Musings #36

In BASTARD HEART, Raphael Dagold expresses a history of loss that has made a home in his heart.

Dagold does this in lyrical poems, like the title poem and “Tree Heart,” and “Dirt Heart,” full of images of birds, and hearts and homes. He does this in more narrative poems that sing of the history of the Jewish people, of his grandparents, parents, and his wife/ex-wife.

“Parts Unknown” portrays the aloneness felt when we suddenly realize that the one we thought knew us knows us not at all, when the woman soon to be Dagold’s wife does not understand the history of persecution suffered by the Jewish people, and its impact on Dagold.

“Learning to Eat Apples” is touching without a trace of sentimentality, giving the reader a taste of Dagold’s father – what he will do for his children, and perhaps too, after suffering deprivation, his insistence upon eating an apple, even its core.

In “For Whom,” Dagold shows us his older brother, who says he wants to kill himself, throwing a ball over the house for Dagold to catch. Dagold writes, “It has to be okay to wonder if what you think your life is, isn’t it?” and “The words don’t make a choice.” It is as if Dagold thinks he could save his brother if only he could catch the ball – “I catch it. I catch it and catch it.”

“Bending Glass” is one of many poems in which Dagold puts opposite conclusions together. In this poem, he writes, “The glass breaks. Or it doesn’t break.” Is this chance, hope, or paradox? Is the child teaching himself to bend so as not to break?

How to survive in a brutal world? Even when we argue, throw punches, we have to lend a hand. (“Like to Need.”) And sometimes, rather than fight, perhaps the best choice is to pretend we don’t see the aggressor – as if the aggressor might not see us. (“In the Field.”)

“Collections,” a three-part poem, challenges us to grasp the magnitude of the Holocaust by trying to imagine a pile of 6,000,000 bottle caps, and to consider the way that jumping from a window can be a suicide or, while escaping the 1911 New York City garment factory fire, a desperate attempt to survive.

“Insulin” shows how wrong we can be when we observe a stranger and make up a story about her. When Dagold realizes he has judged – misjudged – another, he sits abashed, “hands in his lap.”

That ending is repeated in “At a Window, Open Wide in September,” when he and his wife realize their marriage is over. “We spoke without rancor or our customary / weapons. We spoke knowing we would leave / each other. Now my hands are in my lap, our hearts / dirt and stone and small animals in our chests.”

BASTARD HEART includes other poems about the end of Dagold’s marriage, and among them, “Fireworks” begins with a description of fireworks set off in the street, and moves to the fireworks of a marital fight resulting in his sleeping downstairs. The poem detours to a memory of a moment when his wife winked at him – “a gift I’ll turn and study every year.” The poem comes back to that night when his wife comes downstairs and lies beside him. Dagold skillfully uses repetition when he writes: “[S]he’s over there / through smoke, waving sparklers in each hand, / turning designs, she’s winking, she’s beautiful.”

We learn in other poems about Dagold’s mother, a remote figure who left his father and him. But in “Collapsing Frame,” Dagold describes the “cradling minutes” she gave to her dying father, his grandfather. Although the old man may have died “[l]ooking still at a life found wanting,” Dagold writes: “For him, I don’t believe it. How could all of someone’s love be mediocre? / How could my mother have the grace to tell me, / 'Well—death is very final. And my father was my teacher.'”

In a very real sense, the tribute that Dagold pays, to the people and events in history and in his life, both preserves and transforms, makes of it all – a stark beauty.