Book Review

I Hear Voices: A Memoir of Love, Death, and the Radio by Jean Feraca.
Terrace Books, 2011. Paper $19.95, ebook $9.99

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

Jean Feraca writes about her life and family with wit, snap, and 
finesse in I Hear Voices: A Memoir of Love, Death, and the Radio, a
collection of eight essays and one section of poetry. In 2011, Terrace
Books, a trade imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press, reprinted
I Hear Voices, first published in 2007. The 2011 edition includes a new
chapter plus the poetry, 15 poems.

When Jean Feraca, former Wisconsin Public Radio executive producer of
“Here on Earth: Radio without Borders” announced her
retirement date (March 2012), over 200 responses were recorded on her
blog. The common thread: she will be greatly missed for her attention
to the humanities, her concern for the human condition, her warmth,
passion, and laughter. Over the decades, she devoted many of her
programs to poetry as well—we can be grateful!

On her blog, Feraca wrote, “When I arrived here twenty-eight years 
ago, having grown up on the east coast, I knew nothing about Wisconsin
or its people and very little about live radio. My only journalism
credential was the Girl Scout Badge I earned when I was ten years old.
I was a rookie, as green as green could be. Fortunately, my listeners
weren’t just patient, they were also great teachers.”

Feraca’s courage is also seen in this book as she relates life lived 
(endured?) with her family. Frankly, it sounds exhausting, though
fascinating, to have known and coped with her spirited relatives.
Essay titles: “My Brother/The Other,” “Dolly” [her “monster” mother],
“Get Thee to a Winery,” “Why I Wore Aunt Tootsie’s Nightgown,” [to her
third wedding], “Caves,” [includes information about her friendship
with Donald Hall],  “A North American in the Amazon,” “A Big Enough
God,” “Roger and Me, Too” [the new chapter about the life of her
husband’s best friend]. Though it’s a cliché, her family members and
acquaintances are all larger than life. Most major events are
portrayed with drama and tinges or broad strokes of the divine. (We
all grasp at something to explain why we live and die, why not the
divine? It is evident that Feraca grew up Catholic.) Of interest:
Feraca’s marriage ceremony to Alan, a lapsed Jew:

And as if the burden of all this history wasn’t heavy enough [for a 
marriage between two people with different religious backgrounds],
there was yet another abyss that yawned between us. Alan is a
biochemist; I am a poet. He relies on reason; I rely on intuition.
With our widely divergent worldviews, we are the perfect embodiment of the ‘two cultures’ that C.P. Snow famously described. As Rabbi Brahms declared, ‘Your union is two worlds coming together.…It tells us in
the books that the worlds of science and poetry do not mix ....”  (100
- 101)

Feraca expands on this theme: “In the old Jewish tradition, the
rabbis looked upon the union of two such disparate natures of male and
female as a miracle as great as splitting the Sea of Reeds. The
marriage of Poetry and Science would have to be that much more
miraculous, a living metaphor: In order to bring about a new
beginning, and a new covenant, we needed each of our families to be
present along with our closest friends.”  (101)

Feraca is a gifted writer. You can see her poetry in her prose. For 
all her many setbacks in her years following college, she found a
future for herself as she dealt with two divorces and two custody
battles. Furthermore, she was fortunate that she grew up with a
supportive father (law degree from Fordham University) who wanted her
to succeed. “My father and I had always been close. ‘You’ll always be
my baby,’ he had told me often enough, sometimes to my chagrin.” (35)
In addition, Feraca has had many opportunities to travel, to expand
her world.

In “My Brother/The Other,” Feraca writes about her brother, Stephen, a 
decade older, also a writer. His books include Wakinyan: Lakota
Religion in the Twentieth Century
 and Why Don’t They Give Them Guns?
The Great American Indian Myth
. He was conflicted, loving both his
life as an Italian American and identifying with Native Americans.
Feraca writes, “He was kindhearted, but he could be equally cruel; he
had the manners of a courtier when he wanted to be charming; he was
downright gallant one minute, shockingly crude the next. He was a
romantic and a cynic, a skeptic and a true believer. His knowledge of
the history of North American Indians was encyclopedic; he was trained
as an anthropologist in the scientific method, but, underneath it all,
he practiced magic.” (7) Due to a family feud, she didn’t talk to him
for ten years.

Feraca describes Stephen’s last months fighting his third cancer. 
Jean’s son, returning from a Boy Scout outing in New Mexico, hands an
eagle feather to Stephen, his dying uncle. Stephen took the feather,
his “arms ... closed around the boy and his tribute. They held that
last embrace until, once again, my brother’s body fell back slack
against the bed, his head settled into the pillow, and his eyes
closed, this time for good.” (16) But, he wasn’t dead. Stephen lived
through the night and died in Jean’s son’s arms early the next
morning. Jean washed Stephen’s body and watched the changes in his
appearance: “It was as if, in that hour after death, he was carving
himself. The bones began to shine through, rarified and fine. The skin
changed color, turning a dark granular gold, like wet granite, and
then began to sink below its own surface as it clarified. It was as if
you could see right down into it, the way river stones in a clear
stream draw your mind down to their depths. He heat was purgative,
erasing all traces of the anguish and torment that had characterized
his last days—his whole life, in fact. In their place, a deep peace
came to settle into him like a great stone that had finally found its
groove. It seemed to suggest that his suffering, the very cruciform of
his life, and been redemptive after all.”(18)

In my favorite essay, “Get Thee to a Winery,” Feraca relates her 
experiences during her five-week writer’s retreat at a Benedictine
monastery in southern Wisconsin. She used this time to work on a book
about women monastics and to write a poem for the Dane County Cultural
Affairs Commission. Feraca writes, “I had been promised the sum of
five hundred dollars for this commission, an outsized honorarium by
any standard. Could I write a poem worth five hundred dollars? Could
anybody?” (72) While Feraca contemplates this assignment, she analyzes
her relationship with Alan. “Behind me lay a dark and bloody trail
left by two divorces and two custody fights waged at times
simultaneously over the course of three separate battle states.” (72)

As poets, perhaps many of us have stayed at a writer’s retreat. 
Writing about them is something else, however. Feraca ponders her
future with Alan, the scientist, the winemaker. She thinks about her
past and writes, “Nevertheless, in spite of many escapades and
heartbreaks, or maybe because of them, my interest in the religious
life never altogether disappeared. I remembered with a pang the ardor
I had felt as a young girl contemplating a life of devotion and
service, and sometimes caught myself wondering whether my disastrous
marriages weren’t the consequence of having denied my true calling.”
(75) She wonders if it’s too late. “I was strongly attracted to the
idea of monastic life, but then, I was also attracted to Alan.” (77)
They had taken a trip to the California wine country three months
before her retreat. “Magic comes easily to a sun-drenched place where
beauty abounds and the bacchic rites of conviviality, euphoria, and
sensual pleasure are all as carefully tended as the vines.” (82) Now,
at the monastery, she asks herself, “Was it Get thee to a nunnery, or
Get thee to a winery?” (85)

How to write about days spent at a retreat? Fortunately, Feraca’s stay 
was interrupted by Alan’s visit (something to write about!) who
arrived with wine and “carefully chosen delicacies,” and he spent the
night. She wondered, “Jesus and Bacchus…Jesus and Bacchus…what am I
 (95) She wrote a poem about Alan’s visit, “Bacchus at St.
Benedict’s,” and submitted it to the Dane County Cultural Affairs
Commission. After her poem was published in Isthmus, it met with some
attacks—it was not the landscape/nature poem they had been expecting.
“None of this really bothered me,” Feraca writes. “I knew I had
written a very good poem, perhaps my best. Besides, transgression is
the very stuff of poetry.” (97)

Feraca writes, “‘Happily ever after,’ which is how this story ends, 
turned out to be a lot more interesting than I ever suspected. It
wasn’t easy for me to choose happiness, or even to recognize it as a
choice. Alan helped. He asked very direct questions. ‘Are you capable
of happiness? Can you bear loads and loads and loads of unconditional
love?’ He had put me to the test. I had to think about it. I checked
the box marked Yes.” (98)

Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin. She lives in Marshfield and is presently lost in the 1950s as she works on a book of family memories with her two sisters, Elda Lepak and Mavis Flegle.