Daphne Gottlieb’s latest poetry collection, true to its title, is a fight for survival in a world rife with conflict, oppression, disaster, and heartbreak. There is no respite. Moments of pure beauty are so few as to be jarring. This is poetry that tells its unflinching truth.
Such is the chaos between the covers that we’re immediately cautioned not to trust even the most conventional wisdom. In “adage,” the first poem in 15 Ways to Stay Alive (Manic D Press), “Beggars don’t have another/shoe to drop,” and “God only gives you/a stitch in the side” (9). This world is unmerciful, contentious, and, as Gottlieb quickly reminds us, is the world we live in.
Gottlieb is an activist and writer whose callings intersect on the page, as she acknowledges in “no poetry after auschwitz”: “This is not a poem/it is a rock/through a window—“ (23). And it’s true, for to name these pieces “social commentary” loses out on the striking poetic moments, and to view them only as poetry overlooks their higher ambitions. Perhaps they are best thought of as gathered epistles from voices both bold and silenced. As such, readers who dislike poems with “palpable designs on the reader,” as Keats phrased it, may therefore wish to leave this collection off their reading list.
At the level of line and stanza, Gottlieb literally reconstructs the world through frequent use of the found poem. Twelve of the collection’s poems use this format, drawing on texts as diverse as St. Augustine, ‘National Velvet,’ and Craigslist personal ads. In keeping with the standard of a successful found poem, these texts read seamlessly as persona rather than appropriation.
In fact, the found poem “lonely indonesia,” is among the stronger poems in the collection. It transcends the archetype of being a stranger in a strange land to observe complications of being an American traveling abroad: “This isn’t cooked./Not too spicy please./No MSG please./This is delicious”(12). Gottlieb shrewdly, subtly remarks on the demands we make in our daily lives, and are used to having fulfilled, as overbearing and ignorant of the host culture—this, using phrases are culled from the Lonely Planet phrasebook written for the aid of visitors to Indonesia. “I’m sorry,” pleads the last stanza of the poem, “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong”(23).
Despite the overwhelming presence of the political in this collection, Gottlieb skillfully interweaves potent emotional truths into select poems. “somewhere, over” offers a moving portrait by a daughter of a mother whose mind and body are failing, whose waking existence becomes a merciful fantasy of parties in Oz, only to end as “Overnight, the wind picks up, rattles through her chest.//It’s the tornado, going, going—“ (67). Longing of another sort permeates “i’ve been understanding, but god told me there is something wrong,” as the heartbroken speaker laments, “They just don’t understand. You have that sinking feeling. They never will” (36).
The one poem that undoubtedly has a reason for existence, yet is nearly indiscernible to readers, is “the unauthorized autobiography of black beauty.” As true as it is that “The spectacle on a carousel steals every experience,” the linguistic gyrations through stories of horses, outcasts, and sexual abuse struggle to exist as more than simply ten pages of spectacle (46).
Perhaps the most powerful poems in the collection are those in Part IV, including the title poem, which form the arc of a failed love story. These poems brim over with the righteous anger that keeps us alive in the face of the most intimate loss and rejection. What begins as love reveals its ugly colors quickly, as exemplified in the sequence’s first poem “i have always confused desire with apocalypse.” The rage that struggles to contain itself in “jury duty,” wherein the speaker “kept witnesses against you: your icebox eyes, your bleachwhite skin, your beachfront tongue,” unleashes a torrent in “fuck you”: “but not fuck like sex but fuck like/rub your nose into every stupid thing you’ve ever done/till the master’s very small house ha been ruined (80, 85). It’s raw. It’s ugly. And yet we’ve all been there.
Up to and in “seven stages,” Gottlieb guides us through the process of grieving the bitter ends of love. The same might be extended to any of the other hurts rendered in this collection, hurts for which exists some relief: “I understand. I release” (87).