The Personal and the Universal: Lullaby (with Exit Sign) by Hadara Bar-Nadav

Mike Puican

Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2013. 75 pages. $15.00
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In her third and most recent book of poetry, Lullaby (with Exit Sign), Hadara Bar-Nadav presents an intense, in-the-moment outpouring of grief over her father’s physical decline and death. Woven throughout the collection is an unexpected voice, that of Emily Dickinson. The majority of poems are titled after an Emily Dickinson line. Each also includes an italicized Dickinson line in the text that is subtly inserted to advance the poem. An example is “How Soft This Prison Is,” addressed to the speaker’s dead father:

Body, bundle, country of twigs. Your nine gates opening, closing, spittle wet. A miracle you existed at all. Fontanel, fallible. Your soul shaking inside. When you died, Leaves unhooked themselves from Trees. I watched them go like little mouths, dried and paper-flat, without music. Ticker tape in shades of blood-orange, rust. And the wind did gently lay you down. I waited. I watched.

Quoting Emily Dickinson, one of the most revered writers in English, brings the flood of associations connected with her. This inclusion moves these poems beyond Bar-Nadav’s overwhelming grief over the loss of her father and becomes a larger examination of how loss and other human vulnerabilities are dealt with through language. This, ultimately, is the book’s central concern.

These poems are much more than echoes of Dickinson poems. Compare this section of Bar-Nadav’s poem “Upon the Slowest Night” with the section of the Dickinson poem that is referenced. Both poems make mention of a “He.” For Bar-Nadav, this is the draped form of her dead father; for Dickinson, it is grief itself.

Bar-Nadav:

When I enter, the walls curl inward, cornering me. His unadorned form draped in a single white sheet. The seconds crush: Grief is Tongueless. Do not leave. Do not leave me alone. Broke of syntax. Quit of speech. The soul drifting, already in transit.

Dickinson:

Best Grief is Tongueless—before He’ll tell—
Burn Him in the Public Square—
His Ashes—will
Possibly—if they refuse—How then know—
Since a Rack couldn’t coax a syllable—now.
        “Grief Is a Mouse”

It is hard to imagine two more different aesthetic takes on the same subject. Bar-Nadav is in the throes of intense personal pain as she tries to come to terms with death; Dickinson, with her cool, elliptical approach, presents grief as a speechless yet undeniable presence. While their approaches vary greatly, both poets grapple with the same issue—how language ultimately fails to provide comfort and clarity when dealing with the human experience of death and grief.

Except for the use of italics, Bar-Nadav doesn’t draw much attention to the presence of Emily Dickinson. The quotes are neatly integrated into the work. For most of the collection, the dialogue between the two poets goes on in the background. However, the italicized quotes add elements of mystery and tension to the poems. They illustrate one of Bar-Nadav’s impressive skills as a poet: she is a master at creating tension in indirect ways.

Another example is her choice of the prose form for most of the poems. Traditionally, verse poems capitalize on the inherent tension between lines and sentences. The lines of a poem can create their own semantic units that push against the tendency for sentences to be the carriers of meaning. Since a prose poem has no shortened lines, the poet needs to find other, less obvious methods to create tension. Consider how Bar-Nadav does this in “To Bear on Us Unshaded.” This is the entire poem:

We bow our heads and burn. Heat scalding the back of our necks, singeing our crowns. The sun opens over us. The sun wants to burn us into the ground. Scent of soil, glittering, cloying, sick with goodbyes. We swelter, wither, prayer stuck in our parched mouths. Birds descend, declaim their Tunes—piercing us with bright cries. Cardinals streak the day with blood. We follow our sad shadows, swallow our tongues. We are done. We are done. We are done.

This paragraph is unmistakably poetry. As the poem moves from left to right, syntax and the use of sonic elements continually interrupt the poem’s momentum. They create their own patterns and associations. These patterns become the poem’s emotional undertow.

These associations reinforce the poem’s message of pain and anguish. They are created by the repeated metrical (trochee-iamb) endings of “Singeing our crowns,” “back of our necks,” “into the ground,” “declaim their Tunes,” and “swallow our tongues.” Alliteration underscores all this by linking the words: “bow” and “burn”; “scalding,” “singeing,” “sick,” and “stuck”; and “descend” and “declaim.”

In the last four sentences of the poem, sonic resonance is so strong that it completely overtakes meaning. Every word in the sentence “We follow our sad shadows, swallow our tongues” sonically resonates with others in the sentence. This is followed by “We are done” repeated three times. The near rhyme of “done” and “tongue” along with the repeated sentences conjure the image of a tolling funeral bell more strongly than anything those words represent in English.

The sonic beauty of Bar-Nadav’s craftsmanship is in service to the book’s subject—the speaker’s inconsolable grief over the death of her father. The book progresses from her father’s humiliating last days in the hospital to his death and her overwhelming sorrow at the loss. While there is some indication of healing at the end, the primary focus is on the speaker’s unhinged outcry of grief. These poems exhibit a fierce determination to see without flinching, to express pain without holding back. For example:

A kaleidoscope of pain fractures my eye, shatters through the bell of my brain. . . . My wounds are public, an elaborate display dressed in amber gauze, black stitchery, or translucent yellow beaded with glue. I will not look, not look away.
        (“Each Scar I’ll Keep for Him”)

Toward the end of the book, a subtle shift occurs. The poems begin to indicate a distancing in the speaker. This distancing holds the possibility of healing. In the poem, “The Landscape Listens,” the speaker hints, for the first time, that the natural world may offer some comfort: “Pigeon wings whistle overhead and the song is not crying. For a moment, death releases. Relents.”

The movement toward healing culminates in the collection’s pivotal poem, “Master (Pieces).” The poem is an erasure of Emily Dickinson’s Master Letters in which the question of language as a tool for dealing with loss is brought to the forefront. In a complete reversal of what came previously, Bar-Nadav takes Dickinson’s prose and, through erasure, creates a fascinating intersection of the two poets’ work. Here are some excerpts:

Listen
I did not tell you
I cannot talk
                pain
recollect[s]
                   love.

…………………………………………

Could you forget (me)

I used to think when I died
I could see you
                             Master

Could you come
                             Would you
              come

play in the woods—till
Dark

            till
I
[be]come

Bird                        Ether

The shift in Bar-Nadav’s style corresponds with a shift to a more hopeful stance. The form is dramatically different and Bar-Nadav begins to exhibit some distance from her grief. She imagines herself moving beyond loss as “Bird” and “Ether.”

It is not a small point that the poem was created through destruction, through erasure. Since “Master (Pieces)” was created by disassembling another poet’s words, it becomes a fresh and surprising metaphor for the poem’s subject matter. The poem itself brilliantly enacts the process of healing—the process of creation that is born out of loss.

Without sacrificing the intensity of her personal grief and pain, Bar-Nadav asks us to consider how language is used as a response to it. The inclusion of Dickinson’s work deepens and complicates Bar-Nadav’s expressions. It also illustrates how, for these immensely talented poets, language is both a resource and a restriction in responding to loss. I can’t think of a more accomplished expression of intense personal loss that, at the same time, offers provocative insights into the inadequate attempts to give meaning to it.

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