Those fortunate enough to have studied with Ira Sadoff, Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of English, know personally the enormous care he devotes to his students. It is this same deep spirit of veraciousness that Sadoff brings to his readers in his latest poetry collection, True Faith.
In a world “where there’s enough suffering in unequal parts to go around,” Sadoff wonders, “how do you still say yes to the blessings of being alive?” True Faith embraces difficulty and loss and creates a willingness to face these truths. In these poems, Sadoff struggles to come to terms with a universe that is profoundly unjust, while at the same time he longs for community. The title poem sets the framework for the collection, with passive-aggressive flowers and prayers, illness, loss of jobs, painful childhood memories, overcome in a tonal shift that soars with a collective breath as a man hang-glides from a mountaintop,
And descending, until he lands tumbleweed style
In a field adjacent to the vineyard of the Lord,
Followed by beers at the Hofbrau, where we lean
Into one another with joy and shout and toast
Thinking we could have lost this one and that one,
And how quiet the earth would be, and how round.
Sadoff’s attention to diction is by turns intimate, playful, and serious. His use of slang, interruptions in logic, and shifts in tone reflects who we are as real people. Each poem contains a range of experience: “In the silences there was a great sea between us. / All right, it was more like a pond. But an icy little pond.” (“Lament”) Metaphor and simile are the connective tissue of these poems that create correspondence and relationships in their movements, because “things happen to us in terms of how we feel about them,” Sadoff has said.
True Faith doesn’t solve, or aim to solve—these poems aren’t meant to be “understood.” They are invitations. Sadoff shows us what he sees, and he wants us to join him on a journey—not to look for meaning but to gather meaning through the experience, to appreciate the preciousness of being alive, as in “For Beauty”:
Imagination’s a great gift: you can make it small,
call it escapist, transcendent, fancy, and sometimes
it walks away from the accident; it might haul you off
to a lush little meadow, or the muddy pond
where yaks dip their tongues in the gatorless water
where you can wash off the scratches and bruises.
Ira Sadoff’s imagination in True Faith provides us a salve against life’s cruelties. To borrow one of his critical phrases and turn it on his own work, we’re drawn to the poems of True Faith because they reflect the world in which we actually reside. In spite of how difficult it is, we love life so much we don’t want to lose it.
-Review by Matt O'Donnell. Matt O’Donnell is editor of From the Fishouse, an online audio archive of poetry, www.fishousepoems.org.
For Debra Spark's Characters, It's the Journey Not the Destination
In Debra Spark’s latest book, The Pretty Girl, the quotidian and the fantastic collide. As though Raymond Carver wrote science fiction, Spark gives her readers deep insights into the mundane sadness of the human condition—and then, in the last story of the collection, throws in a miniature rabbi who dispenses wisdom despite being encased in a chocolate egg since sometime after World War II.
In the novella-length title story, a girl becomes entranced by a painting in her great aunt’s apartment. Over the decades the painting is a touchstone as she enters her relative’s space, defined by lonesomeness—and the glamour of having been a single working girl in New York City. As the great aunt lapses into an inelegant decline and death, the narrator researches the painting and uncovers a family secret so airtight even her own mother doesn’t know it. Via this haunting story (which rewards multiple reads), we’re asked to speculate about what constitutes a well-lived existence and why the narrator might have exulted that, after all, great-aunt Rose did have a life.
Spark, professor of English, flawlessly shifts gears, bringing us to disparate settings—Victorian-era London, Switzerland, Cambridge, Massachusetts—that connect because of the self-conscious characters struggling to find meaning in their circumscribed lives. Her gentle humor helps allay their overarching sense of alienation. Another shared thread is their identity as Jews, from kids who watch Shalom Sesame videos to a schizophrenic artist who draws Hasidic men. The shadow of Shoah can be dimly seen on each story’s wallpaper.
But one of the most unexpected, and delightful, bonds is a quirky repetition of certain concepts. In these stories, three people have visited Switzerland, two have worked as art conservators, several have been policemen. Let’s just say, any book with two cheese makers deserves special scrutiny. These references provide a little jolt and make the reader stop to consider, “Wait! Were these the same people? The one who stayed in the B&B and the one who married the guy from the Métro?” Overall they impart disjointed coherence, because the coincidences aren’t meaningful, but random, like life.
None of the people who so convincingly populate these tales seem happy (the one with the best shot gets foreboding news on her wedding day), but, regardless, there’s great pleasure in reading such careful, precise prose. With economical narration and dead-on dialogue, Spark makes us care for these wounded souls. Her motif of seeking someone to truly listen to you argues that if we can’t control the bitterness of events, we can find comfort in talking about them. Says one character, “Everybody she knew wanted their life to be a stepping-stone to something else, and no one was happy where they landed. And what of it? That was life. It didn’t matter really. Or it wouldn’t matter if only there were someone to talk to about it.”
-Review by Erika Mailman '91