Review by Mary Meriam

“The writing of a poem is also the act of taking a stand against the sadness.”

My homeless sister once dreamily said that she would like a wardrobe, a closet full of nice clothes. Clothes are a home for our bodies. Clothes broadcast to others where we stand in the world. If our clothes are clean, comfortable, fashionable, and a good fit, we appear to be at home in the world.

Homelessness assaults a person from so many angles — hunger, thirst, cold, heat, danger, despair — that we sometimes can’t help dreaming that if we only had the right clothes, we could have a home in the world. But while trying to hold together body and soul, our clothes get dirty, worn out, and torn, making us feel and look even more like misfits.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was an American preacher and philosopher who traveled alone on horseback from parish to parish. He had ideas and insights while he was traveling, and devised a method to remember his ideas by pinning small pieces of paper to his clothing. A contemporary poet, Susan Howe, was inspired by this story to write in her book, Souls of the Labadie Tract, “Words give clothing to hide our nakedness. I love to imagine this gaunt and solitary traveler covered in scraps riding through the woods and fields of Massachusetts and Connecticut.”

Julia Vinograd’s new book of poems, When Even the Sky Hurts, begins with “Shirt,” which begins with these lines: “I’m wearing a dark cotton shirt / with yellow dancing skeletons, kicking high.” Like the layers of clothes we put on to keep warm, this image has many layers of meaning. The shirt is worn by the speaker of the poem, whose words are both literal clothing for the speaker and figurative flesh for the skeletons. Skeletons emerge from a dark background to dance on a shirt; not just any skeletons, but cheerful “yellow” skeletons; and not just dancing, but “kicking high,” full of energy.

Poet Lucia Perillo wrote that “the writing of a poem is also the act of taking a stand against the sadness.” Vinograd’s poems do more than take a stand; they dance away sadness, give us joyful clothing, transform death into life.

In the first few lines of “Letters to Soldiers,” Vinograd compares “a new flowered dress” with “a mask of rain and blood” to show a heartbreaking contrast between two worlds that can no longer communicate:

Their girlfriends’ letters, lightly perfumed

with gently looping penmanship

talk about a bake sale to support the troops

and describe a new flowered dress she bought

to match her strawberry shortcake

and he won’t be such a great hero

that he forgets all about her, will he?

Soldiers read these letters, peering thru a mask

of rain and blood. Flies buzz over knife slashes.

Gentle, perfumed, flowered, strawberry words in the girlfriends’ letters cannot give the soldiers protection from war’s wounds and horrors — the soliders are wordless and exposed.

Clothing is transformed into food in these vivid, evocative lines from “Big Momma Blues”:

“Baby, baby,” sings Big Mama Blues, peeling

the city’s orange vests off tired construction workers

like oranges fresh off a tree, peeling off soldiers’ uniforms

like onion skins over a wound.

Big Mama’s song brings comfort and relief, by stripping away the grown-up costumes of work and war, and making the workers and soldiers vulnerable, nourished babies, swaddled in song.

In the first two lines of a great poem, Vinograd answers the question “Why I Write Poetry”: “Because I can’t trust God / to look after the world and my friends.” These words express Vinograd’s wellspring of inspiration and compassion.

The middle of the poem continues with candor: “God, it is a very beautiful world, / but no thank you, it is not enough.” The last words of the poem turn again toward the reader, with saving grace: “I’m throwing you a rope of words. / Hold on.” Here words move beyond poems, letters, and songs, to the poet’s naked voice providing a lifeline.

Even a celestial body has lost its clothes: “the moon’s cast-off trousers.” (“Mother”). Nakedness is cold, dark, impersonal, wordless: “in my own naked body. Night cold. Nameless.” (“The Hunt”).

Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd.

Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd.

The following lines from “Street Crazy” describe a poignant relationship between the human and avian worlds, as if, when there’s no other way to clothe our nakedness, we could find a home with birds, or wear the clothing of birds:

Crazy guy pulls swans out of the holes in his pocket.

They circle his head and fly away.

He picks up one long feather for his hat band

if he ever has a hat, but he drops the feather

a block later staring at a sale sign:

“everything must go.” He feels himself going.

So sad, “if he ever has a hat,” and he loses the feather he found, and everything is going. This guy isn’t crazy to want nice clothes.

“Scorpion Dance” is reminiscent of the skeletons in “Shirt.” Here a spider with a poisonous sting is alive on a t-shirt. Trouble is held at bay by the strong muscles of heartbeat, song, and loveliness.

The scorpion climbs over muscles of music,

bouncing against the banjo player’s t-shirt

listening for his heartbeat in a storm of song,

in his lean body lovely between the claws of time.

I’d like to recommend Vinograd’s poem, “First Love,” in which there’s nothing between the speaker and the wind that loves her. In “The Bogeyman’s Love Song,” clothes are no defense against the trouble of a seductive snake: “my long forked tongue will lick under your clothes.” The woman, Jerusalem, tries to heal devastation and destruction in “Bridal Gowns and Jerusalem.”

The most powerful and beautiful clothes are worn by this dancer, who makes the whole world new again. Here is the complete poem:

Bellydancer in a Coffeehouse

Not what I expected. Only her feet were bare

and her stilled face was naked.

At her slim waist deep blue strings spun

over a crimson whirling skirt with yellow satin harem pants

underneath. Brown lace sleeves shot with gold thread,

long and wide as trailing wings.

She started the dance kneeling under a scarf

and stood up so slowly the music

had to get under her knees and help.

Her body carved the air gradually out of her way.

Long dark hair piled in braids on her head

carried like a jug of water never spilling.

Her arms uncoiled but not to the crowd.

She never smiled.

The coffeehouse dissolved around her

it was too young and easy for her ruthless eyes.

She was an answer to genesis,

flesh become word.

Everything in Vinograd’s world has feelings, even clothes, even skeletons. Earth is clothed by the sky, and even the sky hurts. I’m grateful for Vinograd’s poems. Her words are like beautiful, comfortable clothing that she has given us to wear, so that we can feel at home in the world. You can find Julia Vinograd on Telegraph or at Fourth Street, hawking When Even the Sky Hurts.

Purchase When Even the Sky Hurts from Zietgeist Press in Berkeley from their website at http://ww.zeitgeist-press.com/vinograd.cfm

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