In All Odd and Splendid, Hilda Raz makes everyday activities and objects assume sublime proportions. Breakfast, football games, and hospital visits all figure in the book as quotidian and spectacular, each with a biographical link to Raz. The collection moves with strategic focus in units separated by section. In early sections, Raz focuses inward, examining her relationship with her transgendered son Aaron Raz Link and the effects of his transition on Raz as a mother. Later in the collection, she looks beyond her family, memorializing a friend’s passing with introspection and sharp insight. What Raz might call insight, Aaron might call magic, as in one of the collection’s strongest poems, “He Graduates from Clown School:” “A lot of what I thought was magic/ is habit,” Aaron claims. In these poems, Raz inverts Aaron’s observation, revealing the magic she draws from her daily life as mother, friend, and writer.
Raz takes Aaron, with whom she recently co-authored the memoir What Becomes You, as the primary subject in her parenting poems. These poems locate the hardships and happiness of motherhood, grounding them in the particular with autobiographical specifics. Aaron, in this book, has transitioned from woman to man, and his new male physicality preoccupies Raz even as she remembers her former daughter. In “Dante’s Words,” ghosted with the end-word repetitions of the villanelle and sestina, Raz examines Aaron using a similar haunting:
Now he is a man, stone
muscles, the soft breasts of a woman
gone entirely, his refashioned chest, stone
musculature fashioned by hours stoned
on lifts, endorphins, an ever increasing time
at bodywork, focused, intent, his eyes the color of stone.
In this moment, the reader sees Aaron’s complex typography of recognizable forms, creating a soft/hard duality that defies simple binary opposition. Raz immediately turns this dualism onto herself as mother. “Her heart,” she writes, “a long-buried stone/ under her breastbone, beats out the pace lightly/ only for herself.” Here, Raz represents the simultaneity of joy and difficulty, motherhood’s signature.
When Raz, in the book’s later sections, takes illness as her subject, the book’s scope shifts outward, encompassing a larger, unknown territory. “Do not go without us,” she implores in boldface to a dying friend in “Suite,” yet, the call goes unanswered: “… you go, cease,/ ceding yourself with your breath to us.” The frustration and loss accompanying death pervade this portion of All Odd and Splendid, and Raz examines her loss with exacting language, considering her own fate and elegizing friends. Thus, she never shirks from her subject, unafraid to look mortality square in the eye.
Autobiography and universality, male and female, illness and health, magic and habit—the line between binaries blurs beautifully in All Odd and Splendid. Raz deftly crafts a world in this medium of contrast, using conventional and nonce verse forms to find the spaces between seeming opposites. The collection explores the vast, amorphous realms of death and gender with fresh particulars and a poet’s keen focus.
All Odd and Splendid by Hilda Raz is published by Wesleyan University.
Review by Rachel Mennies.