issue 31 > nonfiction > juster
Main Street Rag PublishingReview by A.M. Juster
Charlotte, NC, 2011. 80 pp.
Andrew Sofer's first book of poems, Wave, at first evokes the troubled ghost of Philip Larkin. You see the same fluency with form, the same love of wordplay, and a similar sense of relief at having survived British education. In "The Glenn Gould Variations," Sofer even expresses a Larkinesque unease about the repurposing of a place of worship:
Between the vaulted windows of a church
the record company sold, he sits once more
at the custom Yamaha.
As you read more carefully, however, you start to see how different Sofer is from Larkin. Larkin was rooted in location and history, and Larkin found little solace in his relationships with others. Sofer is the exact opposite.
Wave opens with an epigraph for the poet's father and brother, who both died at young ages; his brother committed suicide. The first poem, "Wandlebury Ring," is a moving elegy for these lost family members; similar elegiac moments, often expressed as questions, recur throughout the book:
(figuring out where Father might have gone?)
("Naughts and Crosses")
Our living room and dining room are gone
What did my father hide behind the shelf?
("Home from School")
In perhaps the most striking poem of the book, "Walking to Moscow," the poet—who scrutinizes his own Jewishness in several poems later in the book—even imagines his brother as a Jesus figure:
He reaches Harwich in a few hours
and walks over the English channel
past astonished ferries.
("Walking to Moscow")
Chillingly, Sofer also imagines his dead brother obsessing in the same way that many of these poems obsess:
My brother refuses. In December
he runs out of food
and begins to consume his past,
starting with his childhood.
The book's second poem, "A Latin Lesson," places Sofer at odds with the empire that Larkin mourned. Undoubtedly to his satisfaction, he has the literal last word, in Latin, with a snidely old-school teacher. Moreover, he takes perverse joy in collapsing the fall of the Roman Empire with the then-ongoing fall of the British Empire:
Sofer! Kindly write out one hundred lines:
Tempus fugit. I shan't waste 2A's time.
Sir smirks. His victim's thrown to the lions,
and class drags on till afternoon libations.
One-nil. Rome triumphs, barbarian is humbled.
A hopeless case, I'm sentenced for the crime
of being modern, but Empire declines
once boys learn more exciting conjugations.
Sic biscuitus disintegrat, Sir. Rome crumbled.
Despite rejection of the Britain in which he grew up, Sofer finds no other home to embrace. There is no clear reference to his adopted homeland of the United States until page 37, and even then it feels like an afterthought. Fleeting references to the Russia and South Africa of his forebears make it clear that they are not viable alternatives either.
A string of poems in which the poet tries on Israel as home end in disappointment, and fascinating disappointment at that. In the powerful and sonnet-like "Home, Unpacking," it at first appears that Sofer may have found the home he desires:
Two woven basket lids from the Old City,
orchid bulb, cinnamon, nutmeg and milk,
Amichai's poems, some crumpled maps,
muezzin's call to the jasmine of rain,
crones of Mahane Yehuda spice market,
my Turkish carpet that never flew,
Ein Gedi leopards elusive as waterfalls,
jazz ricochets off the citadel wall, piss
stench and street strut of Tel Aviv Bus Station,
peach-scented hookahs, mint tea and hashish,
knife flash and shutter slam, beach rats of Jaffa,
tanks that rolled over the feet of my friends,
scabies of Sinai boring tracks in my groin,
foot soles blistered by shooting desert stars.
Before long, though, he realizes that he does not fully belong in Israel either:
It's not the way the children spat at us,
nor how their glassy eyes narrowed to slits
as they chanted Whore of Babylon! at the girl
dressed in slacks, pale arms bared to the sun.
What I recall is how the silent fathers
folded arms to watch the gathering swarm,
waiting to see which blessed son of Israel
would be the first to cast the righteous stone.
("The Silent Fathers")
A description of recurrent thefts of lemons by children refashions the lemon tree tale from St. Augustine's Confessions so that it becomes a symbol of seemingly irresolvable cycles of retaliation on disputed turf:
It's not about
lemons at all, of course, but who owes what
to whom. Once near this village an angel spoke,
struck mute the doubting priest whose son was born.
Whose language must we speak to pay the debt?
I raise the children's crooked stick and shake
lemon after lemon from silent thorns.
His time in Israel even stirs alienation from visiting Christians:
Blocked, the pilgrims halt, stare down
at fractured elbows bound in splints.
Can someone lend a hand? They frown
then shuffle past us, at a loss,
toward the next Station of the Cross.
One cannot help but feel that his farewell to a former girlfriend at her wedding is as much a farewell to Israel itself:
Now I shake your husband's hand.
Your mother tugs him away, cries
for her beloved Baghdad, drunk
in the swirl of the hora
we dance together, our last shalom
somewhere between goodbye and peace.
Only in "Kenning," a series of short poems near the end of Wave, does Sofer begin to press forward and try to replace the lost joys of youth with joys of the family he has created. He is talking about far more than a rented tuxedo when he asks:
Surely it pays to purchase what we rent?
This new resolve does not immediately turn into success. His 1995 wedding seems to end anticlimactically:
we make our splash and drift away,
flotsam of this Saturday.
Soon the wedding is followed by difficulties with conception, then the anxiety and awkwardness of the fertility clinic:
I grew to dread the sympathetic smile
the nurse gave me with each wasted vial.
It is a great relief when "Kenning" ends with two sweet poems in which the poet alleviates fears of his young son.
Wave is a formidable book of poetry. It details a long personal journey with a clear eye, dry wit, and fresh language rooted in the Western literary tradition. While Larkinesque in technique, its themes are not. Sofer's poems scour the past to retrieve a sense of family, and scour his diaspora for a sense of community. One senses in his last poem, "My Father as a Schoolboy," that he has made an important turn, but he is still looking for "an ocean glimpsed through a cloth of cloud/that spills into air like a breaking wave."