Kelsay Books/Aldrich Press
Reviewed by: Ann Wehrman
In her 2016 collection, Two Worlds, playwright and poet Donna Spector reads her world nakedly, sans attachments, only to return scrutiny to herself, asking, “This is a place of non-desire, I know, / but how can it be when I want / now to be nowhere else?” The thought comes to mind, however, that desire is simply one aspect of love. Perhaps despite the extremes to which desire can take one, desire itself is not bad, after all.
Spector writes in easily accessible language that is nevertheless rich with sensory detail and deep emotional expression. Her confessional poems explore family bonds, parents’ deaths, and the poet’s marriages, as well as general issues including war, spirituality, and love. One might understand to some extent the poet’s inner journey through reading the observations Spector brings down from the mountain, so to speak. The reader’s soul feels nourished; yet, the poet then slips away, underscoring the truth of impermanence, as she depicts in “House Burning”:
But from that time on I understood there is no
protection, owning or renting, building walls
six feet thick, we’re just naked bodies
with armfuls of flammable dreams.
Spector begins with “Birthing,” writing of childbirth, physical agony transcended by and resolved in love, even worship, of the newborn son:
Doctors turned the mirror
Away, froze my pain,
Hung a white sheet
between me and your outrage,
sliced a neat exit
and, bowing low,
helped you out.
Majesty, they murmured.
And I, drifting in Lethean
currents, called to you.
He has come, they said,
holding you above the waters.
On a side note, if the child had been female—what then? Surely Spector, in her fiery strength and generous awareness, would not consciously short her own gender. The reader cannot help but imagine how (differently) powerful and beautiful Spector’s loving tribute to a child of the female gender (or of yet other genders, as exist around the world) might be!
On the heels of “Birthing” comes a portrait of a child (the same son?) gone wild and breaking the mother’s heart, in “On the Way to the Airport”:
You’re speeding me down the Ventura freeway
in your battered Scout, patched since your angry
crash into the drunken pole that swerved into your road.
…if we make it, I’ll be in the air, where people say God lives,
the line between you and me stretched thinner,
thinner but tight enough still to bind us,
choke us both with love.
So it goes, loving people despite their imperfections, and hurting as a result—and seeking transcendence, as well as understanding, to own the pain and the love.
Two Worlds also addresses the poet’s parents. In “When I Lost You,” Spector writes of her mother:
I inch open the big white door, not the one
you used to slam in Chicago, the one
to my room, when I knew someday the house
would burn down around me. No, this is
your room in Los Angeles, closed
like an eyelid against the pain.
In your dressing room rows and rows of shoes,
hats with rhinestones and flowers, rings,
brooches, bracelets, twenty bottles
of My Sin glimmer in dusk.
Mother, I whisper, but you are somewhere
Else. I want to touch your long, delicate
fingers, but I am paralyzed in the hallway,
leaning in to see and be seen in shadows.
The reader’s heart aches in sympathy. The speaker’s expression of longing for the all-too-human mother who fails her is similar to the human need, in love and anguish, for the motherly aspect of God. In the extremity of human suffering, it’s a universal desire to touch her and be held, to let go into that close reassurance. However, unity with the maternal heart of the Divine often seems beyond our reach, despite our yearning.
Spector writes powerfully of her father, as well. In “My Father, Tour Guide for the Living,” the lines are heart-wrenching with empathy for the father whom she loves. The father speaks in the poem:
I wait in the hall where my daughter
prayed for my heart to keep time again,
but I am just a painted face in a thin, gold
frame. See those drooping Mongolian eyes?
Neither painting nor wife will tell you
I am a Jew from Kiev who worshipped
my wife like an icon, beautiful and unblessed.
Such gorgeous imagery leaves the reader in tears, surprised by the romance, humanity, passion, and squalor. Nonetheless, the poet knows the man behind the curtain, knows the pain of understanding beyond doubt that one’s idolized father is only human. In “All That Remains,” she writes,
and he knows that I know. He’s double-billing
his newspapers. Illegal of course, his eyes
suddenly shifty, defeated by my blanched
face. My hair turns silver, I become his mother,
watching him through unframed glass. If I don’t
do it, they’ll fire me, he begs, but now I am
his daughter who once stayed awake all night,
praying that someday everyone will read the words
of this man whose hands, I see, are blistered
from climbing so high he can only fall.
There is more to Two Worlds than the poet’s love of her family. Spector’s poems touch on her mate, her students, travels, war, nature, and all throughout, weave a tapestry showing deep sensitivity to the human condition, the pain of human failing, and the unending, aching desire for infinite goodness, by whatever name it ultimately goes.
Reading Two Worlds, luxuriating in Spector’s depth and sensitivity, the reader feels at home. The experience is like sharing leisurely morning coffee with the poet in her breakfast nook—many cups of freshly brewed coffee with homemade muffins, good butter, and honey. Reading Spector’s work feels like talking at length, maybe sharing a good cry, with a best friend, albeit one with razor-sharp perception and impeccable ethics. How important is this closeness, this intimate sharing, this insight and bond? Those who have experienced it know its value. For others, it can’t come too soon.