The Eternities by Marianne Bluger, The St. Thomas Poetry Series, 2005. ISBN 0-9735910-2-1, $20.00 (www.stthomas.on.ca/poetry.cfm).
Reviewed by Jesse P. Ferguson, for Bywords.
Given Marianne Bluger’s recent passing (October 29, 2005), it would be easy to let emotion skew an evaluation of her most recent poetry collection. Eerily enough, it was published on the very day of the award-winning poet’s death. It would be too easy to join the chorus of friends and fellow poets who professed the lasting power of Bluger’s poetry after she lost her battle with cancer. Luckily, insincerity is not needed when extolling this collection.
The Eternities is above all dignified. Bluger grapples admirably with themes both universal and intensely personal. Though many of the pieces centre on death—either her own, her father’s or the Jewish people’s during World War II—the collection somehow avoids depressing the reader. Rather, it is a celebration of the saving power of faith, family and art. For instance, the poet makes skilful use of her own dual ancestry (both Christian and Jewish) in such pieces as “Who”:
No officious high-church prelate
arbiter of human hearts
no hard-nosed transposed old law man
will be deciding whether I am
catechized pure or kosher enough
Nor shall any worldling ever
withhold my precious
legacy of splintered wood
and tattered yellow star (“Who” 35)
Bluger here, as in others of her poems, takes hold of religion and ancestry and uses both to stave off jadedness. In many such poems, a vehement passion grips the reader, and the defiant, proud tone precludes despair at the atrocities of genocide or at the everyday tragedy of a loved one’s death.
The title of the collection, which establishes expectations of vague generalizations, is actually used in the title poem to memorable effect. Evoking the transportation of Jews like cattle in Nazi trains, the poem’s speaker asks:
And who in charged stagnation
would venture to explain
how every day they ran
those freightcars through the valley
past the garden bearing one
eternity at a time? (“The Eternities” 13)
Here, in a typical move, Bluger brings a personal, specific grounding to an abstract concept (in this case eternity). Instead of a generalization, the poem points to the individuals who suffered the atrocities of genocide, relating them to the larger picture. The poet repeatedly blends the oratorical flourish of a prophet with the familiar, conversational tone of a friend. Part of her success is due to the subtle marshalling of her indignation; she is careful to direct her anger away from the reader, thus taking him or her on side.
It is difficult to single out any weakness in The Eternities. There is the odd poem in the collection, such as “In October,” that contains a too-obvious or clichéd image: “her upturned hands like fragile sparrow corpses” (“In October” 36). Another example can be found in “Invocation on a Windy Night”: “stiff with terror I awoke … in my moon-whitened chill / chamber of midnight despair” (“Invocation on a Windy Night” 50). These rare “off lines,” however, are of negligible import given the concision and imagistic verve exhibited in the collection. Even in writing out a stock image, the poet’s line breaks are interesting, her language economical. Perhaps more importantly, Bluger handles despair and faith in a way that transcends religious sects. She is capable of handling generalizations that would be dangerous in the hands of less experienced poets, and yet she is equally skilled at rendering the everyday tenderness of families and lovers. It is quite a relief, given her recent passing, that The Eternities stands on its own feet, without need of posthumous sugar-coating.
To learn more about Bluger, visit her website: (http://firstname.lastname@example.org/index.htm)