Reading Joelle Biele’s crafted, exuberant poems side-by-side their skillful Italian translations is a rich experience. Biele, author of White Summer and the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, won the 2013 Bordighera Poetry Prize, an honor conceived to help promote the literature of the Italian diaspora and its languages. With epistolary poems written to her two young children and an array of formal enterprise (from ghazal to prose), these poems of joy and sorrow, exploration and discovery, deserve a wide readership in both English and Italian so that they can accompany us “like a compass into the far night,” come una bussola lontano nella notte.
In “Biopsy,” one of the many intense lyrics in Biele’s Broom, the narrator describes herself and her beloved in a hospital room:
I sat in a chair along the wall, you lay
on the table, I could not see your face.
The room was small and white and cold,
and I can see the screen, the high ceiling,
the rise of your legs, your hips I love
to stretch over, when the doctor opens
the door, puts her hands on your back
and starts pressing into your side. I believed
if I could be there, read everything, talk
to any doctor I could, I could by sheer
force of will, make you well. I believed
whoever has the most information wins.
Fourteen months later you entered remission.
I thought it was over. It was only the start.
“Biopsy” is an intimate poem, the scene familiar to those who have attended a doctor’s examination with a loved one. The narrator forces the reader into the room as she perceives it—first size, then color, last temperature. “The room was small and white and cold,” an uncomfortable place. “Lyric poems,” says poetry scholar and critic Helen Vendler, “spring from moments of disequilibrium: something has happened to disturb the status quo.”
Here, the disturbance is cancer, and when the doctor enters the room, she presses the side of the beloved much as the soldier at the crucifixion pressed a spear into Christ’s side. Though the allusion is not overt, the image, and many other images throughout the book, still call to mind many of the Bible’s richest language and ideas, particularly the lost Paradise. The wounded beloved stretched on the table assumes Christ-like qualities in the sonnet, as the narrator repeats “I believed.” But it is not “finished,” as Christ traditionally uttered as he died. “It was only a start.” Biele knows belief is not enough, and poem after poem in this beautiful book recounts this movement into uncertainty. Belief guarantees nothing, all is shifting sand. Information is no panacea. What we have is intense loss and fear of loss. How do not know how to bear it?
For Biele, such uncertainty and fear did not always exist. As child and teenager, she felt herself safe, immune to disturbances in equilibrium. To contrast her Edenic girlhood with her fear-laden adulthood (care of two young children and a partner with recurring cancer), Biele inserts a five-page prose memoir entitled “Field” as the third of the book’s four sections. Here she recounts the fearless unscripted freedom of her youth:
The paths were everywhere. We rode them in our swim-suits to the pool. We stood on our bikes after picking up speed. We took the path along the river where older kids dug large holes, dragged in pieces of carpet. . . . [W]e never thought anything bad could happen to us, we knew bad things happened to other kids.
As a result of her childlike certainty that the earth was a safe place, Biele claims that even the brutal rape, stabbing and murder of Kristy Miller, a girl in the poet’s high school in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, did not really affect her. After all, she writes of herself and her friends, “We were good girls. We got good grades. We followed the rules.” They felt no danger even though they rode through the field where the rape occurred. “I don’t think I gave Kristy a second thought,” Brielle writes. “By the time I was a senior in high school, I was skipping school regularly” to explore the city and beyond.
Biele suggests she wandered in that innocent Eden well into adulthood, much longer than most of us stay, and in some of the 14 sonnets she addresses to her children, Katharine and Andrew, she projects the same kind of paradisiacal innocence and sense of safety onto them.
Newspaper kite, sticks and tissue tail,
ball bouncing on the waves, when I swing you
over the water you dangle your feet,
dip in your toes, you open and close your hands,
swing over the water, and then puff,
your hat blows back, you kick your legs and shout . . .
However, as poet Biele now knows, we can be tossed out of Eden abruptly. Her sonnet “To Andrew: At Nineteen Months” understates a near drowning of which the little boy seems much less aware than his mother.
Next thing I know you’re gone, running
the hill between the boxwoods and lilies, . . .
and the next thing I know you’re saying pond, pond,. . .
as if words could drift through algae and ropy weeds,
spill into the river and make their slow way out
to sea before you look in the water, drop the stone,
and walk in. We came out to the cold,
rotting leaves and our mouths burned
with iron and the awful taste of spring.
The 19-month-old Andrew walks into the water, not on it. And like Christ rescuing Peter from Galilee, Biele must pull Andrew into the “cold,” a world well beyond Eden’s safe haven. Biele makes the same allusion in her sonnet “To Katharine: At Fourteen Months.” Katharine has spent all morning dropping things, one by one, “To see if it will fall.” She is leaning from her highchair with her cup, ready to let go:
It curves in your hand, it weighs in your palm,
it arches like a wave, it is a dipper
full of stars, and you’re the wind timing
the pull of the moon, you’re the water
measuring the distance from which we fall.
Biele sees little Katharine as a god creating the stars, the wind, the moon—and then the water “from which we fall.” As an adult, Biele continually reminds us of the old puritan ditty, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
Broom is a beautifully written book of poems with great lyric intensity and vivid imagery, with echoes—reminding us once again that time gives us no certainty except loss.