Whole Cloth, An Illustrated Poem Cycle by Ronnie Hess. Baileys Harbor, WI: Little Eagle Press, 2009. $12 plus $3 postage.
Reviewed by Alice D’Alessio
Some old photos of her husband's relatives intrigued Ronnie Hess, and she was bitten by the genealogy bug. To her amazement, her husband knew little of his own background. But even with the assistance of on-line research, locating the family "roots" proved to be daunting: no-one had written things down, no-one had told their stories! Hess made it her quest to track down and piece together the scraps of recorded family history, filling in the gaps with her imagination and research.
Her search took her from the little village on the border of Austria-Hungary (liquidated in World War II), to the tenement in New York City, to the graveyard in Brooklyn. Ultimately she transformed her findings into Whole Cloth, An Illustrated Poem Cycle, published this fall by Little Eagle Press.
In so doing she has given these ancestors a second life, dusting them off to voice their fears and longings, their pride and despair. In “The Farewell” we see the father leaving his wife and family to find a better life: “He promised he would return for her.” The children follow him down the dirt path until he sends them back, kisses them on their heads: “That's enough…go help your mother.” And we are witness to the fears of his wife: will he return, she wonders. Many husbands have disappeared somewhere in America.
In “How the Genealogist Becomes a Poet” Hess tells us how she came to befriend these ancestors, not her own: “They begin to speak to me/at the gravesite. /One says We've been waiting/ the other, What took you so long.” In a lovely fantasy, she moves them into her master bedroom.
We also get to accompany the poet on her treks, sleuthing in newspaper and census files, graveyards, synagogues, archives in Ukraine that remain inaccessible, and to the ancestral village. We feel her frustration over the missing pieces. Why didn't anyone label the photos? Why didn't the children speak of their parents, their homeland? Examining the photo which she believes to be the grandparents, she says of the (grand)mother (“an ample woman in a high collared dress”):
She would have seen the boys go off to school, to jobs,
lose their language, their songs, their religion
their memory of the Old Country.
Would she have guessed they would forget
to visit the graveyard? Would she have guessed
they would tell their children nothing about her?
Ronnie Hess has managed to combine the suspense of a mystery novel with the excitement of a travel adventure, rendering the whole in powerful poetic lines rich in imagery. The book is beautifully produced by Little Eagle Press and enhanced with black and white photos, maps and scraps of archival documents that complement the poignant and always engrossing saga within.
Alice D'Alessio, Middleton, WI, is the author of three books of poetry and one biography: Uncommon Sense; the Biography of Marshall Erdman. Her poetry book A Blessing of Trees was winner of the 2004 Posner Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, and her 2009 book, Days We Are Given was first place winner in the Earth's Daughters chapbook contest. She is contributing editor to Woodlands and Prairies Magazine