A Review of Fruit of the Earth
Jamie Wendt’s debut poetry collection, Fruit of the Earth, offers a sincere and intimate glimpse into both personal and cultural stories that guide the reader through a broader narrative of fragmentation and belonging. The poems have been curated to form conversations with one another by means of thematic “tides” that move in and out of the foreground, unifying salient messages for the reader. Although the author’s Jewish heritage and womanhood are both recurrent aspects of the collection, neither are the subject of any poem, but purely the locus of her creative experience; thus, the material at hand becomes the poem. Each poem succeeds discreetly, forming “bits and pieces” of a story that are each quite sacred and personal. When read together, Wendt’s own lived experience yields to a collective narrative, returning to the idea that people tell their stories—the ones they do not understand or cannot speak—through others’ stories.
Throughout Fruit of the Earth, there seems to be a gradual coming to terms with a kind of endogenous estrangement from home. The persecution and diaspora of Jewish people is written into the collection by a contemporary voice, whose self-identity is built, in part, upon inherited trauma and compromise. Within the collection, the poems are divided into five chapters: I. Mother of Exiles; II. Amma; III. What We Call Home; IV. May God Bless You With Torah, Chuppah, and Ma’asim Tovim; and V. To Dust We Shall Return. Moving through each chapter, there are distinct shifts in tone that reveal the emotional latitudes of the author as she lives through—and writes about—her quest for belonging.
In Chapter I, the poem “Desecration” is a lament “after the vandalism of various Jewish cemetery graves.” The poem that follows, “What a Refugee Leaves Behind,” is a tacit expression of the ostracism and displacement of refugees. Wendt sets up her intentions in the title, while the body of the poem describes the plight of a harmless pigeon whose fate is thrown into confusion:
Above the train platform,
a feather dangles from new fish-netting
covering the alcove
meant to keep pigeons from nesting
in any city where nasty birds fly
Zora Neale Hurston, ethnographer and writer, coined the term “geo-specifying” in relation to writing that is grounded in geography. Typified in Fruit of the Earth, many poems are directly tied to place, with titles like “Tel Aviv Central Bus Station,” “Shabos in the Jewish Quarter,” and “Beth Israel Synagogue, New Orleans 2009.” However, this geo-specificity is something more intrinsic than a cursory reference point. In “Sderot’s Children, 2005” Wendt writes:
The word land
is synonymous with human heart, with home,
with defend, with history
in both Hebrew and Arabic.
Despite numerous tangible references to place, time, and milestones throughout the collection, the author compliments these anchors with her vivid figurative work. Wendt’s lyrical use of language and keen observation of the things around her makes for imagery that activates each of the senses and enhances their play upon each other. In the reading of each poem, the mind displays a rich palette of images, and the reader develops a capacity to narrate these as a story. There is a harmonious centrality to each poem, where the acute sense of place or time gives way to simplicity of feeling. With her mastery over the temporal, Wendt crafts moments of refuge and suspension in her deeply nostalgic descriptions of memory. In “Things You Saved For When I Got Older”, the author describes tangible memorials to her family history, writing:
We found my copper preserved baby shoes
and ivory papers of footprints
with my name typed in all capitals.
There were pink silk pajamas,
doctor notes about pink months
and miscarriages, Amma’s
handkerchiefs, small tea cups without saucers from Kiev
with ring stains and the scent of old pennies…
Similarly, there is a sense of constancy to be found from Wendt’s descriptions of ritual and religious observance, providing points of stillness within the overall trajectory of the collection.
In Chapters II and III, many poems articulate the inner tug-of-war of an identity that remains scattered. We read of Wendt as a young woman—a seemingly solo traveler in Israel—on a journey of spiritual communion. In “Volunteering at a South Tel Aviv Sudanese Refugee Daycare, Without Toys,” Wendt touches on the irony of being a foreigner in a place that feels so kin, speaking of “children who looked hard, laughed / at the sounds // our language gave… // foreign stories / they couldn’t swallow or say.” In “Translating for Racheli,” place is yet again bound to identity: “for little Judah / born in Iowa, who doesn’t remember // living in the place that taught me what it meant to be a Jew.”
In the final two chapters, the narrative returns to the United States, and we are invited to savor the beauty in ordinary experiences, as the author navigates the phases of marriage and family. While tracking similar themes of love, loss, and home, Wendt moves away from more macroscopic cultural conversations and towards the everyday, describing—with tenderness and wisdom—what it is to be a partner, a mother, and a woman. The title of Chapter IV is indicative of this: May God Bless You With Torah, Chuppah, and Ma’asim Tovim (study, family, and performance of good deeds). In “What We Do with Our Eyes and Hands,” Wendt contemplates the cumbersome task assigned to parents:
I am not so sure
About the way we have taught our children
to memorize, to walk into a holy place
and follow our motions, mimic
hands, knees, tongues, silence,
and all the ways to pray
and what for…
The end of the collection carries with it a deep symbolism of reparation. Although much of Wendt’s poems in Fruit of the Earth face up to the enduring grief and displacement of a people, there is an outward tide of emotion towards the end, leaving the reader with a sense of levity and letting go. Ultimately, what Jamie Wendt has put together is a rare and worthy read that has the ability to engage and inspire. In its entirety, Fruit of the Earth is a graceful and generous meditation on many of the fundamental complexities of humanness.