In the most frequently quoted lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” What is found in Phyllis Klein’s new poetry collection The Full Moon Herald (Grayson Books, 2020) is an unflinching and compassionate witness to the news of the day and the historical traumas that birthed it.
Cleverly organized in sections titled like the features of a newspaper–International News, Health, Crime, Arts & Entertainment, and so forth–the collection responds to timely topics such as wildfires and droughts, the refugee crisis, sexual violence, and even the coronavirus. Several poems reference the Holocaust, a visceral part of Klein’s ancestral legacy as a Jew, and how the memory of this event both compels her to write about other genocides and sometimes threatens her with despair. Human interest stories provide fleeting moments of hope, such as in “Paul Barton Plays Piano for Elephants”, yet even there, Klein refuses to look away from details that complicate the sentimental picture: “Even if they/knew where the piano once got its keys, what would/they do?”
On August 22 at 4 PM Pacific/7 PM Eastern time, Klein will be participating in a Zoom poetry reading with J. David Cummings and Christine Holland Cummings titled “Staying With the Trouble: Poems of trauma, grief and hope in an age of disaster”. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org for the link. Visit her website to learn more about her work as a writer and trauma therapist.
She kindly shares two poems from the book below. Jeni Haynes, referenced in the second poem, is an Australian child abuse survivor who developed 2,500 personality alters. Hers is believed to be the first case in Australia, and possibly the world, where a victim has testified in their alternate personalities and secured a conviction, according to this BBC Australia article.
The Human Tragedy
Dandelions… kept alive by the finest gardeners
in the world who knew how to work against nature.
—Jack Gilbert, “The Difficult Beauty”
You can only avoid it for so long. Like reading a story set in
pre-war France knowing something terrible will happen to
the lovely Jewish characters. Why do you read it? When you
started it was a happy story. Good fortune draws you in.
Love starts off loudly, calling with the ecstasy of a requiem,
only you don’t want to realize the beauty leads to the grief
until it happens. More and more of this these days. More of the people
gathering, the bombs gushing off, the dead and the survivors.
No need to explain what fear feels like. It’s in you, it’s sitting beside
you. It’s in the backs of the gardeners as they bend over
the plain yellow flowers weeding out everything else that wants to grow.
She Was Alone
for Jeni Haynes
She was alone like an iceberg, but not too frozen
for her father to hurt. He assaulted her at age four almost
breaking her. Her body, a crime scene. Her mind, a disjunction.
Every day of her childhood. We know about it now because
she went to court. She was alone like a volcano on a fault
line, sitting there facing him, barbarian in a chair. Enjoying
her affliction. A gargoyle. He’s going to prison now. She did
the impossible. Didn’t erupt or sink him with an icy gash to his side.
Didn’t smack him in the face. Found a detective who believed her.
A detective who can cry. She made an army, a republic of her, to stay real
while her criminal father tortured her. There are Muscles and Erik
in charge, but it’s a democracy, a nation of her. Alters, fragments, back
room boiler boys and girls and notgirls. Voting on every single
important issue. Symphony testified first. Still four years
old. Remembering everything in detail. She was alone like
a seed planted in a vast empty desert. Until the others,
so many she would never be alone again, surrounded
by their palm fronds, cassia bushes, cactus guards, soothing aloe veras.
Her body a crime scene, what he did to her, how she paid with her organs
in ruins, no babies ever for her. He is going to prison for a long
time, her father. And everyone will know what he did.
How he violated her territory. He told her she was ugly, every
day he tried to ruin her. Tried but couldn’t. He was a giant next to her
meager body. Bathroom tormenter. How she fought him, her beautiful
enduring, backboned, spirit. What he would never see on her cold
wounded skin. Excellent, breathtaking, outstanding beauty, had to go
under cover, beneath her waterline to the vast hidden underside.
Residence of power. She opened the door for other split
people to have their days in court. We bow to her, association of Jeni,
society, territory, unionized, incorporated, ablaze.