BY SARAH SARAI
Debora Lidov’s short collection, Trance (Finishing Line Press, $14.49), contains poems of surprise, elegance, originality, wit, irony, beauty, dark humor, precision, pain, and lyricism. That is a long praise-list and could set up a reader for impossibly elevated expectations, but the high-stakes’ focus of these poems makes anything less than a full layout of its attributes a little lame.
Two things happen in Trance. (Perhaps the word happen could be quotation marks, but the wonderful poet Lidov deserves more than a review which needs to frame its own précis, so I’ll leave it as is.) Okay. The two happenings:
1. The author, poet Debora Lidov, a medical social worker in Brooklyn, has cancer and gets chemotherapy.
2. On days or periods of time when the author, poet Debora Lidov, is not having chemo or recovering from after effects of the chemo, she works as a medical social worker on a neo-natal ward serving often indigent mothers and their premature babies.
Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015, led the way with her novels woven from interviews which capture catastrophes of Russian history. The moving and painful Voices From Chernobyl comes to mind. Not poetry, no, but Lidov’s poetry has little regard for strictures of genre, either.
Trance begins with a jolt—the poem "Family Room." "Patient is full-term baby boy, age 2 months, with multiple genetic anomalies affecting eyelids (fused), extremities (webbed digits), larynx, and skull formation."The poem is derived from its landscape and sad circumstances-to-tragedy; grabbed, copied. It is a re-visioned report a social worker might write. The reader doesn’t know what portion of this or subsequent poems is "accurate" and what portion pulls away from specifics to create something else, art.
The poetry keeps the reader alert and questioning. Knowing that much grievous circumstance is experienced, however it is experienced and/or muffled, the reader is grateful to the poet for making it bearable, all the while honoring life as it is lived, not as it is thought about by artists who have the luxury of introspection. In their one- or two-page length, these report-poems, each of which stretches across the page by way of typographical "justification," distances the reader from the pain yet offers verisimilitude of reports that also help with barriers between staff and their feelings. About half of "Trance" is in the form of these justified (typographically) reports. I hesitate to refer to them as prose poems because their form is purposeful, something I’m not always sure of in prose poems. Regardless, other poems in Trance are more visually traditional.
The poet places her negotiation of a life up front as a trance in these more visually traditional poems. The negotiation is between two states of existence, one active, one passive. "I liked slipping into trance as I entered an imaging tube…" This, from the poem "Like" in which Lidov’s reaction to chemotherapy and her recovery periods, mingle with a fancy born of a poet’s imagination highly accessible in Lidov’s arsenal. In "Like" the trance is less hypnosis and more "real" life jamming with abstraction jamming with imagination as Lidov writes of the impact of her cancer on her lover.
Our talk still traveled long distance like rivers.
I liked him calling the hospital. I didn’t like
the sound of him crying like that: Did I do this to you?
I liked my hair falling out in streams.
We still liked each other.
It was like a test. We liked each other.
An IV push burned like dry ice.
The face in the mirror was like an old woman’s.
I did and didn’t like the sinking skin.
My brother’s house was like a cave
and soon I was there, sleeping like a bear.
Who wouldn’t like sleeping like a bear?
Right. Who wouldn’t want to get chemo, feel the needle, watch their body age over a period of few months? No one. But Lidov’s ingenuous, "Who wouldn’t like sleeping like a bear?" negates the effects of a possibly lost lover and possible worsening of the cancer for the chance to sleep soundly, safely, long, like a bear.
Another not so disingenuous (it is the poem’s title, after all) but effective touch is repetition of "like," a repetition which bursts out of the Trojan horse of literary devices to overtake the poem. (Yikes. Sorry for that.) Successfully. Simultaneous with Lidov’s "likes" a younger generation yammers in the reader’s mind, as in those we gently mock (as we too were mocked by our elders). Well, like, he was so, like, rude, and, like, well, like, I said… spoken by some poppet at a café, That like is summoned, like a teenage ghost at, like, a trance session.
And it is not just fun; it metaphorizes everything in life, because everything is like something, and if not "like," then a metaphor can be constructed. It’s not that the reader needs or deserves a bulwark between herself and pain. It’s that Lidov, being highly inventive and creative, creates one, and then ends the poem with a suggestion of a new religion:
I liked to baby the mass in my chest,
liked to hum a lullaby,
rock, like I was rocking it to sleep
or like the doctors were the bad cops and I was the good
or like I was a model hostage who liked to submit,
who liked the sound of her captors’ footsteps.
Their footsteps had halos.
Lidov’s new religion needs no name and offers inducements strong and soothing as poppies on the road to Oz, as an opium trance.
The poem "Waiting Room" returns the reader to a sort of trance induced and provoked by circumstance and institutional jargon in the form of a list poem.
Baby Boy with necrotizing enterocolitis three inches viable gut. Baby of maternal diabetes, maternal fever, maternal utox, maternal HIV. Baby of domestic violence. Baby Boy they were trying for a girl this time. Baby Girl they were hoping for a boy. Baby the father’s Indo-Caribbean side will not accept your blackness. Baby intubated brain dead on arrival, mother seized and expired prior to induction. Baby born with one arm one leg external bladder but two perfect lungs and excellent heart breathing easy. …
The diversity of aberration numbs, minimizes, doesn’t hide. And the rhetorical tool of repetition, as with "Like" and other poems in this necessary collection, sells it. In last few lines of the poem the word "baby" crashes against itself, rises above itself, addresses itself, exhorts itself to heal:
Baby with fused lids get ready to see, baby on new baby trache get ready to breath, failed kidney baby recover your function, baby, filter and excrete, arrhythmia baby steady whenever you’re ready your baby baby baby beat.
Read this book, baby. Baby, buy this book. Your soul will be enlarged, baby. And, baby, that’s a good thing.
Sarah Sarai’s second collection of poems, Geographies of Soul and Taffeta (Indolent Books), was released in 2016. Her first collection, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX) was released in 2009. She also writes short fiction: New Madrid Review, a print journal, just published her story “Fairness,” and other stories are in journals including Devil’s Lake, South Dakota Review, and Fairy Tale Review. She lives in New York City, surrounded by terrific friends.