Margo Berdeshevsky's Before the Droughtby Kelly Cherry
Margo Berdeshevsky’s newest book, Before the Drought, is described as a “literary inquiry” and I am inclined to agree with that definition, yet what it leaves out is the author’s wonderful passion, her daring, and in the later poems, her cleverness. So add these qualities to the mix, and what we get is brilliance, the voice dominant, the intelligence demanding, and, in this book by this writer, a whole-hearted recognition of the body, particularly the female body, in all its phases.
The book presents us with six sections. The first is the most difficult to interpret but her determination and (see above) her full-throated passion sweeps us into the poems. It’s rather as if she’d opened the door to show us in and, as she did so, a great, unstoppable gust of wind pushed us toward the living room. “Blason Pour Le Corps,” the very first poem, confronts us with female genitals and French. I used to know some French but I’ve forgotten most of it, so both of these items were somewhat challenging. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I, too, had once used “clitoris” in a poem, and set my course forward. Berdeshevsky addresses her body as “Body my deceiver/ Body my taunt / My strutter, my ogre, my mirror-bitch brayer” [.] The last two lines of this poem are “Listen. Listen. / Verlaine’s—new rain.” And Verlaine himself, we recall, was a member of the Decadent movement during the fin de siècle. We know that Verlaine was one of poetry’s greats. Perhaps we may think of Berdeshevsky’s opening as a declaration of affiliation, or, if not that, affirmation. The remaining poems in this section are reflections on what it means to be a woman. They are variously playful, energetic, sorrowful, angry, and loving. At the same time, these poems are well aware of the ways in which democracy and the environment have been attacked in recent years. No, she has not written a political book. Not exactly. She has written a book that tells us where we are now and points to places where we may be of help, to ourselves as well as others.
An “old blue heron” flies through these pages now and again, in prose poetry, celebrating the mother’s—any mother’s—attempts to defend, protect, care for her children. Here I cannot resist saying there is a blue heron—they are astonishingly large when they fly, with a wingspan that earns awe—that stops at our pond before pushing on, and its visits always seem special. Seeing a blue heron in these poems is as cheering as seeing it in the sky.
The poems in this first section are poems of feeling. The author bears her feelings in the hope that we will share her feelings. And we do. Whether the event is in the past, as it is in “Before Noon,” a tribute to James Wright Foley, who was beheaded by ISIL, or in the present, as in these concluding lines from “Listening to Sky,” which may be a response to a poem by Dylan Thomas, considering that the epigraph refers to his “Poem in October”:
There was a time, child of mornings
When she held a washed white sound
In the throat of its dove and sun
Hovered with wider wings
and sun burned them
In the second section we encounter the title poem. This poem resembles prose poetry but the first long line is followed by an even longer line that accommodates itself by beginning on the left margin farther to the left than the first line began. I’ve not seen this done before and am eager to try it for myself. Her poem stands alone, which tells us what she wants to emphasize.
The next three sections are about, in order, Paris, where Berdeshevsky often lives; tragic events in the world; and poems that raise questions about religion.
It is always fun to read poems about Paris, despite the attacks by ISIL on a country almost everyone everywhere loves, including those who have never visited it.
“Is Paris back to normal?” she asks in a poem, and answers her own question: “No, darlings, not at all. / “Not anything near normal, not at all. That, we know.
The sixth and last section attempts a reckoning that we must all pay attention to. Her concern for the environment is salutary. She speaks of the planet breaking, and breaking again and again. Here she speaks of black moons and the need for kindness, of the silence of Auschwitz and a woman “who is / / choosing when to die … ”
The seriousness of Berdeshevsky’s work, and her passionate voice, urge us to probe deeply into these sometimes complicated poems, and they pay us back in terms of beautiful lines. Yet I want to call attention to a tiny poem, a single quatrain, titled “One—Will Not Close” that turns up near the end of this book:
Too chill to be alive the road said
the only mantra it knew
and a bird that would never have
been born sang
It may not be clear at first but it will become clear. The cleverness of the syntax is rather like the way she writes elsewhere in this book. The important thing is the passion, but right behind it is the image, taking us everywhere we need to go.
KELLY CHERRY is the author of Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer
and the forthcoming Beholder's Eye: Poe