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Laura Sims reviews

Bright Turquoise Umbrella by Hermine Meinhard

Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2004.US$16.95, ISBN 1932195106 paperback

This piece is 2000 words or about six printed pages long.

Book cover imageIt is rare today to come across a book like Meinhard’s, one that successfully combines emotional honesty and flights of the imagination in spare, elegantly controlled lines. It is also rare to hear a voice as poignant and strikingly unified as this narrator’s, who observes with an otherworldly, often unsettling innocence, exploring territory left untouched or overwrought by others.

From the very beginning of Bright Turquoise Umbrella, something ominous lurks beneath the bright, childlike surface of the narrative. The narrator warns us in the book’s first poem, ‘Flying’: ‘I saw the pigs and the other animals that day talking about me, they said it was a shame and they watched me. The pigs said to run away, but I was scared, and then they said to hide, so I ran away a little’ (3). A fable-like setting also frames the second poem, ‘The Father,’ which reveals the first inklings of the domestic situation, namely the father’s simmering violence directed toward the child: ‘A man with an axe, carrying a baby on his back, thrusts the axe into the tree, steps up the tree, thrusts the axe, and steps up again (4). The mother comes running to rescue the child, but we soon realize this is only a temporary escape.

The poem ‘Yellow Sun’ is one of the strongest examples of Meinhard’s mastery in pairing the innocent with the subtly menacing. The child-speaker seems especially young and full of joy for her daily routine when the poem begins:

Oh, it’s a long day with shoes and chicken soup and running up the aisles of Food Fair looking for Mother in the twilight on Second Avenue for the first time.

And finding pillow cases and white-haired ladies pushing carriages and a long-haired man with a face the size of a plum

And running up the aisles of the Food Fair looking for chicken and oranges

Later in the poem, lines creep up to shadow the lighter imagery, such as ‘the child in the courtyard...with the red eyes and no face’ (5). Much later, instead of running gleefully through grocery store aisles, the child is ‘running down the alley at 4 AM over garbage cans...and climbing a fence to the other side...And a terrible smell — a terrible smell — early in the morning — that comes from the alley after Father leaves the room’ (6). The stench of his presumably abusive act fills our senses as well; yet it fails to entirely blot out the buoyant echoes of the child-voice searching ‘for chicken and oranges’ earlier that day. She remains with us, just as she remains inside the child tearing down the alley (in a dream or desperate escape fantasy), attempting to flee with her life and identity intact.

It becomes clearer as the poems progress that the narrator has described her house accurately when she calls it ‘a glass bowl with wind blowing’ (8). There is no place of refuge for the child, no safe haven, except in words. They allow her to channel her grief, yet they shield her (and us) from facing much of the raw brutality with their dream-language screen.

Even at her most graphic, as in the poem, ‘April 11, 1989,’ the narrator at first allows only miniscule punctures in her protective shield. She opens the poem as though beginning a fairy tale, such as ‘Rapunzel’:

My hair had grown long. I tied it in a bow and wore it as a belt around my waist. A little balcony was created where birds perched and sang in the early morning. (10)

The magical setting, the balcony appearing from nowhere, the birds perched there singing to her with her long hair wrapped around her waist, crumbles when the narrator reveals her complicity in the lie: ‘I am sorry. I’m not telling the truth. Something is bothering me’ (10). Then she says, ‘Let me start again.’ At the end of the poem, the girl finds ‘a crack in the corner of the roof,’ and just after she runs her finger along it, ironically, the shield of dream language splits apart, allowing one moment of straightforward sexual violence to escape. She says:

My father laughed when he found me kneeling over it. He threw me down. The sky was white. He laughed. He shoved himself into me again and again. (10)

Even at this hellish crux, Meinhard’s language is perfectly controlled, pared down, and straightforward. Her sentences are simply constructed to convey the action and a brief glimpse of sky, all in unadorned language that cannot fail to move the reader without overtly manipulating his/ her feelings. The physical page also contributes to the overall effect; the sight of minimal text amid a sea of white (in most of the poems) parallels the speaker’s besieged voice and existence, and emphasizes the restraint with which she tells her tale.

The speaker shares this frightening realm with animals that keep her company: as protectors, fellow inmates, and stand-ins for herself. We first see them, in ‘Flying,’ as vaguely threatening but helpful. She tells us, ‘I saw the pigs and the other animals that day talking about me, they said... to hide’ (3). They discuss her like a clique of mean-spirited girls, yet they warn her that trouble is coming, too. Later in this same poem, the speaker identifies intimately with another creature: ‘once, when I was a fly, I flew in a ring of flies around the moon,’ she says (3). She expresses the joy of belonging with these other flies, and the freedom of flying itself. However, the journey ends when ‘I was singing and it was in the treetops they found me’ (3). Meinhard’s narrator shifts from one manifestation to the next with ease, and her voice compels us to believe whatever her imagination conjures. In ‘Saturday Morning,’ the narrator again transforms herself into an animal, this time a fish. At first she tries to describe plainly what happened just before her ‘father left the room,’ but she can’t stop filtering the truth, this time via metamorphosis:

My jaw creaks — wants to tell a story — I want
to say exactly what happened, what I see — a fish
bright blue — on a necklace — no, a free flying
fish, me. (11)

At first she sees a fish, maybe as a pendant on a necklace in her line of sight, but in the next moment she has become the fish. The fish, not the speaker, suffers, its ‘head, pushed / back against the pillow,’ and left with its ‘jaw stuck / open’ at the end of the poem (11). The image of the fish is particularly effective here; one can imagine it trapped on land, gasping for air, just as the child is left literally and metaphorically gasping. Fish, flies, and birds appear frequently in this volume; their power to escape by swimming or flying has an obvious appeal for this speaker. Conversely, their fragility when caught ‘out of water’ or ‘out of air’ emphasizes the child’s helplessness.

In ‘The Mole,’ we witness what may be the speaker’s painful rebirth into her own skin from another state of being, one she may have used as an escape:

You were listening for the groaning
of the heavy and dark leaves. You were in
the heavy and dark leaves. No one else lived there.
The mole was in the mouth of the other creature.

You heard the groaning and then
you came back from it, thinking what it was
to have been (to be)
you. Things were made
from your breath (14).

If we read this ‘you’ as the speaker addressing herself, we can see that she identifies with the mole caught in a predator’s mouth. Then she ‘[comes] back from it, thinking what it was / to have been (to be) / you’ (14). In this passage we may be witnessing her painful delivery back to the world after a serious wounding. Like a mole dumped (fortuitously?) from an owl’s mouth, the speaker struggles to crawl back into her own skin after enduring a life-altering experience. However, if we read the ambiguous ‘you’ as the father who has similarly donned a different ‘skin’ in order to abuse his child, we are witnessing his delivery back to ‘himself.’ Meinhard’s language allows for multiple readings, a multiplicity which intensifies the emotional impact and complexity of the poem.

Midway through the book, we see this narrator mature as she continues to deal with fallout from her youth. She now has the power to name ‘Who He Was’ in a poem of that title. She tells us: ‘he was not a man with a white walk, / not a man who could be trusted,’ and we can infer that she labels him a ‘chimney sweep’ who has sullied her at the end of the poem (30). The voice captures anger, innocence, and humor in one fell swoop, revealing how much the speaker has changed from the suffocating child speaking from behind an elaborate screen. In another poem, ‘The Shoes,’ ‘She saw the moon, she saw the birds, she saw the little shoes, in summer, before swimming pools filled up — strong and empty and waiting’ (33). This observation, like so much of what she witnesses and records, reflects back on her. She too is strong, empty, and waiting for ‘a beautiful thing...[to] show itself to [her]’ (36). She has been ‘pushed...through a crack in the world,’ and must now make her way in the dimension she finds on the other side (35). But even as her narrator stretches toward new life, Meinhard refrains from glorifying her path, mined as it is with shades from the past and other obstacles.

‘Song’ seems to mark, as it declares, a ‘beginning of something,’ and in it we see the narrator in a state of high excitement and bewilderment:

and my heart was beating and
not knowing where to go
in the old space of the garden, not knowing
where to go...on the edge
of something which has no meaning
to anyone but a crazy bird (46)

We sense, in the nervously circling language, her birdlike anticipation as she crosses whatever threshold this may be. In the next poem, ‘A Piece of Lightning,’ we see her clinging to this new something, possibly a family life, as if it could vanish at any moment. Again animals bear bad omens: ‘one night a fish flew in the window...[he] made promises. ‘A great wave will envelop you. You will fall into a deep hole’’ (47). But the narrator negates this threat with the help of language — her songs, these poems — and by the end she determines that even if her child has ‘the head of a fish,’ she will ‘lay it in its cradle and sing to it’ (47). She acknowledges here that words can perform magic acts, but more importantly, she harnesses this magic for her own use. She will sing a mother’s welcome to her monstrous child, regardless of what her husband, or others, may think. If we read the poem ‘Portrait of Myself’ as a work of ars poetica, it attests to the power of language even more directly:

The back of speech is the soft devoted speech
that you speak to the dead.
You speak it with your back
agitated and seeking,

How you find yourself. (48)

In the final stanza of the book’s last poem, ‘The Messengers,’ ‘all of the women in the building, the landlord’s wife, the cabaret singer, the others, went out, and Lobelio, the messenger, came in’ (63). After scores of bad omens, we feel certain that Lobelio bears good tidings, although his message remains unknown. In a series of poems made up of fragmented lines and fractured stories, Meinhard has managed to deliver a mysteriously redemptive ending that does exactly what it should: leave this beautifully spare, moving, and graceful book wide open.

Photo of Hermine Meinhard
Hermine Meinhard’s poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Luna, How2, la petite zine, Kalliope, The Prose Poem and other publications. The winner of the Sue Saniel Elkind Poetry Award, she teaches at New York University and the New York Writers Workshop at the Jewish Community Center Manhattan. She is poetry editor of the literary journal 3rd bed. Photo, left: Hermine Meinhard.

Photo of Laura Sims
Reviewer Laura Sims (photo, right) lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she teaches English Composition at Madison Area Technical College. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including Columbia Poetry Review, Conduit, Fence, gam, jubilat, LIT, 3rd Bed, and 26. She has written book reviews and essays for Boston Review, Rain Taxi, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and is currently writing an essay on the work of David Markson.

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