Book Review

Gail Fishman Gerwin, Dear Kinfolk, ChayaCairn Press, 2012

Reviewed by Nancy Scott

Gail Gerwin’s second full-length collection Dear Kinfolk, is an exciting companion to her first book, entitled Sugar and Sand, a 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize finalist. I met Gail at a reading shortly after her first book was published. I bought her book and felt an immediate affinity to her poems. Written, for the most part, in plain language narrative, they tell a generational story of a young Jewish girl, who grew up in Paterson, NJ, in the 1940s and 50s. Hers was a modest home, but one rich in family lore, love and tradition. In this new book, which is in memory of her aunt, Helen Stern Mann, who began all her letters with the salutation, Dear Kinfolk, Gail not only continues the family’s history, but tells us, “All those I met along my own journey are kinfolk in spirit.”

In one of the first poems in the book, "So Safe, 1940s," Gail juxtaposes her “safe,” normal life in America with the terrors of the Holocaust: “we pumped swings toward the sky…our parents played cards on Saturday night…laughter joined by the clickety-clack of poker chips,” while her alter ego says, “we lay on planks, touched strangers from other towns…our feet in the dead’s shredded shoes …our ghostly faces in search of husbands, parents, children we would never find….” For those of us growing up during that era, we heard the stories of lost relatives told in hushed tones.

Against this backdrop, Gail begins her family’s history. She is a master of details, as she spins out names of streets, towns, shops, transit lines, hospitals, hotels, and the like, which are the center of her world. She takes us on a memory tour of icons which, even without today’s instant media, were in everyone’s lexicon: Dy-Dee doll, Bendix washer, Kodak Brownie Box, tulle prom dresses and gardenia corsages. In addition Gail finds just the right tone to describe vacations in Miami Beach, where certain hotels didn’t cater to Jews, her mother’s unremitting anxiety about germs and illness, the shopping spree to buy a college wardrobe—Bermuda shorts, Bonnie Doon knee socks, and crew neck sweaters. Even though I grew up thousands of miles away, I was with her in spirit as I tried on similar outfits.

In the next section, Finding My Kinfolk: One, we are introduced to the courtship between Gail’s mother and father, a poem with a surprise ending. We meet members of Gail’s extended family who immigrated to America: aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins; some with the same names, but differentiated as in Little Aunt Rose by Blood and Aunt Rose by Marriage. We are privy to their foibles and their feuds, their spirit and determination to succeed in America, what fuels the synergy of a large and caring family.

In the long third section, What We Lose, How We Fear, we join Gail in her search for a husband, along with unflagging advice from her mother. About Gail’s sister’s marriage, she tells Gail, “…look, a husband/from a fine family and children who/can ski, someday you’ll make a match like that.” I can hear my own mother’s voice. With the deaths of her parents, the torch is passed. Gail carries on with her own family—two daughters, grandchildren, cancer, and her own long marriage recognized in an anniversary tribute to her husband: “Where is the quick-step/blue-shirt boy I watched through my window?/Wink at me. I know./Here. Mine.” She underlines the importance of tradition—or inherited superstition, like cleaning the dining room chandelier before the Passover meal, maintaining family graves, and the power of red. “It means life you know,” her mother said, so Gail wears a red camisole under her sweater when she goes for a doctor’s appointment and ties red bows under both of her daughters’ wedding dresses. Even the dog wears a red collar.

Gail sprinkles Yiddish everywhere while she balances the tough times of life with sure-footed lightheartedness. In the delightful poem, "Are We Done Yet," at the family’s Chanukah celebration, her young daughter looks longingly at the neighbors’ brightly-lit Christmas tree and wonders why they don’t have one too. “Because we’re Jewish,” Gail says, which prompts her daughter to ask, “When will we be finished being Jewish?”

We never cease being Jewish. For the section, Finding My Kinfolk: Two, Gail researched the Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims Names. Here she discovered the names of her mother’s sister, Aunt Frieda, and her Uncle Lieb. In "I Find My Aunt Frieda in Sepia," Gail imagines what her aunt’s ordinary daily life as a wife and mother in Poland may have been like before she died in the Holocaust. In the next poem, "My Name is Lieb," the speaker wants to know who will remember the names and histories of those who died in the “Final Solution.” The power of the poem is in the simplicity of the lines, “My Name is Lieb. Can you find me?/…They closed my store. They took me to Lodz/…Lissa, my home. Lissa, goodbye/…My sisters in America, will you remember me?/…Who knows about me? Who will say my Name?/…Will you remember? Someone, remember.” This poem touches something deep inside me, because I cannot read the words without welling up.

Gail confronts the enormity of life, its tragedies and successes, with skill and clarity. It is more than a story of growing up Jewish in America, it is a universal story of immigrant families and how they assimilated into American society without ever losing their identity. Gail has honed her poetry so that it tells us just enough, each word carefully chosen, each image fleshed out. This book deserves a second read, at least, in order to capture all of its connections and nuances.


I look in the
closet, the cave
where your scent
dances in teal chiffon.

            I look there
            for the red coat
            you wore in winter.

I’d planned to stop
at the new tailor in town,
the one who offers
discounts to first-timers.

I’d planned to ask her
to take in the sleeves, those
that held arms that carried me
as a baby, that reached out to
welcome my own children,
that folded endless laundry
on visits after your husband died.

            Your red coat on my
            winter shoulders—I could
            wear you around me.

I look in the
closet but no,
I’d packed it in a green
three-ply bag, along
with your too-small shoes,
gave it to the Market Street Mission.

            A stranger wears your love.

Nancy Scott is an artist and author of five books of poetry, as well as the managing editor of U.S.1 Worksheets, the journal of the U.S.1 Poets' Cooperative in New Jersey. Raised in Illinois, Nancy has had ties to Wisconsin from summer camp to college to lakefront property, which her family owned until recently and which has been the focus of numerous poems. Visit