The Science of Goodbyes
In a style both delicate and strong, declarative and evocative, Myra Sklarew has fashioned a convincingly individualistic version of contemporary womanhood. Without echoing the strident feminist poetics of her contemporaries, Sklarew has given voice to the complex flux of tradition and change that shapes feminine identity today. The self alone, the self in relationships, and the tension between these selves are the concerns of many poems in The Science of Goodbyes. Woven through the book is another vital strand with its own interplay of tradition and change: the theme of Jewish identity.
Though the presentation of Sklarew’s persona as woman and Jew is filled with concrete particularity, with the pulse of private experience, this work is certainly neither private nor literal-minded. Sklarew has made a universal art of her braided selfhood, so that the Jewish female one encounters in these poems becomes oneself.
Indeed, The Science of Goodbyes speaks to a wider audience than did Sklarew’s earlier collection, From the Backyard of the Diaspora (1976). It is not so much that Sklarew’s vision or art has radically changed, but that she has created a larger context for her Jewish imagery and themes. The more obvious unities of From the Backyard of the Diaspora are both its weakness and its strength. Referring to the earlier book after reading this new one, the reader may find there a greater relevance and credibility than he would if encountering it strictly on its own terms.
The first section of The Science of Goodbyes presents various kinds of leave-taking—a dominant theme of the whole collection—escapes from confining relationships, escapes from dejection, escapes from reticence—or at least partial escapes. One of these poems, an intriguing piece in two voices called “Leaving,” examines the psychology of a severed relationship from the dual perspectives of “His Song” and “Her Song.” Sklarew handles her characters’ bitterness, motive-hunting, and mixture of relief and guilt with an exquisite touch. The poem ends with a dream of the woman (dreams play a large role in Sklarew’s work) in which
it seems perfectly naturalto be taking off my clothesin front of two menwho are naked
That naturalness, however, that freedom, is soon curbed:
Perfectly natural for oneof the men to enter meuntil I become awareof someone elsestanding in the cornerof that room
“Leaving” illustrates some of Myra Sklarew’s characteristic techniques. Like many of her poems, it is minimally punctuated and built out of relatively short lines. These two features, in combination with Sklarew’s controlled diction and figures of speech, create a rhetoric of understatement even when her material is explosive. This powerful understatement (the power is in the holding back) serves the poet well in evoking nuances of feeling. Sometimes the imagery itself contains an expressive concern with smallness of scale, as in the following excerpt from “Somnambulist”:
In the eveningyou tell Nicosthat the great seaof your passionhas turned to yoghurtand all the small spoonshave departed.
As one reads over these bitten-off lines, the magnitude of the images shrinks, forcing a consequent compression of emotional energy. Pressure is built up; less becomes more.
The second section of the book, entitled “The Way It Is,” also includes poems about relationships, but there are poems expressing other themes as well, having to do with finding and protecting oneself and with starting over. In “The Dogs Are Barking” and “In the Event of a National Disaster,” the individual’s safety is threatened in various ways. Both poems have a surreal, nightmarish quality to which the second adds touches of a fine irony. In “A Worthy Cause,” active charity is presented through an ironic series of dream images. The recipient is likened to the State of Israel. Tidying up after this figure becomes an act of caring for all those others: “I lift your sock from Tel Aviv/ your poor shoe covered with the dust/ and fine bone of Masada.” This poem is a hesitant reentry into the risks of giving, going beyond a self that, in earlier poems, had undergone abandonment and developed a consequent self-absorbed vulnerability. In this tentative reaching out, the persona’s threatened identity is strengthened by
A little stitchingon behalf of Israela little mendingand foldingfor our brethren in Israel
The voice at the conclusion is simultaneously proud and self-deprecating: “As you can see/ I...
(The entire section is 2206 words.)