Review | From the Fever-World, by Jehanne Dubrow
Washington Writers Publishing House, 2009
Imagine a Jewish community in a small Polish town early in the last century—a ghetto, if you will, the walls invisible but nonetheless defining: kosher on this side, treyf on the other. Imagine a young woman, a poet, who has lived all her life there, whose writing of necessity takes its images from the small world around her. Jehanne Dubrow has imagined precisely this—the community, the poet—in her second full-length collection, From the Fever-World.
My college lit professors drilled into us (and I hope their successors are still drilling into our successors) the error of confusing the speaker in a poem with the poet herself. A veil always separates the two, no matter how similar they seem. Poets often insert a second veil when they employ the first-person singular to speak in the voice of a completely other person.
Dubrow carries this dance of several veils much further by creating a separate poet, Ida Lewin, not only as distinct as most poets are from the “I” she uses in her poems, but not even particularly “autobiographical.” The details of Ida’s life, for the most part, come in glimpses, intuited from the objects and preoccupations of her short lyric poems. We can suppose a husband and a child, much time spent in the kitchen, but we never know for sure if we’re seeing Ida’s own life or an invented one drawn from the community around her.
A “Translator’s Note” at the end tells us that Ida was probably born around 1906 in a town called AlwaysWinter and died in a flu epidemic in 1938—i.e., shortly before the Holocaust, a choice on Dubrow’s part that, as she wrote in an essay for Blackbird, allows her “as Ida Lewin . . . to speak without postmodern irony about Poland and the Jews.” Schoolchildren discovered Ida’s work, some “fifty crumpled pages,” in 1986, buried near the synagogue. So we have a poet about whom almost everything of importance must be learned from the inherently unreliable testimony of her untitled and undated poems.
From these short pieces we may guess that Ida’s worldview borrows heavily from traditional religion and local folklore, and she surely must have done a lot of cooking. This limited experience, however, doesn’t so much circumscribe as inform her poetry.
The concept of kosher, in particular, provides a powerful metaphor: Because it is “forbidden,” “the outside world is treyf / and, therefore, beautiful,” Ida notes. Her speaker applies this divide, not only to food, but to herself as a married woman who monthly becomes unclean. “I cursed my body,” she writes, “while my husband slept in the clean / of his separate bed.” The curses take their shape and force equally from the synagogue and the kitchen (“[may] my mind misplace the name of G-d, / the recipe for bread”). Most powerfully, at the end of the poem, she realizes that her very existence as a woman violates the dietary laws:
—I cursed myself
only to remember
that I’m both milk and meat, impure,
my woman’s body treyf as pork,
my voice serrated, a filthy knife.
A second version of the poem (in several places, Dubrow the “translator” offers multiple drafts of the same piece) focuses on the perceived anger of the husband at the speaker’s impurity: “Who obliterates the body? / —my husband, when I bleed,” she writes. This version ends, “He hates the body, draws back, / then raises high the knife.” Real hatred or projected resentment? Version three adopts an impersonal stance, as if she has moved from guilt to blame to resignation: “the body is a curse / that tastes of fruit” Ida says here, “and the hunger / is divided by a dirty knife.”
The following poem initially offers respite (“I come back from the bath / my body kosher / clean like a new china plate”), but concludes, “I’m crumbs / of bread that fall before Pesach / and rot forgotten in the dark.”
The body and potential tropes for the body form a major element in Ida’s aesthetic. At times she seems to be testing the metaphoric possibilities of everything in her daily life in a quest to come to terms with herself: the heart as a tiny chest “so tight only secrets small / as thimbles fit;” self as “a Shabbes candle / . . . barely luminous / enough to rustle / shadows from the wall;” body as word (“let [my husband] be / a scholar and I the text”); and womb as field (“Some claimed the ground / was a woman’s wound”). And always and again, food. Ida compares herself to beets, to broth (“after fasting”), to apples (“familiar as the weight / of [Eve’s] own body”). Her baby is a “cabbage roll,” with “breath sweet cinnamon / and raisins.” “I would eat her,” Ida claims, “hold her again in the dark oven / of my belly.” Later, she asserts,
In a woman’s life,
all lists become her poetry,
so that a recipe for cake
is just the verse form
But food seldom represents unalloyed pleasure. In one eerie poem, in which beets are blood and potatoes corpses, she writes, “I’m vegetable with rot,” and concludes, “I hemorrhage / inside your hunger-dreams.” Cooking, which “brings a death / to its ingredients,” suggests other rituals: after “we chopped our fingertips / into the tsimmes pot, / . . . Mamme said / Best to slice your wrist / before the sacrifice / is asked.” Later in the same poem, kneading bread becomes a painful act (“our palms turned blue / with bruises”),
as though we hoped
to shape a second husband
from the dough, a second father,
a man more pliable
beneath our gentling hands.
Men, however, don’t fit pliably into Ida’s domestic metaphors. Although she can picture a husband or lover as gentle (“Beloved, . . . / Wipe the nightmare from my lids / fingers soft as feathers”), more often an undercurrent of violence and danger haunt sexual relationships. She writes of “fingernails / that hack ten crescent moons / across a lover’s back,” “breasts / too easily fingered, / crushed beneath a hand.” A poem that speaks enviously of the “freedom” of gentile women at the market, with their casual interactions with male customers, ends with transgressive longing:
There are evenings when I dream
the taste of bacon, the soft whisper
of a stranger’s hand on mine.
His words are salt and sugar
kosher but only in
the sacred law of my own skin.
Beneath the resignation and pathos that often characterize Ida’s domestic poetry lies a sense of the many imminent forms of death. Although the young poet is made to die before the Final Solution, Dubrow believes “she had the gift of Sight.” Her gift will have been fed by the outbreak of influenza that took the lives of thirty-one members of her community, eventually including Ida and her baby daughter. The foreboding often takes the shape of otherworldly birds:
Someone has seen the bird again,
that crane we call December—
December for the frozen rain
it carries in its wings
We’ve heard December molts
black down like dust after a fire,
black feathers scorching where they fall.
December’s legs are bare
as branches in the wintertime,
its beak the red of poison berries,
each claw a rusted sickle blade
It’s not clear if the crane is also the ominous “ash-bird” that “caws the wind, / its prophecy the daggered beak,” that, after disaster, camouflages itself as a “tree, / wingspan made of shadows” so the victims choke “on feathered leaves.”
Other images from actual or invented folklore become tangible threats. In a “love song,” in which the beloved (perhaps coincidentally like Caligula) is addressed as “little boots,” and which begins with tender promises (“I’ll be the post which props / the corner of your bed”), the singer morphs into a demon lover:
I’ll carve my finger bone
into a key unlock
the doors you sleep behind
will cut apart your seams
Snow White’s wicked stepmother makes an appearance too:
I think she must be Death—
the one who knocked today,
a stranger with her box
of poisoned sweets
. . .
I choked on chocolate filled
with wine, purple-black
Images of endangered or dead children become more frequent as the book goes on, perhaps after Ida’s own daughter sickens and dies. A buried baby cries from her grave, “sucking the milk / of nightmares mothers make, / when they have nothing left / to give.” The images of children and birds merge in an account of a nightmare in which
Last night my pillow broke
into a thousand feathers.
My mouth gave birth to wings
but crippled ones,
as if a child had struck
a white stork from the sky.
. . .
He left the bird for dead
beneath my tongue.
The first and final poems of the book offer other nightmares—or hallucinations brought on by fever—of a house of death. In the opening poem, Ida warns, “Avoid the red house in the forest,” its “rooms crowded with ghosts.” In the last she announces, “I am returned, to the fever-world— / my rooms made empty now.” But the house this time has become the scene of the most terrible plague of Exodus, from which the Hebrews are meant to be spared. Ida, however, discovers “there never was a blood / to paint the lintel, the Angel / entering through every door / of me.” Her firstborn has not been passed over, and she herself, presumably dying, is lost in “all the falling down / that follows after.”
In From the Fever-World Jehanne Dubrow offers a fully formed and often harsh world of ritual, dailiness, loss, and sheer terror; and she gives us a poet capable of speaking for that world. The language is both lyrical and credibly Ida’s rather than Dubrow’s own. In fact, you may find yourself forgetting that there is another poetic intelligence behind Ida Lewin’s. Fever-World constitutes a remarkable and moving work of the imagination.
Jehanne Dubrow has published the poetry books Stateside (Triquarterly, 2010) and The Hardship Post (Three Candles Press, 2009), as well as the chapbook The Promised Bride (Finishing Line Press, 2007). She was born in Italy and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. Dubrow holds an MFA from the University of Maryland, College Park and a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She teaches creative writing and literature at Washington College in Maryland.