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BEFORE THE DROUGHT by Margo BerdesheVSKY.

Before the Drought could also be called Before Extinction, as the author rules out, at least in the title poem, any redemption for us and our planet. No sacrifice, no ritual can change what is to be, in this fairy tale that begins with a queen that can't cry, and like many fairy tales, does not end well. The queen becomes a stone, and the people, including her daughter, are the ones left to live in a barren kingdom. The title can be read as a looking back, or as a forewarning of times to come. This is an important distinction, but the feeling of mourning is the same. And yet, in the book as a whole, Margo Berdeshevsky has compiled an atlas of the beauty that exists in nature, culture, and ourselves. Perhaps Berdeshevsky is recording and collecting these individual instances of our personal and collective lives, to be remembered and read later, perhaps by us, perhaps by future beings. Maybe this is the record we will use to prove we made beauty, we felt compassion, in spite of the wars and greed that ended in decimating our planet. Maybe our mourning will be redemption of sorts. And since we are beings in time, what else do we have but these remembered instances of beauty and kindness to comfort us?

To get to the heart of her intent, Berdeshevsky explores form and genre, ranging from lyric to prose poem, from observed life to inner life to mythic projection. Included are several short, short poems employing what Pound called phanopoeia, where an image is the place where poetry begins. Rich imagery brings home our daily horrors (the Paris bombing, lost Malaysian air liner) and our cultural and natural solaces, as well as an inner more mysterious world of self, and self as woman. Paris is home to Berdeshevsky, and many of the poems are rooted in her familiarity with and love for that city. The poet also pays homage to poetic roots (In the pastoral "Shears" one can envision Dylan Thomas, and she dedicates "Blason" to W.S. Merwin) and credits inspiration in several epigraphs. Out of many fine poems, the following works, for me, capture the big picture: our reality, which is climate change, war, and inevitable death, but also the very personal moments of friendship, love and compassion that inform these events. This is what being human means, and what so few of our political leaders seem to understand.

The poem "Cut" begins with the epigraph: Soleil cou coupe by Apollinaire, which Berdeshevsky translates in the notes as Sun, with its neck cut.

Two women, lunching on "garlic snails blessed/one afternoon by the Seine--" whisper of
Sham & disaster of presidents, the bomb that almost but didn't kill
last night, the darker-eyed of the two begged the other read Levi's
"The Drowned/ and the Saved" (14)


In this scene of good friends, filled with foreboding by recent events and mindful of the past repeating itself:
the lighter-eyed one swerved a bee from
her face and the other swatted it from hers until
each cringed to not be stung, one
lifted her empty wine glass knowing how to
capture a bee in flight & stifle, trapped it. (14)


The two friends watch the bee:
it bleated they didn't hear its cry inside, it kicked
thin legs & turned over &turned over its
gold body while they whispered of ends
of time

one of them kept looking at it dying
not stinging them & when she couldn't watch
the dying any longer, slid the glass & its capture
toward the table's edge act of mercy act of shame
& the glass tipped, fell, the bee fell out the slipped
glass shattered & the waiter watched
& he applauded--(14)


We dine with friends, literally in the face of extinction: the bomb that could drop, that does drop, the drought or the poisons that can and do wipe species of plants and animals off the face of the earth as we drink our wine, the knowledge that the evil within our living memory that we thought had been eradicated was just in hiding. Now it's harder to believe it's just a bee that would otherwise sting one of us, an individual bee; it's our pollinator of many plants, source of honey, symbol of community, our gold bee/sun with its neck cut. And so one of us frees the bee, shattering the glass, and the waiter, who has observed it all and who will have to clean up the mess, nonetheless applauds (14)
None. No one is not connected to someone else in the city
who was hurt that night or dead. It is The no-degrees of the
separation or escape. Or times we've been borne to.
Everyone knows someone/ who knew at least one in a city of
millions. ("No Modifier At All" 21)


The person in the poem (Berdeshevsky herself?) opens her door "to a man I've been calling all this week--to fix my door." Hamid: A face from the projects. A face from the once-upon-colonies. My lock no longer works. These are the days when one thinks of closing doors. (21)
Hamid's eyes remind her of the tunnels below the streets of Paris.
Last Saturday there was a carnival bulging in those tunnels.
People vowed to dance and to wear costumes and to live
unless they die. I wore silk. Rented gowns, and feathers, and
masks. (21)


Hamid apologizes for not returning her calls earlier; his little sister Djamila was one of the bomb victims. Berdeshevsky had photographed the memorials, candles and flowers left in front of the cafe where Djamila died while attending her boyfriend's birthday party:
I remember that name. Djamila, I tell him. His eyes are
sewers, tunnels. He cries. I cry. Destiny, he mumbles so softly
I am not sure I have heard. He pulls his satchel of tools into
my hall to repair. My door. There is a noise somewhere,
that is too loud. We are strangers. He has come to fix my
door. Holding one another, until it is over. No modifier, at all.


for the Paris massacres in November 2015

No one in Paris was immune to the horror of the bomb attacks. From the BBC:
The attacks in Paris on the night of Friday 13 November
by gunmen and suicide bombers hit a concert hall, a
major stadium, restaurants and bars, almost simultaneously - and
left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. The
attacks mainly targeted venues in central Paris where
large numbers of people were socialising.


Parisians at the time resolved not to let the terrorists win by succumbing to fear and staying off the streets, and the carnival in the tunnel is one such act of defiance. But Berdeshevsky contrasts her life of relative ease, in "rented gowns" and the ability to throw oneself into merrymaking, with Hamid, the workman's life and his personal sorrow, and makes the connection that we share grief and fear in these "times we are borne to," seemingly without our own volition. Indeed, these times and this grief and fear equalize our social and cultural positions, reduce, or maybe elevate us to simple human comfort with no modifier at all. The moment in the poem that most resonates is the naming of Djamila, the real, loving and living person who was murdered, and whose name makes a personal connection possible. There is a book in the Jewish synagogue in Pecs, Hungary, called the Book of Tears. In it are the full names of every Jewish man, woman and child from that city who died in the Holocaust. There are books in Westminster Abbey that hold the names of all the soldiers that died in WWl and WW2 as well as the civilian war dead. As Berdeshevsky has done for Djamila, each of these names should be written, read and spoken. What if we read our lists of names of those who have died in wars (and terror is an act of war) in Paris, Manchester, Barcelona, Palestine, Syria, Yemen.

Let's include also the people who were gunned down in Las Vegas and Orlando, South Carolina, Parkland, and read the names as a rebuttal to the State of the Union, and at meetings of the general assembly of the UN. Margo, I would call this poem Djamila. (21)

Women, as real women, or as women out of time (Lady Justice, Paris, a girl dreaming) are the voice and subject of a number of the poems in the book. Berdeshevsky writes with a lyrical intimacy and love of language that can transform her women into almost magical beings; but beings with grit and honesty. The poems that speak of aging, in particular, move me because this is still a topic, particularly for women who write, that is not commonly explored. In "Pulse" the woman's voice baldly states:
Mirrors weren't my friends anymore, couldn't stand
what they showed me, the changing flesh, thinning hair that
used to reach my knees, the drowning of
names in a mud-thick water mind (19)


So when the poet writes, in "Before My Death"--
Before my death, I will have tried to love again.
Before my death, I will have tried to love again


--the paragraph-sized white space between the grouped couplets becomes more eloquent, as a breathing space for hope in the acknowledgement of the inevitable. (81)

In "After Fado, at the Elgins" (I think my favorite piece) acceptance of that knowledge leads to a deep appreciation for friends, for art, for us as sensual as well as sensuous beings, and maybe an inkling of the mind of God.

AFTER FADO, AT THE ELGINS
He's humming the saudade, we're stopped
at horses, and men--my friend who loves

men I who love men and
I am your friend I say, I know, he says, so

few say it, he says I know, I say, the fierce
ballet of muscled legs, genitals capturing each

of our wants--in limestone. How have your
days been I say not your succes d'estime or

your failed crowns or mine--I'm weary of
celibacy he says, eyes on the Elgin Centaurs

battling warrior-boys forever--father, forever,
son, it's war for men he says,

elder--tested to a kill by a perfect boy's fist,
the centaur's heft and metaphor winning--

youth proving, and proving
but neither older or younger

follow me home now he says I know, I say
but days, some simple days, a noise of water

running green to its garden pool, pearl
moans of folded wings, an astonishment of early

blossom--don't believe me, I say, reaching no hand
but this kindred-sister-lust toward horse, and man,

whatever age, old friend

--we adjust our shawls,
turn separate spines on men and centaurs and warriors,
our age and mortal youth, our unto-death un-killed
desires, old friend, walk me to some square of peace
--there's one around the corner,

stand before its lack of battle
black tulips, its blooms, its city petals

--and thank you for your human eye not
other than God's I think, or mine...tell me I say what's lost...
(48)


Maybe one difference between extinction and death is this: Extinction comes when we have lost touch with anything but violence and fear. Death retains the names of our loved ones, the voice of Fado, sweet and fierce and longing, and the elegant beauty of sculpture, its pleasing geometry as perfect as a young and perfect human being; its war mythic. There's hope yet; walk me to the square of peace just around the corner.
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Author:Ciavonne, Carol
Publication:Interim
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2018
Words:1918
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