Friday, November 19, 2021

Breaking and Entering: A Powerhouse of Poetry


The idea of position is key to reading Barbara Goldberg’s masterful Breaking & Entering: New and Selected Poems from The Word Works. Among the selections of new and previously published work, Goldberg uses position to show us place, placement, and power.


In “Furlough,” the opening poem, we see a father, possibly a soldier given his “tall, lean, muscular” stature, tossing his children in the air. The narrator says, “I love/ to see them drop, not weightless, but light// as grenades.” It’s chilling that “fear can be fun” and how the dad handles his kids is a kind of “hand to hand combat.” The Dresser is more than alarmed—where is the location of this poem? We know by the word dunam as in “That a dunam// of earth is worth dying for?” Only in Israel is land measured in this way—a dunam is equal to one thousand square meters. And thereby we understand that this man is on temporary hiatus (furlough) from his military duties and is now attending to his family responsibilities.


In Goldberg’s first book Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the Short: A Merovingian Romance, a working-class girl Aliste replaces Berta, a king’s royal bride. Aliste’s mother Margiste, a “trusted handmaiden to Queen Blancheflor,” Berta’s mother, has been entrusted to deliver Berta to her bridegroom. Except Margiste wants more for her daughter who is also Berta’s half-sister. In “Aliste Considers Her Position,” placement is seriously contemplated, but Aliste feels powerless.


Who was there to turn to when I found

his morning gift, a handsome brooch

encrusted with pearls, on my pillow?


Not Mother, hopping about with glee, fingers

greasy from palace meat. She pokes my ribs

and cackles, “We fooled him, eh? We two

make quite a team.”

                                                           while I,

dumb sheep, play the part of Queen.

                     I’ve thought of claiming

defect of consent, diriment impediment, but

Mother would be lost for good, poor sheep.


In subsequent books by Goldberg—Cautionary Tales, Marvelous Pursuits, The Royal Baker’s Daughter, and Kingdom of Speculation—the pursuit of power looms large with an ample

 dash of deception.


Consider in “The Future Has Already Happened” (from Cautionary Tales) how a little girl known as Red Riding Hood has not only triumphed over the wolf but sees this as the future with the woodcutter for her own progeny.


…Imagine the wild Caesarean,

the ax and its fresh cut, the blade

running deep. And me springing out

to dance on the planked floor with Granny


Give serious attention to “Ballad of the Id” (from Marvelous Pursuits) an internal powerhouse that seems inescapable.


I am your rose hips and bunting and bootleg

and I am your black bangs those devil’s


… without me you’re puny and

pallid and prudish …

I bit your sister and squealed on the porter

and who pulled you out of the muck of intention

    …who stole your tom-tom

just ask and I’ll tell you I did I did


Evaluate Goldberg’s duplicity carefully when you read “Fairytale” (from The Royal Baker’s Daughter).


Once upon a time

a baby boy was born

to a suicidal woman

and a suicidal man.


He was not born to make her sane

nor to help the marriage last

but because his birth would save

his daddy from the draft.



The little boy is now a man

and takes himself a wife.

One hand gently strokes her hair,

the other strokes his knife.


The knife represents power, but might the knife be a stand-in for his penis? Certainly, sex can be another tool of power.


 The final set of selections from Kingdom of Speculation take romances, fairytales, cautionary tales, and psychological treatises to a heightened level of power. Could these poems be stories of Balkis—Queen of Sheba or the woman Hatshepsut who became the Pharaoh Hatshepsu (a woman pharoah who presented herself as a man)? In “The Master of Chance,”  we meet “The Princess looking no more/ like a Princess than you or I” who dwells in “the Province of Chance.” It’s an odd exchange between a shabby royal and a card-playing man calling himself the Master of Chance. He wants her to marry him so she can polish his casket of gold which she recognizes as one that had belonged to her father. The poem ends with the man asserting his power:


A woman in my employ, as is everyone

 in this State, for I’m the Master


 of Chance, I cut the deck, declare

what’s wild, as you are my dear, my Balkis,

my Hatshepsut, my true Queen of Hearts.


“A Great Darkness Falls,“ the last poem of Breaking & Entering we recognize the shabby princess who now has possession of the King’s coffer which she uses as “a fertile bed/ for her cuttings and seeds” while incubating in her purse the “Egg of perfection.”


… All is poised for

an ever after. Sing praise to the Great

Lord Chaos, his enabling dark. Praise


to the touch of a choice companion.

And praise to the Egg of Perfection

glowing in the folds of a lady’s purse. 


These lines close the book on all Goldberg’s books in that wish for a fairytale ending that provides love, union, and progeny, while placing the power in the female grip.                     


The book’s title Breaking & Entering comes from the poem “Alarums and Excursions” (from Marvelous Pursuits). The poem deals with a modern-day woman who interacts with a security professional, “a man who knows the tricks of breaking/ and entering and how to secure all she holds/ dear from those who would trespass against her.” The cover image, a digital artwork entitled “Tower” by Catrin Welz-Stein shows a youthful nude maiden (a figure like those in Renaissance paintings by Titian) embracing the bottom of a tall building built possibly on a volcano and which is breaking apart and on fire. The nude’s long hair is swept up in the wind of the explosion. The image speaks ably to the explosive emotional content of Goldberg’s book which presciently summons our current day turmoil that deals with place, placement, and power as well as truth and lies.






Saturday, November 13, 2021

What Disappears: A Study in Lost Time


What Disappears
, an historical novel by Barbara Quick, is an ambitious work populated with such larger-than-life personalities as the prima Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, the superhuman Polish ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky, the groundbreaking choreographer Sergei Diaghelev, the innovative French fashion designer Paul Poiret who released women from corsets but then put them in his hobble skirts. The Dresser will pause this list for now and say that writer Quick with these characters alone and the events  around them has seeded her novel for a spectacular cinematic rendering.


The heart of What Disappears is the quest of a Jewish Russian born and bred young seamstress named Sonya to find her identical twin. This non-linear novel opens in 1909 in Paris backstage in the heady rush to get Pavlova on stage with Nijinsky for a performance of the Ballets Russes, but this “young savage,” as Pavlova refers to Nijinsky, has accidentally during a morning practice ripped the bodice of her costume with a ring gifted to him by Diaghelev. She screams at her maid to find her seamstress. The maid grabs and brings to her boss a woman who she thinks is the seamstress just as Sonya rushes in behind them her youngest daughter Baila in tow. When Sonya looks into the face of her long-lost twin, she faints in shock upsetting little Baila. Hereby, Quick roots the saga of Sonya who suffered successive losses—her father who was imprisoned and tortured for ten years by the Tsar’s strongarms only to die within months after his release, her twin sister when their desperate mother parks the twins in an orphanage so they would be fed only to have an unknown French couple snatch her twin, the young man who loves her but moves away with his family to Argentina, her mother who reveals on her death bed that Sonya’s twin did not die in childbirth, her husband Asher (an arranged marriage, father of their two daughters Naomi and Olga) who is killed in a pogrom that destroyed their thriving tailor shop.


For a novel delivered in just under 300 pages, the scope of Quick’s story is huge. How does the author handle so many characters and three major geographic locations (Russia, France, Argentina)? Certainly, skipping around in time allows for some things to go unsaid. More remarkably, Quick has many scenes that focus on in-depth character portraits that evolve from the complicated relationships and situations that Quick creates.


Take for example Sonya’s 1903 arrival in Paris by train. As a result of meeting Pavlova at a party her brother Daniel holds in his Saint Petersburg home, Sonya unexpectedly travels to Paris to scout out new fashion designs. Pavlova is a client of Daniel’s law practice, and she is intensely jealous of another Russian ballet star whose seamstress is copying dresses of Parisian designs. Awash in guilt that her husband Asher stayed in their village of Kishinev to fill their client orders, Sonya reflects on Daniel’s “tiresome lecture, that Latin men were all unconscionably flirtatious—and that she had to take care not to encourage them in the slightest way.” Daniel has also sent a Monsieur Blum to collect her from the train. However, the first person to greet her and help her from the train is Paul Poiret, one of the fashion designers Pavlova has told her about who is scandalizing the industry with designs that are in demand. The twist in this scene is that Poiret thinks Sonya is Jeanette Dupres, his mistress and Sonya’s missing twin. When Sonya does not recognize him and he never introduces himself, Poiret thinks she is pranking him, after all Jeanette is a stage performer. Quickly the fraught encounter ends as Monsieur Blum presents himself to Sonya and a porter pulls Poiret’s attention to the just unloaded trunk of special fabrics the couturier has come to retrieve.


Monsieur Blum, René Blum, who speaks in Yiddish to Sonya when he first meets her at the train station is an interesting minor character. In real life, he was a friend of Marcel Proust, helping Proust get the first novel of his master work À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) published. Quick gives us a cameo appearance of the “lavishly mustachioed, frail-looking” Proust in a vignette where Blum, who has been teaching Sonya’s daughters Naomi and Olga about Judaism and other subjects, admonishes them that lost learning is a theft of time. However, Olga, already an intellectual, is lost in her own thoughts about 1910, the year that she and her mother nearly died because of the devasting Paris flood, the year that brought her family the combative Aunt Jeanette into their lives, and the switch from the Paris Meridian to Greenwich Mean Time resulting in nine minutes and twenty-one seconds of lost time. The look on her face makes Proust ask Olga what she is thinking about. Of course, she answers, lost time, an answer that is both mortally serious for this character and inside-joke hilarious for a reader like the Dresser who studied modern French literature as an undergraduate. Seriously?—little Olga, who is maybe ten or eleven years old, gets to say to Marcel Proust that she is thinking about lost time? Maybe Quick identifies with Olga and What Disappears is the author’s study of lost time.


Quick also uses the presence of Monsieur Blum to say something shocking about Jeanette Dupres. In real life, René Blum came from an assimilated Jewish family and was the brother of Léon Blum who played an advocacy role in the Dreyfus Affair and was the first Jewish head of state in France. While the fictional René Blum is rumored to be in love with Sonya, he nearly marries Jeanette. Jeanette in many ways stands in opposition to Sonya. Raised by a French Catholic couple, Jeanette has been taught to be an anti-Semite.


While the revelation that Jeanette is Jewish unsettles her and simultaneously explains certain puzzling behaviors and comments from her French family, Jeanette, as a character, seems less understandable than her twin. Except for Paul Poiret saying Jeanette did not support Dreyfus, the young Jewish army captain wrongly accused of being a traitor, it is unclear how Jeanette’s anti-Semitism manifests. Does Blum Learn she is anti-Semitic? Not clear. We do know, however, that she has a mean streak, and we see her slapping Olga in the face. Why is this woman who has had three abortions and desperately wants a child fathered by Poiret so unrepentantly cruel to her niece? Is Olga a stand-in for Sonya, who Poiret seduced? Guess who the father of Baila is, much to Sonya’s shame.


 Barbara Quick is exceptionally agile at blending real life events with her fiction. Favorite among these blendings is the Thousand and Second Night fashion party Poiret threw at his home. The fictional Poiret hires all three of Sonya’s daughters to help with the party’s pageantry. Olga reluctantly participates until she discovers she (dressed as a barefoot merchant’s boy) is paired with a charming man who is selling tiny monkeys.


“They stroll past pink ibis, flamingoes, and a screaming white peacock wandering over the lawn. Parrots and macaws fly in tiny bursts of color past their heads, making the marmosets whimper in fear. …Carved wooden tables throughout the garden are loaded with every kind of delicacy, which Olga would have felt much better about sampling if the monkeys weren’t constantly clambering down onto her head, into her arms, and then jumping back onto Gaston again.


“Several different orchestras are playing softly, also hidden behind the shrubberies, the music growing louder and then fading away again as Olga and Gaston follow the maze of pathways. Here and there they come upon throngs of braziers with blue smoking incense, tended by bare-breasted black-skinned girls. ‘Really, it’s too much,’ Gaston says, reaching down to turn Olga’s wide-eyed gaze away as he and she pass by.”


Barbara Quick’s What Disappears from Regal House Publishing will undoubtedly please Francophiles, balletomanes, history buffs, and women of every persuasion from traditionalists to Feminists. Even in its uncorrected proof, this is a novel rich in subject matter and well-turned phrases. Look for the launch of What Disappears in May 2022.