November 2012

Courtney Birst


The Two Yvonnes by Jessica Greenbaum

The first poem in The Two Yvonnes, "Next Door," contains a line that sums up my feelings about the collection: "That silence is also like the space between the reader and the page, the little nation between the writer's worlds and our particular way of receiving them..." My particular way of receiving most of the poems in this book was that I didn't care for them. But when I broke them apart and focused on a single line or sentence, there I found gems I wanted to tuck away and reread.

"Anthology" compares a city to a book, and though it changes three-fourths of the way through and becomes its own story -- which is probably the point -- it is descriptive and effective and has lyrically beautiful lines, such as "...that one book held all a city and that one day was like my life" and "...a city must make room for everything and think of everyone, even those who prefer to feel excluded." Continuing along the same theme is "What We Read Then," which laments growing up through books and reading, even if it's not always the right book or the truest of books. Getting an idea of who you are to be based on the words around you: "...that one little poem where he says he envies the pool his girlfriend dives into because it touches her so completely -- oh if we could ever imagine being thought of that way," continuing on with "...and then Anaïs Nin -- because whatever sex was, we were in, especially if it sounded like: 'Angel in the Morning' which we had reason to believe it did," and finally drawing to an end with "But by the time the truth snaked through the interference the books sat solidly in our minds like cross-legged girls in a circle around a campfire..."

Finally I reached a poem I liked in its entirety: "Packing Slip." It is an excellent example of categorizing and listing of a life and makes the reader wonder why she chose those characteristics to include. My favorites were "...Raynaud's disease causes numbness in digits when cold, often followed by sense of homesickness for some place yet unnamed..." and later, "sensitivity to sunlight has bred the wearing of sunglasses indoors in such places as rude brightness requires..."

The poem "Early April" starts with such strong imagines I was entranced, but then halfway through it loses focus and also loses the reader. But the next poem, "'This' and 'That,'" redeems the book and is an excellent use of language. The idea of everything being male: "It got to us, all those years of He, His and Him, all that Fe Fi Fo Fum..." "When My Daughter Got Sick" is much better when read aloud. In fact, the poem demands to be read aloud, to hear the subtle rhyming, but more importantly, to hear the slight sing-song quality that betrays the heavy theme of the poem.

"Before," another good poem, has wonderful imagery, and by the last line you are as sated as the poet and her daughters. The poem "Sonnets for the Autobiographical Urban Dweller" required two readings, and both times one line jumped out as the meat of the poem and all others simply faded away: "...regardless of our tender subjects we tilt, bare, toward sunlit panes, parlaying flaws to blushed, polite applause."

"Baldo" starts with the decision to stay and eat at an obviously subpar restaurant, and then the last line hits you, and -- BAM! – suddenly, we're not talking about pizza anymore. Suddenly, all of life's decisions are being regretted. "...where beckons a sparkling -- golden, nearly -- anything, anything else, any other life than ours."

A half a dozen poems later, I finally stumble upon "The Use of Metaphor," and the title sums up precisely what the poem is: an elegant structuring of sentences belying beauty, until the end, when the reader is slapped in the face with the meaning behind the poem, the author's daughter battling an illness. The poem "God" is the perfect follow-up, and is excellent in its entirety.

A page later comes the wonderful poem "Marriage Made in Brooklyn," which is descriptive, flows well, and makes the reader feel the movement of the city, the animals, and most importantly, the movement of lives.

But for every poem or part of poem I liked, there were many I didn’t. Moments that were jarring or distracting from the virtues of the poem. “The Voice of Peace” left me unmoved and felt slightly cliché -- a young Jewish woman spending a summer in Israel and finding it less than she expected, despite finding love and traveling to Greece. This was followed by “Houston in the Early Eighties” which is written as a long paragraph, divided only by punctuation. It seemed an attempt to cram everything in regardless of if it contributed to the story (it didn’t). “Beauty’s Rearrangements” took the form of a stream of consciousness poem, where one topic bleeds into the next. Sometimes this leads to a beautiful poem, leading the reader to a surprise ending that wasn’t seen or expected at the beginning. This poem tries to do that but falls short despite the last line being elegant: “I saw my eight-year-old delighted by the task of beauty’s rearrangements, and let my sorrows spin to gold.”

While there were only a handful of poems I liked in full, I still found the other poems highly satisfying. I was able to pull lines and mull over them, enjoying the way they lingered in my mind. Jessica Greenbaum writes very descriptively, and for the most part, this works in her favor, though occasionally the reader struggles to understand what she's talking about or where the poem is going. Overall, it was a satisfying read, and one I would recommend.

The Two Yvonnes by Jessica Greenbaum
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 978-0691156637
80 pages