Book Review

Jessica Greenbaum, The Two Yvonnes: Poems, Princeton U Press, 2012

by Zara Raab 

Greenbaum’s humorous title poem refers to a famously funny story by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol; this story, whose title is often translated as “The Squabble,” was adapted for BBC radio a few years ago as “The Two Ivans.” In Greenbaum’s poem, the narrator is told about Gogol’s story, but she mishears “The Two Ivans,” as “The Two Yvonnes”. This clever premise leads the narrator to a book party for a friend whose husband thinks she’s someone she is not; even the friend, it turns out, thinks she’s someone she isn’t. This misreading create a stir, as in Gogol’s story, but in Greenbaum’s riff, the stir is entirely internal: With her social identity in tatters, the narrator can no longer be sure who she is or even if she exists. Just as Gogol’s two Ivans shadow each other, so the friends’ “Yvonne” shadows the poet like a doppelganger, a concept that is, after all, a handy device for exploring personal and social identity.

There are not simply two “Yvonnes” in this book, selected by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets: There are many. The ordering of the poems is roughly chronological, beginning with adolescence and childhood. The shy, studious child of ”House Phone” emulates other shy people like Emily Dickinson, and finds secret satisfaction in the quiet composition of poems only a few hundred people will read. The adolescent spends a summer on a kibbutz in Israel, then later gets her first job in the drug and crime-saturated New York City of the 1970’s. Later, in the poem “Before,”––an anticipation of a later time when one of her daughters falls ill–– the poet-as-mother spends an idyllic interlude in a lakeside cabin with them, collecting blueberries, reading poetry out loud, and guarding the door against a bear “less sated than ourselves” who might call “on us in our sleep”. From a brief stint in Houston, then Brooklyn, husband, children, a friend who dies of cancer, a child who becomes ill, book readings, friends, maturation— after a long period of not understanding a thing–– the poet seems to find the lock that fits the key to herself.

Early on, we get an overview: “Packing Slip” describes a middle class Jew of Eastern European origins with some medical issues, but no Holocaust stories, a fear of mice, but no life traumas or war-torn landscapes.

White, Jewish female, 5’ 4 ½”, 112 lbs, brown eyes, brown hair,
From hirsute tribes in Poland and Russia, Tay-Sachs positive, HIV
Negative, anemia prevents selling blood for pocket money when traveling

In these autobiographical poems, Greenbaum maintains a light touch and keeps the focus steadily away from psychological theorizing about who did what to whom. She stays resolutely rooted in the down-to-earth, the comic, the commonsensical, and the moral, while not evading the sad and grievous. Greenbaum’s poems are domestic and communal, buttressed by a sustaining network of allegiances and loyalties among a circle of friends and family.

Even when she is studying Talmud and the secrets of the cosmos, she reports: “We were just people,/ thinking about life.” This is refreshing! Even in a rare poem of complaint, “Houston in the Eighties,” she is not alone, but shares her misery with like-minded cohorts, artists and intellectuals from the Northeast. About her marriage, she writes: “Ours was a marriage made in Brooklyn. There was too much / bickering for it to be in heaven. Bicker, bicker, bicker.” (“Marriage Made in Brooklyn”)

Greenbaum’s subjects may be quotidian, but a handful of poems have an originality and insight that moved me. In the opening poem “Next Door,” the poet remembers the sounds of a neighbor kid, Robbie Gross, dribbling the basketball outside the bedroom window of her childhood home. Playing cleverly with the sounds the basketball makes as he dribbles it on the sidewalk, she listens:

[. . . ] the bomb-fuse ticktickticktick
while he feinted right, moved left, setting up the shot
and the listener (not trying to listen) and then the blank
space of the arcing quiet as he shoots. [. . .]

As the poem closes, we learn that the pudgy Rob had grown into a handsome teenager “bluff enough to know what he had become/ to any young woman,” a boy who only catches her eye with reticence.  This scenario is framed by the sound the basketball makes—in her memory and in the present moment, when she wakes from a dream, thinking she has heard that sound again, and hearing in her mind “the song the world called ‘Don’t. Wait.’”

The poetics generating the poems of The Two Yvonnes is one of straightforward narrative around a central emotional transaction—often one arising in family relationships. Greenbaum’s imagination rests here, and to borrow a phrase from Helen Vendler (“Imagination Pressing Back: Bidart, Goldbarth, Clampitt,” from Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Harvard, 1995), she presses back against the reality of these relationships with clever, vividly drawn scenarios. In the poem just quoted, the reality concerns the poet and her pudgy neighbor-friend, who on the cusp of adulthood, drops her when he suddenly becomes popular with other girls. In Greenbaum’s retelling, she gains the high ground to his callousness by refusing to sink into feelings of rejection or self-pity.

The unspoken moral theme of “Next Door” is “Don’t wait to be rescued, pick yourself up and keep moving.” In poem after poem, Greenbaum names the temptations put to us in this age. Self-pity is one. Trusting too much to luck is another. The poem “Promised Town” concerns adolescent dreams and the role of luck in our lives. For the offspring of indulgent middle class parents, the “promised town” is a Saturday afternoon community fair replete with booths for a Treasure Chest and the sale of cotton candy. The fair itself  “fit, nearly uniquely, the illustrations set before us in books and movies, of our lives, and now, on one blessed / let-it-last Saturday afternoon / we could try winning, wandering / to a score of circus music / as real kids.” The poem asks: What is luck, what kind of luck will they have, these budding adolescents? Would they be like the blond girl skating round and round a frozen pond in the school mural titled “Our Winter”?

Despite the promises of the adults, any luck coming to the young people wandering the fair will be as weightless and unstable as the cotton candy whipped up by a machine—

We watched an upperclassman
move a paper cone around the entire
hollow, twirling it as he went,
again and again like the earth
twirling in rotation while it circled
the sun in massively speeded-
up years, and the invisible wisps
became during some moment
we could never quite pinpoint
pink and real cotton candy
that disappeared inside the little
cosmos of our selves with
a blink, as it had spun to life,
as time would spin and sink,
and luck appear, and disappear.

Another in our pilgrim’s progress of poems is “What We Read Then,” with its understanding of youth’s naivete` and a warning against too much acceptance of what is given, “the faith that deer in a leafless winter keep for bark.” The poem made me think about books I had read as a young person, which were some of the same things Greenbaum read, like Lord of the Flies and Herman Hesse novels or the fake diaries by the anonymous authors of Go Ask Alice.

[…] when I think of how publishers lied to us then,
I have to wonder if Americans who believed the corrupt
administrations of the 21st century’s chilling turn
are more or less like we were as young adults
in the public library, peering sideways at bindings
with the faith that deer in a leafless winter keep for bark.

In “A Poem for S.” Greenbaum is more densely textured and thoughtful, setting up a brilliant metaphor about the self:

Folded in half, the long paper documenting
the history of the self was like a page of Talmud,
chronology woven with commentary, calling
and responding between hope and memory
and invention. ..

Like the title poem, exploring the meanings and realities of personal identity, these are not simple poems of daily life, perceptions and small moments of enlightenment. In a poem about, say, Passover, Greenbaum includes the Day of Atonement, marches on “spiritual Washington,” and freedom. She is serious without being ponderous. It’s as if she were speaking to you at a book party (the setting of several poems here). Many of the poems work in this way, while others are formal, including one lovely rhymed sonnet and several unrhymed sonnets, and a villanelle.

For the most part, The Two Yvonnes portrays family and friendly connections quietly blessed. Fortune and luck, motherhood, a child’s illness, marriage, friendship, freedom—these are Greenbaum’s themes. When she acknowledges life’s sadness and loneliness, she keeps it within the perspective of family life. The darkest moment in the book come in a poem about her child’s illness, which raises questions about the existence of God:

[…] Bella once said
she thought God was a deer because as soon as you see it,
it’s gone. The longer this goes on the more the air
seems filled with strings attached to a history
now invisible as the deer behind the bushes which
have closed up as if never disturbed, part of the plan.

What inhabits Greenbaum’s poems? What do we find there? Family members—parents, brothers, a husband, daughters, friends—often by name. We also find a time of day or time of life—afternoon, evening, adolescence. We encounter real furniture—bookshelves, cabinets––as well as houses, apartments, books, by title or author, book stores. The focus or central metaphor often derives from signal events in adolescence, summer camp, kibbutz, cleaning turkey coops, berry picking, or swimming in a lake, a New York City blackout—leading me to think this book a good gift for a young person. Here, too, we encounter adolescent boys, what they wore, how they dressed, their hair, their figures.

The phrasing of certain passages is awkward, some narratives never leave the ground. But there is much to admire here, and in the best poems, Greenbaum is sophisticated and clever, as well as honest and perceptive, opening up simple stories to their complexity through metaphor and telling details, without hysterics, and without drawing too much attention to language or “voice,” but remaining focused with good humor on the ordinary events and the deep moral conundrums to which they give rise.

Throughout, Greenbaum tests the boundaries of self in personal and social contexts. In “Stowaway’s Ascent,” a boy on an abandoned ship becomes a bird, as helper (stowaway who once gave crumbs to the seagulls) must relinquish his identity and change places with the helped (the seagulls, whose language the stowaway must now learn) if he is to survive.  I have said that Greenbaum keeps her focus steadily away from the pop psychology as a mechanism of causality in human affairs. She overtly takes issue with theories in her canny treatment of the boundaries of self in the poem “No Ideas but in Things.” Here the squirrel that finds its way into the house—she doesn’t understand how—and wreaks mayhem by upsetting vases and tempers––is likened to an  “untamed projection” of the household’s worries. But this, the poet decides, is “boring.”  Reality is more complicated, and not nearly so easy and transparent. The poet comes to see that the squirrel, inside the house (or the mind or language), is going “to stand for something else. And so is the May rain”––

and so is the day you took off your coast and the tulips
joined in with the cherry blossoms and the people came out
and the pear tree petals floated down in polka dots
around the tulips, and even around the cars. We name life
in relation to whatever we step out from when we
open the door, and whatever comes back in on its own. 

I’m not sure how believable the squirrel is, but as the poem says, everyday events, whether inside the house or outside, are interesting in their this-ness, as are the shifting words we use to describe them––much more so than our dull theories about them. “No Ideas but in Things” is vintage Greenbaum. I hope she gives us more soon.

Zara Raab’s latest books are Fracas & Asylum and Rumpelstiltskin, finalist for the Dana Award. Earlier books, Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, evoke the rainy darkness of the remote North Coast. Her poems, reviews, and essays appear in Poetry Flash, Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, The Dark Horse, and Poet Lore. She is a contributing editor to the Redwood Coast Review and Poetry Flash.