Friday, August 12, 2011

Golden Nails by Jane Downs

I was very pleased to see Jane Downs' sensitive review of adagio and lamentation in the August 2011 edition of Poetry Flash and want to share it with you. Jane is a Bay Area poet and partner in Red Berry Editions. Her work has won prizes and appeared in numerous journals. Her novel, The Sleeping Wall, was a finalist in the Chiasmus Press book contest. She recently published a handmade chapbook, The Weight of Pink Peonies.

Golden Nails by Jane Downs

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky was born to parents who escaped Nazi Germany where many of her family perished. In adagio & lamentation, Lowinsky explores the abiding effects of this history on her family. The living move out of the darkness of the Holocaust to lives in America where the threads of loss and solace, past and present are intricately and forever woven together. Lowinsky's lyricism brings us into a consciousness that is scarred by a past that also "stun(s) her with joy."

The book's opening poem invokes Oma, the ghost of her artist grandmother who was her only surviving grandparent:

Oma come visit me sit at your easel as you always did

your brush poised your eyes as fierce

as a tiger's show me how to create

the luminous moment among so many shades

These few lines introduce Lowinsky's theme of transformation and redemption through the creation of art. Her eyes, like Oma's, are as fierce as a tiger's. Lowinsky's gaze is resolute. Her refusal to look away from the devastation of the past and the realities of fear and dislocation provides the impetus for her own art making, using a pen and ink instead of a brush and paint. Her poems act as an invocation to resurrect the ghosts (shades) of the past—to bring all that surrounds them into an instant of insight. In the title villanelle Lowinsky writes:

and my grandmother sang lieder of long ago


my child's soul was full of glimmerings the glamour of the gone the glow

of candles borne by children into the dark German woods the illumination

of the evergreen all this I saw and more when my father's fierce fingers made Bach flow


long gone now my grandmother my father although

sometimes I call them back by villanelle by incantation

come my fierce father play for me water my soul in Bach's flow

sing my sad grandmother your song is my covenant with long ago

Fierceness is a requirement of art making. Through art, Lowinsky traverses time and place. Art conjures up the ghosts of family and cultural history. The music of Bach leads a young Lowinsky into the "valley of the shadow" towards the world of her imagination where she sees "the glow/of candles borne by children into the dark German woods." The children's hands hold the future, the promise of enlightenment, the hope of the forever green. Lowinsky's grandmother's lieder presage her granddaughter's future as a poet. By the end of the poem, Lowinsky has stepped into her father's place resurrecting the past with her poetry. Her words have entered historical time, joining the timeless stream of music alongside Bach, Mozart, and Schubert.

There are poems about Lowinsky's aging, her husband, immediate family, her conflicted relationship with her scholar father who "pounded golden nails / into [her] brain." Some poems are humorous, some celebratory. The sensual always co-exists with the disembodied. The poem "summer fruit" begins with:

if joy were a taste on my tongue

it would be you

juice of the peach

Lowinsky's love for and deep connection to the women in her family runs throughout the collection. In the poem "great lake of my mother" she addresses her mother:

have I told you it's from you I've learned

endurance reflection

how pain crystallized

can create

such radiance

The poems also paint a portrait of Lowinsky the poet—a woman whose experience, imagination and artistry have culminated in this haunting and life-affirming book. The last line of the book reads: " . . . the woman remembers her notebook her pen."