The Frame Called Ruin by Hadara Bar-Nadav
(New Issues, 2012)
reviewed by Michael McLane
I should admit up front that I’ve been waiting for Hadara Bar-Nadav’s second collection of poems for some time. Her first collection, A Glass of Milk to Kiss Good Night (2007), was a relentless hunger of a book whose opening scenes of butchering were breathtaking and deeply unsettling. I return to them again and again. And so I’ll also readily admit that when I sat down to start distributing the review copies received from numerous presses at the end of the year and opened a New Issues package to find The Frame Called Ruin, I announced to the otherwise unoccupied room “this one is mine, all mine.” I was not disappointed.
The Frame Called Ruin is as much a study in place and space (and the tragedies that try to fracture the former from the latter) as it is an ekphrastic exercise. The “Frame” of the title envelops the confines created by buildings and cities, particularly those under siege, just as much as it does the edges of Rothko’s paintings, Nevelson’s sculptures, and the walls of Zaha Hadid’s architectural brilliance. It seems no small coincidence that the artists who receive the bulk of Bar-Nadav’s attention all hailed from places of long-running strife and revolution—Rothko and Nevelson from Czarist Russia and Hadid from Baghdad. Such places are claimed and reclaimed through violence, yet these artists transcend their fractured roots and identities through artistry in the same way that the love and humor and lyricism at which Bar-Nadav is so adept allows her speakers to transcend the horrors that surround them. Creation is the ever-present counterbalance to oblivion and hate as illustrated in her first poem for Nevelson, “Night, White and Gold,” when she writes “A wall has / certain mass and weight. Focus on forms and vacancies. I own my voids, deepest black. / And now my secret is out: I’m motherhouse” or in “III. Operatic Space,” where Hadid’s curving, effortless architectures illustrate how “Like any set of religious guides / these things are fluid, not rigid. Even building can allow / air and light. Through precision and interpretation / you can eliminate wasted space.”
There are small reclamations in so many of these poems. There is no wasted place, no matter how bombed or burned, as long as making and longing arise from the rubble. Likewise, there is no wasted space here, even when the terse, constrictive lines that make up much of the book give way to fluid prose of the artist persona poems. Even the transitional spaces in the poems—between peace and war, between calm and tumult, between one Rothko red and another—provide opportunity for reflection and to be engulfed, whether by passion or pain, as with the speaker in “III. The Art of Untitled” when she says
A period says when to begin or end but who really knows. I spend hours and days
inside red trying to solve syntax. Savage. Salve. Save.
Even within the labyrinth, the pinnacle of confinement and misdirection, the minotaur of the “Inside the Maze” series find ways to transcend the literal and categorical restraints placed upon him. The box forms of the poems belie the reflections and desires of a being that is as lonely as he is monstrous, as fanciful as he is ravenous
In springtime, my lush season
To feed, I never even try to
Leave. Berries (reds and deep
blues) line the maze plentiful
and nipple sweet […]
[…] I could
Ram the walls and tunnel through
But where would I live? Exile.
And why leave? Pariah. Derelict.
My palatable palace […]
Nevelson and Hadid represent another site of constraint and violence in the collection that appear in many of Bar-Nadav’s less prominent characters as well—the female body. Both women overcame overt prejudices in their respective disciplines and Bar-Nadav addresses these conflicts both overtly, as in Nevelson’s question about her sculpture “If I were a man would you call it ‘dollhouse,’” and more subtly in the fluid and fertile images ascribed to Hadid’s buildings. However, women in other poems are subject to far more heinous kinds of violence that points back to an effort to frame, constrain, and reduce. In “Lust and Smoke,” the speaker begins “You overwhelm me with your dress / always lifting, always falling. / Velvet parting” only to lose all of the “you” except the dress “breathtaking on TV, the reporter bleeding from her mouth,” the ruin complete by the closing lines. Likewise, Snow White is disembodied to nothing more than a televised head in “I Used to Be Snow White” and the woman in “Show Me Yours” is reduced to
The names you yell at night,
In the day, The names
You chew like pebbled break.
Breakage is such sweet sorrow
Nonetheless, love and companionship are what keep the darkness at bay in these poems. Though it does not seem to have the personal immediacy of A Glass of Milk to Kiss Good Night, the new collection is every bit as unrelenting in its brutality, and also its healing, as Bar-Nadav’s earlier work. From the opening image of Tel Aviv’s face wearing “a makeup of ash,” we are in the heart of ruin that is simultaneously reiterated and renounced. The world explodes again and again, “Days crumble unceremoniously,” only to reveal some small blossoming in the bedlam. In one of the book’s most startling moments, amidst the knifed and torn and mutated world of “Let Me Hold the Kaleidoscope,” two lovers rush to their room where
Everything unbuttons and we
forget about war,
its itchy apparatus.
Romance nevertheless is true,
The moon a cluster of shredded sequins,
Deconstruction a song for two.
Likewise, in “Blur,” victims of the Eilat suicide bombing long for “wine / to drown this red day” and describe the aftermath of the explosion:
lights and fire balloons,
a painterly gasoline blur.
Let’s find a sailboat,
bread, za’atar and figs
and watch the distance burn.
These moments, among many in the book, illustrate an unwillingness to be framed, both in terms of constraint and in terms of incrimination, by the horror humans are willing to visit upon one another. Life is affirmed again and again, in spite of the crumbling Twin Towers or the wreckage of a baby carriage abandoned on the beach, as in the speaker of “Meet Me (Breathless)” who begs a companion to “Bring your accordion mouth and your love / of emptiness. Bring a fire and the wild nest of your neck. Bring your open throat.” Even in Bar-Nadav’s litanies that choose as their focal point phrases such as “my wife,” “less lonely,” and “to be dead,” we find that the commonalities and the finalities of being human bind more closely than any framework’s religion and geopolitics have to offer. We rise from ruin in the same impossible ways to watch, like Rothko “how slowly life eats. And so full of color.”
The Frame Called Ruin is, like the “impossible stairs” in one of its poems—kaleidoscopic, so much “torsion and thrust.” For every step, there is uncertain footing, a likely fall. The reader feels them equally, especially in the poet’s uncanny knack for condensation, for tiny couplets that explode in their oscillating humor and devastation. Bar-Nadav sums up our persistent cycle of failure and longing in one unfettered line:
We love beyond all these drippings,
a love that lasts.