Trembling of the City by Hagit Grossman, tr. Benjamin Balint
Shearsman Books, 2016, £9.95 / $17
Hagit Grossman’s Trembling but Open Space
Trembling of the City by Hagit Grossman, beautifully translated by Benjamin Balint, gives us the city of the mind and the body, the city of bicycles, market squares, corner margins, villains, sidewalks, cooks from Florentine street, but most of all this is a city of love, a city that trembles with “the speed of everything,” the city where Sylvia Plath and Snow White and Desdemona make up the hall of ghosts where “any open space receives a sign,” where “anyone who stopped will say stop” and eyes “return lit up” in this city and if “blood waters the flowerpot on balcony” it is because you are “in love with love,” it is because you “have encountered love / on a night meant only for a funeral,” it is because the voice tells us “I haven’t been loved for a year now. / These are my last words in a little while / I’ll celebrate liberation from my body.” And yet we realize that there are many departures. This one, for instance, is particularly memorable:
When we reached the traffic light
I was five years old
And by the time we crossed
I was no longer.
But what is a transformation? How does one end? And, how does one end in a poem?—
He leaped through his window onto the poem
and ambushed himself in the secrecy of night
that arises with the day
and became a winged cat
an owl with sharpened teeth
and tore at the bowels to give up birth to this words
just because it was free
and he had no money.
Who is this mysterious he? The he who “bites his lips and is becalmed.” The he who is called “the wolf boy”—
Who huffed in surrendering to what he lacked, his forehead
Always bore the bandage of his fear.
I play music and lend him something absolute
And who is this I of the speaker? Is it somewhat self-depreciating voice of Snow White who, deep down, “is rather traditional”? We learn by watching this “I” as she watches the others, those like Tami for example, who “hasn’t yet wiped / the chocolate from her lips / and already she is contemplating the bullet / to the head” or poetry itself, who is “bright young woman of twenty-five” whose lover “writes poems which she hangs on the wall of her room.” But it isn’t that romance the “I” of the speaker notes. Instead, she notes how “her auburn hair touches her shoulders and she / whispers a story about a girl in a coma / whom she doesn’t wish to stir.”
This ability at acute portraiture, this stillness filled with the desire to touch, but denying it, this resistance “to stir”—is impressive. The watching in this book is intense, sometime mournful, something humorous, sometime filled with death, other times attracted the very anima of the being. At those times, the poetry is electrifying:
A woman falls to earth
Anonymous to the weeds
Ants call her by name
Sand encases her face
Roots sprout from her tongue.
A woman is interred in the pit
And her shell is emptied of spirit
Diapered in white like the day she was born
Her legs will not lift her to walk
But the Anima
Frees itself through her nose
And flutters like a kite held by her child
All the way back home.
Those last lines, that Anima, which is spirit, freeing itself through her nose, and fluttering like a kite help by her child of that final metaphor—are strange in the best possible way, and betray, even in translation, the sign of a real poet.
This poetry, that comes in strange moments, sometime wild, other times utterly plain, that are there before everything begins, or that are –perhaps already–everything:
Go out to the balcony and light a cigarette and sip
A cold beer. You don’t yet realize
That this is a sublime moment in your life
What do you see when you go out on that balcony, into that city?
You might, perhaps, see that in the “market square, in the sake of Harley-davidson / sits Jesus smoking a cigarette.”
Or you might see how above your head “roof dwells / coupled to the clouds, to the heavens, to God.” Grossman is the kind of poet who likes to see her cities from above, from roofs, balconies. From them, she likes to see how “towers will gleam like dogs / with phosphorescent poison.” She is a kind of poet who’s “for years…fantasizing about a wider balcony / about breezes, about open spaces.” As one reads her work one realizes that her relation to death, to the city, to others, to that “he” that comes in and out of her poems, is deeply related to that love of “breezes,” of “open spaces,” and when she can’t have them, those open spaces, she finds them in the smallest details of humans, and among them, in their darknesses, their bodies, their loves, and deaths. The open space of her trembling city is all about us, and inside.
—Poetry International Staff