Late Life Happiness by Barbara L. Greenberg, Parallel Press, 2010. $10
Reviewed by Lou Roach
The poems in Barbara L. Greenberg’s latest work lead me to believe she is likely a woman with chutzpah, who sometimes holds somewhat irreverent notions about living. In Late Life Happiness, she offers the reader an array of the perspectives of a woman in her later years, mulling over a long and active life. She sifts through relationships, aspects of self-image, and her place in her family with a discerning sense of the incongruities of experience. Greenberg has spent much of her adult life in the realm of academia. She was one of the original faculty members for MFA programs at Goddard and Warren Wilson Colleges. She taught creative writing in the Boston area and has recently been associated with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She has written four previous books: The Spoils of August, The Never-not Sonnets, What Nell Knows and Fire Drills: Stories.
Her current book includes two villanelles, eight sonnets and a rondeau. Even her less formal poems are meticulously drawn with a traditional and thoughtful use of words. Now and again Greenberg offers a bit of whimsy that displays a wry humor, as in “Executive Chef:”
Next time you think you see
a cloud in the shape
of a chef’s hat,
think again. Then re-see
canyons as cauldrons,
hot springs as broth,
sand storms as seasoning.
As for the priest and the rabbi,
the shaman and the preacher,
the monk and the martyr
. . . you must try
without a shred of piety
to re-see them
as morsels in the minestrone
that I myself
will be serving to the gods
at the unification banquet
to be announced soon.
With the poem “All Cats,” Greenberg lets the reader know she is well aware of how her own pet cat, Zeitgeist, views his place in her world:
are you a singular cat of many lives
or a series of interchangeable cats?”
“Yes,” he hisses and leaps from his basket
onto her lap, then up to encircle her neck
like a fur collar. Does he intend
to adorn her or some other act?
Joined, they visit the mirror. She reflects
as a granny wearing a soft gray pet.
He reflects as an elegant cat
wearing his own gray mannequin
for the time being.
The poet writes with poignant wisdom in the sonnet, “The Hour of” as she apparently recalls the persistence of a favored professor:
Here you discover yourself as a told story.
Here your ghost is expressed like vapor rising
from broth of light through crystal. But don’t
get Vera Schreiber wrong—she wants you to write it
in words so free of guise, they equal nakedness.
Think of your hour of birth and hours since then
when you were brought to light and not seen. Loved
and not seen. Scrutinized and not seen. Pitied, envied,
damned, praised, pleasured—and not seen, not seen.
One hour remains, says Vera Schreiber. Write.
“Three Wishes” speaks to Greenberg’s earnest hopes for how the end of life might come to her:
My first wish is for an easy death;
my second, for a timely death;
my third, for the power to
heal others, the power to
keep others’ souls close
to me as I begin to close
the book of my life.
. . .
and my eyes would beam at your psyche like
green lasers to undo your pain. Then what I would like
in return? Only to be let in before I am let go.
Only, before I am let go, to be let in.
Like a number of contemporary poets, Barbara Greenberg presents free-style fourteen line sonnets, without the usual iambic pentameter beat. One of those is “Close to the End.” The piece ties a childhood moment spent with her sister to an occasion in their adult lives. An epigram introduces the poem:And they cried and they cried,
and they lay down and died.
From “Babes in the Wood”
Close to the end she cautioned me not to cry
as if I might, as if one had such choices,
as if she were the stoic sister and I the cry-baby
scared of our own two shadows and of shadows generally
at ages six and three again, hands intertwining,
reciting “Babes in the Wood” in Grandma’s parlor
then lying down to die, our uncles applauding;
or forty and thirty-seven again, looking to all
the world like twins again, climbing the high tower
where, in a strong wind coming off the ocean
each told the other the story of her life
until she with her arms flung out and laughing violently
turned on me, transposing me and our mother.
“How come you never taught me to fly?” she said.
In a villanelle, also about her sister, Greenberg focuses on their strong bond, but also makes reference to their differences, a bit more cryptically than in the sonnet above. She says in “The Knife Accuses the Wound”:
The knife accuses the wound: See how I bleed,
to which the wound replies: We bleed as one.
That’s how it was between her and me
when one of us was the cloth and one the needle,
one the teeth, the other the tongue.
Knife to wound: See how I bleed.
Bough to cradle: You tore me from the tree.
Cradle to bough: You let me down.
That’s how it was between her and me.
from girlhood on, the little games we played,
tossing the hot coal back and forth:
See how I bleed! See how I bleed!
Nothing could come between us, between her and me.
In this selection I sensed some ambiguous feelings about their sibling conflicts and their desire to be close might cause the poet to experience sadness all these years later, in view of the knowledge that her sister is now deceased.
With “Back Then,” Greenberg speaks of her parents and grandparents. In a mildly ironic tone, she describes an event from her own girlhood, which at the time was apparently important, but maturity and experience had altered her viewpoint:
From my mother’s jar of Indianhead pennies
I took an 1861 and brought it to school.
“This penny belonged to Abraham Lincoln,” I said.
. . .
My turn of the century parents looked to the future.
“The future’s in your lap,” my father would say,
meaning he’d put it there to be hatched like an egg
and I should be grateful. Oh gratitude! Oh duty!
Oh lady-like behavior! Oh God Almighty Who
punished girls who didn’t believe in Him. Even so
I was forgiven for taking and then losing the old penny
that in fact I gave to a boy whose name I’ve forgotten
in exchange for something or other I didn’t want.
The final section of the book addresses some of Greenberg’s response to the death of her husband. In “Plans Aborted,” the poet talks of all of their still unfulfilled plans, and sends a message to him after pictures of him seem to appear on her computer in the poem “The Widow Composes an Email.” The last poem in
the book is stirring and memorable. In a precisely structured villanelle, the reader finds more revealing images of her grief in “Madam Regrets”:
Madam regrets that madam is unavailable,
is under the weather, alas, in body/soul.
When madam is wailing/flailing at the Wailing Wall
or wishing/fishing at the wishing well
or babbling like a baby at the tower of Babel,
then madam regrets that madam in unavailable
and summons me, her aide, her working double,
to fill her shoes and hold her place at table.
“Good morning,” I say. “Madam is at the wall
and what are you doing today? Reviewing your will?
As madam has often said, must all die, all.”
Madam regrets that madam is unavailable,
having evolved, she tells me, to a clod, a pebble,
a passing thought, a flicker, a twitch, a bubble,
an echo echoing at the Wailing Wall,
a last laugh at the wishing well
and at the tower of Babel, a final syllable.
Madam regrets. Unavailable.
All in all, the poems are the results of Greenberg’s expertise, experience and her perception. Her command of form and language displays her years of writing poems. That she continues to write “long after seventy” is compelling proof for all of us that we may continue to find poems in spite of our years. I believe Greenberg has more work to share and hope that she will.
Lou Roach, former social worker and psychotherapist, lives in Poynette. Her poems have appeared in a number of small press publications, including Main St. Rag, Free Verse and others. She has written two books of poetry, A Different Muse and For Now. She continues to do free-lance writing, although poetry is her favorite thing to do.