes temporal notions of home, how historical oppression follows the body wherever it lives. Employing off-rhymes, clever enjambment and wordplay to excavate and honor the homelands of Egypt, Syria, as well as Israel/Palestine, Pindyck defines home and heart as a “no-man’s land / peopled & loved,” as in a land belonging to no one; as in a place or existence that is nearly impossible yet necessary to belong to; as in an urgent existential place of memory. With an unflinching yet reticent tone, “Air holds everyone visible or not,” named for a line from the great poet Naomi Shihab Nye, the unseen bodies of Afghan women and children come into agonizing focus. Again the speaker bears witness to anguish – a child never born, a land destroyed – and opens up the poem to “everyone / wildflowers, leaning their brown faces/ over the border’s edge.” Forced to see the invisible, the reader can no longer look away from her own complicity and privilege.
Similarly, in “Poem for White People,” the speaker peers into her own whiteness and does not like what she finds: a robust sense of entitlement. Upset that her friend, presumably a poet of color, has not acknowledged her in her new book, she discovers that in this moment in history – when everyone is protesting in the streets; when innumerable men, women, and children of color have been murdered by police – her bruised ego is not a grave concern. What does matter is deconstructing and dismantling power to see the “General” within her “commanding a reader.” This self-interrogation and burgeoning insight of her own experience of privilege and peril continues in “The Photograph,” where we see the speaker yearning to be like her mother – an Israeli woman in the army ready to defend her country – or to be like her friend, the first woman to fly a fighter plane. Yet, just as she rejects the lure of violence and power in other contexts, she does so here as well, instead finding her talents and values better expressed as part of the natural world:
Now, a woman, I have chosen
the warrior’s path: black walnut tree
releasing toxicity with tools belonging
to my own body, greening
& invisible to any
These ‘tools’ are reminiscent of Adrienne’s Rich’s tools in “Diving into the Wreck” – words, compass, camera. Pindyck’s “book of myths” are those of her mother, and her tools were once the “rifle’s scope,” and the “nation’s bicep.” Now, her tool is her own body, as in Rich’s lines:
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
In “The Photograph,” the speaker fights against injustice by looking inward at her own toxicity, her own ego, her own errors, and also to her green, regenerative, beauty. Later in “Constructions of Green,” we again see an image of the once idolized soldier: “army fatigue / energized by its false claim to nature.”
Throughout the collection, nature lays claim to the truth, most starkly realized in the reoccurring images of the pear, symbolic of the female body, full of longing and succor; and the moth, relentlessly determined, yet fragile – a survivor. The intricately crafted poem, “Moth Holocaust,” acts a primer for the reoccurring investigations into Jewish identity and responsibility, and the human willingness to commit injustice. The conjunction of the diminutive “moth” and the enormity of “Holocaust” are characteristic of Pindyck’s knack for surprise and brevity. The compact lines and understated rhyme scheme serve to highlight an attempt to rein in one’s worst impulses, and to have some semblance of control over one’s grief. “I wish I wasn’t reminded of my son / by their streaks of golden ash,” the speaker says. The moth and son become one in that moment, and we can’t help but feel the self-recrimination of the lines, “I’m a human immune / to death’s lash.” The poem and the moth also mirror one another, offering “small performances of stillness / disguising beating hearts.” The moth flutters in and out of several poems, as does the pear, in all its succulent, curvy glory. My favorite, “Notes on Pears,” begins as a meditation invoking the title of the book: “Pears belong to no one,” which suggests that hunger, desire, and joy, belong to everyone. The lush experience of reading this poem and its “rusting skins” that “brim / sweet verses” is not unlike sinking one’s teeth into something utterly delicious. And yet, just as in a Jewish wedding ceremony, when we break the glass to remember suffering during times of sweetness, the speaker reminds us of what we had hoped to momentarily forget: “Sleepless, pears / know something of war.”
Suffering and joy, two opposites often married in Pindyck’s poems, reappear in “Crowning Via C-Section.” The first sight of her daughter, Alma, takes on Shakespearean proportions, compared to when Romeo first spots Juliet in the crowd. She writes, “how futile / any attempt to stitch back / a body cut open/ for love’s necessary tear.” Becoming a parent and falling in love both necessitate total transformation of one’s inner world. Many poets have tackled the subject of childbirth before, but few with such awe, originality, and accuracy. Reading this poem with its sheer love of language, its understated humor, and unexpected sorrow, I am reminded of Barthes’ text of bliss, this idea that the readerly text must be “dissolved” to create a “cut” – a painful, disruptive, powerful experience. Pindyck’s ode to her daughter’s birth generates just such a rupture, where we can feel the agony of caesareans and the heights of new love.
Equally cutting, though longer, and composed of couplets, “Boy” also sears the heart with its deft leaps and sweeping inclusivity. It begins with a “never-son” from a list of boys on a bronze plaque, and travels quickly to her family who died in the Holocaust, to “wildflowers” once again, a reminder that the dead belong to all of us. “Boy” comes to refer to the speaker’s lost child, a boy murdered during a school shooting, the boy who “ratted” out her family in hiding, that boy’s progeny who she imagines turn out to be soldiers, ready “to turn / a life lethal, to pull a trigger…out of duty” and a “boy / who waves in the night to be seen” presumably in fear of the police. Either way, she asserts “it’s the same boy” – and this is the profound proposition, that our enemies, when looked at closely with the careful attention of poetry, are no different from ourselves. The loss of one boy is the loss of any boy. Violence is violence, regardless of perpetrator or place. What enemy was not once an infant, innocent and vulnerable?
So the truth in “An Old Testament,” a poem containing the book’s title, reverberates:
this was before the war turned them
against their whiter neighbors,
the browner ones, too,
before they could see god spreading
inside their enemies with impossible belonging
Here, God is baby, is neighbor, is enemy, is grief. The poem disrupts the dominant notions of God as patriarch whose primary function is to exact revenge against the enemy. The words mother, woman, and girl also widen to make room for the multitudes. In “South Street,” the homeless woman depicted with “open palms/ asking for mother – for money” becomes any child who could one day become homeless, becomes the speaker’s daughter who “worries, she too / will one day live in the wide & jawless streets,” becomes the reader, whose children may ask the same question one day. In “Suitcase,” Pindyck’s repetition of “mother” and the symbol of the suitcase as an ever-changing litany of things is just as effective. First, her mother wheels the suitcase around, asking strangers: Would you like to meet my mother? Rebuffed, she proceeds to unzip the suitcase, and its contents overflow, enacting, another literal and figurative rupture. Then, surprisingly, it swells to carry the dead: “all of them, / hiding in forests or in sacks of potatoes, / the ones found by the young/ boy who, a good boy, told a soldier \/ who, a good soldier, shot them on the spot,” expanding further to hold an entire town, the Yiddish language, everyone who perished in the camps.
Finally, the wheeling of the suitcase is aptly named, Art. Ultimately, that is Pindyck’s gift: her ability to craft an ineffable space where we may “touch our other halves,” where we may reckon with our own complicated and conflicting identities. From her imagination, experience, and history as an Israeli-American with Syrian, Polish, and Russian roots, as feminist, witness, mother, daughter, and teacher, she makes the personal and domestic, political. Unlike previous generations, she refuses to “practice forgetting;” instead, she creates a moving art of remembrance, an Impossible Belonging, a poetry of many voices making peace.
MAYA PINDYCK’s most recent poetry collection, Impossible Belonging, won the 2021 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from Anhinga Press in 2023. She is also author of Emoticoncert (Four Way Books, 2016) and Friend Among Stones, winner of the Many Voices Project Award (New Rivers Press, 2009), and co-author of A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers: Reorienting Classroom Literacy Practices (Bloomsbury, 2022). Her honors include fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, the Historic House Trust of New York City’s Contemporary Art Partnerships Program, and Abortion Conversation Projects. Currently, she lives in Philadelphia where she is an assistant professor and director of Writing at Moore College of Art & Design. mayapindyck.com
BARBARA SCHWARTZ is the author of two books of poetry, a chapbook Any Thriving Root (dancing girl press, 2017) and the collaborative collection Nothing But Light with poet Krista J.H. Leahy (Circling Rivers, 2022). A finalist for the 1913 Poetry Prize, Barrow Street Book Prize, and Alice James Award, her hybrid manuscript What Survives is the Fire was selected for Boomerang Theater’s First Flight New Play Festival, and has been included in The University of Miami’s Holocaust Theater Catalog. Her poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Upstreet, Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Potomac Review, The Hunger Journal, and elsewhere. Barbara is an education consultant and lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY.