Reviewed by Alex O. Bleecker
Arielle Greenberg’s latest collection of poetry, My Kafka Century, is a constant reminder of the impact psychology has had on the twentieth century, “the century invented / by Austrian Jews, analysts who peeled back the brain.” With the advent of the science of the mind has come an unprecedented emphasis on the individual, who grows increasingly complex. The book itself acts as a disclaimer--an apology, almost--for the saturation of the self in society. Nearly all of the poems are written in the first person, yet it is impossible to pin down a single, consistent “I.” In fact, each poem is written from a unique narration, the net effect being an assertion of the individual as an intricate, elusive, amorphous whole. Greenberg weaves a dizzying tapestry, insisting on the self as a unique permutation of memories, relationships, spiritual influences, and pop cultural icons. She maintains that, amidst the “fear-sets flickering” of our media-driven age, no experience--moment, chapter, period--begins or ends discretely, but rather bleeds into the next. We are “crackers die-cut into the shapes of fish,” “craft-paper pages,” and “sprinkles of glued-on glitter”--human collages, both literally and figuratively. Greenberg deftly fashions such varied themes as Jewish mysticism, 1950’s movie stars, linguistic criticism, pedophilia, baseball, and extra-terrestrials into continuous threads that resonate eerily.
This complexity bears a tension that is everywhere in My Kafka Century. The first poem, “Ewe, or The One Who Brings Water,” scrolls the reader through traces of a broken love, where “to you: I send this missive of false / starts, half asleep, half in jest, / wholly imperfect I took the child from you.” She leaves sentences dangling--“I am as needy as. / I cannot take another demon, fatigue, or.”--asking readers to fill in the blanks with their own images, like a Mad Lib about disturbed domesticity. The last stanza becomes self-reflexive: “So here I go . . . Attach me: thread of light I have: I do not have it,” with the speaker describing him/herself as completely incomplete and introducing a tone linear enough to be sensible as wel as schizophrenically fascinating.
As no experience exists in a vacuum, the title poem begins in medias res. Stylistically, the two- or three-line stanzas all begin like first lines of a speech: “By which I mean I have come to this dark county a carpetbagger / and left it in the body of a woman”--a mixed metaphorical acknowledgement of the ill-gotten gains of Reconstruction and the process of reincarnation itself. In a Plath-like moment, Greenberg writes, “that my father’s thumping love for me churns me . . . that I wear a grudge like a brass star locket on a chain.” She is both sheriff and persecuted Jew--hunter and hunted. Like Kafka, the complexity of neurosis in Greenberg’s poetry stems from the contradictory feelings of Jewish guilt and pride--“That my life is a kind of flag for Life in General; / that I am hateful and boastful and chosen enough to make such a claim.” Greenberg slips in and out of singular and plural first-person narration, from her own lowercase “life” to “this Life we speak about can be shared,” attempting to deconstruct, discover, and define the individual’s role in society.
A genre-bender of sorts, “Folding the Bed” is a blues nursery rhyme in couplets. True to the tradition of these two otherwise disparate forms, most of the couplets contain either some slant rhyme or a refrain. A jilted, jaded lover sings the story of how her man left her after perhaps gambling their money away. As in a drunken rant, the addressee changes throughout the piece; the speaker talks to herself, her neighbor, anyone who will hear the story of her woes. She begins by addressing her man: “Bedmaker. Spoonmaker. Carpenter. Crook. / You’ve left me with nothing. My braids tied in silk.” Lovelorn, she falls to addiction and entertains suicide. To her neighbor: “I need just a knife and a pinch of your sugar. // I need just a slug of the gin in your bathwater. / I need just a tub. Just a song. Just a lick. // Make whiskey from kettle. Eat it like smoke.” Entirely dependent and unskilled, she resorts to prostitution: “I’ve taken a rib to neaten my corners. / John Murphy. John Henry. // John Riley. John Doe.” Greenberg paints the picture of a desperate, derelict woman folding back her Murphy bed, “the bed resting inside the wall” each time a customer leaves, both begging and cursing her abandoning lover to “Remember this house cause you’ll come back tonight. / Bedmaker, Spoonmaker, Carpenter, Crook.”
The title of the poem “One Hundred and Eighty” alludes to reversals. The first stanza has shades of Sharon Olds in its use of eerily organic language and repetition to parallel the experiences of being someone’s child and having a child of one’s own--an about-face of sorts:
When I become a mother,
the hole in my heart will gasp a song of old world violins.
This, like all other stories, keeps me awake: a pack of lies,
a pack of wolves, animals who make
the machine of the future, the future
into which, like a transparent silvery tube,
I will make a child. The child will be made of glass.
I will be the glassmaker’s daughter, blowing a wish
into the burning, spinning hive.
Honest with herself, she acknowledges that becoming a mother is as unlikely as a lie, however being the “glassmaker’s daughter” (that is, glass and fragile) the speaker can only have an equally fragile child of her own. In the second stanza, we encounter a forest with one hundred and eighty hypothetical paths--the right, the left, and everything in between--wherein there is “only one path paved in true blood, / the blood of what is real. / If one is real, then this is the only path one can find. / No others present themselves. / The right have no choice but to be right.” This last line works on two levels: it acknowledges the non-dualist, Buddhist theory wherein polar opposites always coexist in a thing, therefore what seems like a decision between two choices actually is not a decision at all; and it also works as a critique of the conservative, religious “right” that calls for a singular, homogenous society and attempts to deny diversity.
Toward the end of the book, “Babel” echoes the overarching theme of collage identity in the twentieth century. The poem is a scathing commentary on an issue of recurring significance in My Kafka Century: Jews attempting to mask their Jewishness. The subject of Greenberg’s critique is Dr. Ludovic Zamenhoff, the late nineteenth-century Polish intellectual/spiritualist who created the ‘universal’ language Esperanto. The poem begins “The Jew who invented Esperanto: he’s a Jew, / don’t deny it.” In the second stanza “A Jew tried to bleach his tongue, / make the whole world his pidgin so no one / could tell what he was.” Since a tongue cannot be bleached, this fails, just as “Not a bone of language / is neutral.” Language is inherently political. Any attempt to construe it as apolitical is as fraudulent as someone denying his or her own ethnicity. “The twentieth century is an Esperanto: / it was invented by a Polish Jew / and never worked . . . now we speak mongrelese.” Instead of being the great equalizer, cross-cultural diffusion has simply led to a loss of ethnic identity where the speaker has no ownership over language, “and not even half of our words are our own.”
Amidst a whirlwind of pop cultural icons from the century that was--Peter Lorre, Shirley Temple, Kate Smith, Patti Duke, President Howard Taft, Helen of Troy, Burt Bacharach, Patsy Cline, Tom Verlaine, etc.--Arielle Greenberg’s My Kafka Century is a tour de force that simultaneously seeks to assert the self’s solitude while embracing the world. It is as fragmented as it is seamless. Upon completion, the reader comes to understand that these poems are not only Arielle Greenberg’s ‘Kafka Century,’ they are everyone’s.