Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Book of poetry review: A Form of Optimism

"A form of optimism" must be what poetry is to Roy Jacobstein, a public health physician who travels the world and has seen suffering. He writes of these experiences, as in his poem "HIV Needs Assessment": "We've found needs aplenty./But let's not talk about that,/as the people do not." Jacobstein and his colleagues are rendered mute in the face of desperation. What can anyone say that would make things better? Nothing. But one can capture the moment in verse, and remind the world of what it's like.

And that seems to be what this book of poetry is about: not saving the world, but showing it to us, in small glimpses - the awful and the everyday. There are slices of Jacobstein's own life: his mother, whose name meant "mother" in Arabic; the scariest movie he ever saw as a child; his malamute-border collie mix dog; his observations of Greece and Turkey. He shows a depth of knowledge of the world and its literature (and for those of us not quite so well-read, there are some explanations of the titles of some of the poems at the end), but that doesn't mean he won't compose a poem about the Three Stooges ("Moe"). There is also the stark and moving "Immortality," in which Jacobstein lists the names of gun designers, whose immortality means death.

Topically, I enjoyed the poems that arise out of Jacobstein's personal history the best, but it's where he goes with them that makes them work. In "Sighting," he ponders noses and recalls an incident in Italy many years ago, where two widows decide he has a Jewish nose. The poem starts out with his memory of a clown nose, but by the end wends its way to the "fatal science," concluding, "and the Aquiline nose of Sheba, so long/admired in the West, marked the Tutsi in Rwanda for the machete and the grave." Jacobstein uses personal anecdotes to bridge the distance from the personal to the universal.

Even to someone like me who doesn’t typically review poetry, Jacobstein’s poems are both accessible and powerful. I did find the layout of about half the poems distracting, however. Why break sentences into separate paragraphs? I've heard that poetry is an aural medium, meant to be heard rather than read. I would love to hear Jacobstein read the poems laid out this way, so I could know the intention behind the written form.

Jacobstein is an award-winning poet. A Form of Optimism won the 2006 Morse Poetry Prize, and his first book of poetry, Ripe, won the Felix Pollak Prize. His work has also been included in Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, & Drama (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Don't let this pedigree scare you off. A man who can write a poem about the Three Stooges and HIV is, at heart, a poet of the people.

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.

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