Memos from the Broken World by Jean Nordhaus. Mayapple Press, 2016.
In Memos from the Broken World, each poem is
a shard, and Jean Nordhaus carefully rebuilds to find shape and meaning.
These poems, many of which are actually called memos, are reminders of the
past, with which we have all broken, whether it’s a childhood, a home, a war,
music, a story or history, to name only a few of the themes that this astute listener/observer
contemplates. I know Jean Nordhaus and her work. With consummate craft she has
been moving over the years toward the zenith that this book represents, which
isn’t to say there won’t be more in the future.
The breakage in this collection is sometimes audible. In
“Breaking Dishes” women carry unglazed plates down to where they will be
glazed, and they bring the glazed bowls up. Kafka has inserted himself into
this poem—and later in a second one by the same title—first by means of an
epigraph about “girls in porcelain factories who incessantly throw themselves
down the stairs with mounds of dishware” and then in the body of the poem. Broken
dishware becomes the fractured light of a dark world. A married worker shatters
platters in the night. Her patient husband sweeps up the smithereens. Moses
threw the tablets down, and his laws were and are broken. Kafka is having
coffee. The factory girls’ dishes are in pieces, as is the light, or the world,
as the twentieth century reveals itself. “How to glue it back?” the poet asks.
And in this broken world, there are broken bodies,
marriages, families, faiths, and broken or partitioned nations. “On the Road to
Qumran,” Nordhaus gives us lovely fragments from Jerusalem and the desert of
the West Bank, where she captures the mixture of cultures and religions. Within
the fragments there are empty vessels, enemy dogs, a dead sea, a diaspora. With
an echo of broken dishes, there is a crumbling that results from dehydration:
I am becoming dry and holy,
brittle as parchment
stored in a jar.
In those three short lines we are led inexorably to the Dead
Sea Scrolls in Qumran Cave and the common cultural breakthrough that was discovery
of the scrolls. In several of these fragments there’s the suggestion of war
that breaks any society.
On Bialik Street the house of poet Chaim Nahman Bialik is
closed. A closed door breaks one’s intention of going inside. But outside,
childhoods are broken by war—
soldier carries a baby
his arms, its fat legs
In the section called “Memo from the Grave” Nordhaus looks
at herself from all angles, almost as if she’s looking in a cracked mirror. She
sees herself as child, daughter, cousin, sister, mother, and grandmother. To
her infant granddaughter, she writes:
On the evening you were born,
after the tremendous churning
that brought you forth, an owl
flew onto the rail of the balcony
where we sat . . .
* * *
. . . Shades
of my mother,
I thought, half-believing—the wide-
set eyes and level gaze.
* * *
. . The dead are all around us
feathering the air with their
And in their own way the dead—and memory—glue the pieces of
a broken world. In almost all the memo poems, a line exhorts: “Do not forget.”
This collection documents the broken world we live in. Nordhaus seeks to glue
the pieces, but she will not let us forget that it is through fracture that we
see the whole.
Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of five books of
poetry, most recently, Unattached Male (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).