BY CHARLES RAMMELKAMP
2014, Main Street Rag Publishing Co.
Filed Under: Poetry
There is nothing quite so heartbreaking as the death of a child, nothing more cruel than a parent surviving his or her own offspring. The tension between the fragile hope and joy of children and the finality of death is potent throughout the sixteen poems that make up Elisa Albo’s new collection, Each Day More..
From the opening title poem, an elegy for Alexander Standiford, a young man who died at eighteen, way too young, to “Hurricane Sandy,” a poem about two boys swept away from their mother to their deaths, at Staten Island, to several poems involving two young people, the poet’s cousins, Janet and Robert, killed in a Florida motorcycle accident, these poems ooze with the pointless tragedy of young death, including the anonymous deaths of the boy-soldiers in Iraq and the Middle East.
But as in all good elegies, the poet seeks, if not some affirmation from the lives taken so abruptly, at least a kind of wisdom from the very fleeting nature of existence. In “First Day of Summer, 2006,” Albo observes, between images of glorious sports triumphs (the Miami Heat winning the NBA championship, the Ghana soccer team persevering to win a World Cup match) and details of barbaric deaths (American soldiers tortured and killed; Tallahassee prison guards creating mayhem; the two young cousins senselessly dead):
My parents say happiness does not exist
only moments of happiness.
My husband says perfection is a sensation.
This dear college friend said the sadder we are,
the happier we can be, as if sadness carves
a space into which we can pour happiness.
This brings to mind that fundamental American aspiration, the “pursuit of happiness.” Is it really just bunk? Elusive, unattainable? What does it even mean, to be “happy”? Precious as a small child; a gift, not a right.
The poem, “Tap-Tap,” likewise throbs with the tension between innocence and experience, life and death, happiness and sorrow. The poet’s young daughters playfully hide from their mother, who, unknown to them, is dressing for the funeral of a friend who has died at the age of forty, and –
They don’t know I’m grieving,
for an old friend, nearly sixty,
cancer, who taught me teaching,
poetry, friendship. The day before,
I’d called my husband to tell him
about the two deaths, He had news,
his voice exuberant – my cousin
in New York had given birth, twin girls,
wet and wailing into the world –
Rachel and Rebecca, ancient names,
our great aunts. Tap-tap. Two gone.
Tap-tap. Two here, tap-tap.
Albo alludes here to the Jewish tradition of naming newborns after deceased relatives in order to preserve their memories and provide a sense of continuity in life.
The fragility of life, even when it is spared, pulses throughout these poems as well. “Water Babies,” a poem about the poet’s children, concludes:
When they are near
water, I keep a close eye.
The line break on “near” brings emphasis to that word and its implications of vulnerability for both parent and child. A similar observation is at the heart of her poem, “Little Kids, Little Problems.”
“Listening from a Safe Distance” likewise centers in the ever-near threat of violence and death. While the main action of the poem takes place poolside in a Florida backyard, Albo notes:
In the Middle East,
rockets and bombs explode
in Lebanon and Israel.
My brother-in-law’s nephew
moved to Tel Aviv today with
a young wife an infant son.
A couple of poems also deal with the tragedy of the Holocaust, its pointlessness and enduring impact — “The Pianist, Final Scene” and “Terezin,” a poem about a visit to one of the concentration camps near Prague. What is the impulse to preserve the names of all those who died, the narrator wonders, and notes the enduring sense of loss that this and any such tragedy brings. The poem ends with the image of an elderly woman on a videotape recounting her horrific days in Terezin, the onslaught of death and despair. “…the videotape is on a loop – she cannot stop telling her story.”
The poems in Each Day More are somber, but they are wise, as in the reflections Albo writes in poems like “Tap-Tap” and “First Day of Summer, 2006.” The spare, evocative lines also provide their own sense of solace by the sheer artfulness and gentle reflection with which they are written. As the very title of the collection suggests, a fullness of experience is achieved in time, and though “experience” often equals “loss” and “pain,” it’s what we accrue, what we hoard; it’s what we have to hang onto.
Similar Reads: Kaddish, by Allen Ginsberg