Ruth Schwartz’s Miraculum is a vivid depiction of living in a world filled with sex and death. Her poems grasp at what brings these companions of our existence together, how they make sense side by side. She finds them in every living corner of our world, but most of all right beside us.
In “Forms of Prayer” there is a salmon “glistening in combat,” its epic and timeless quest to reproduce juxtaposed against the “unyielding hatchery walls” we’ve confined it to. The next moment she marvels at its beauty, “the brilliant pink and iridescent gleam/of the salmon wrapped in paper” just as she acknowledges “how we cook and eat it, knowing what we’re eating.” But even if we know, we ignore or willfully forget. Schwartz’s poetry seeks otherwise.
We meet other creatures who live with the same brutal and beautiful realities as we do, such as the tiny birds in “The Professors,” which through generous description are instantly familiar to us. “Their softly feathered throats/against our palms” and other moments of intimacy have the birds in our own hands, but only long enough so their departure a few lines later is bittersweetly felt. They leave “to marry the stony half of the world/to the half that covers our eyes—/as if they could teach us.”
And then, just as quickly, we are reminded in “Bottom of the World” that “life flattens itself/like a bird crushed in the road:/flat blotch of feathers.” These scenes are the same and they are opposite. There is transient interaction with the living and lingering contemplation of the dead, but both are always teaching, ensuring that we continue to learn from them.
Schwartz wants us to become unafraid of how sex and death can so often be found together, as she has. In “Falling in Love after Forty” she tells how “I don’t want you young again, nor me/I want every sadness we’ve lived to stand here beside us/between the swaying soldiers of dead corn.” Masking the truth is a waste for her, a lessening of the vitality and beauty of her life. She wants “death sitting naked between us/lowering its head to lap at our champagne.” Love and death intermingle, and there is nothing strange in it.
This is a theme in Schwartz’s work. Seemingly opposite ideas and events are brought together for the purpose of revealing them as not opposite at all. In “Music of the World” we hear of “nights when every car alarm/burbles shudders shouts and wails” only to a moment later learn of the mockingbirds “who come to praise, not mock,/that urban song.” If the most prolific avian songsters admire the music of car alarms, then shouldn’t we?
Schwartz’s poems nudge us to examine these questions, or they push us, or they throw at us a full glass of water. At times they even demand a pledge, such as in “What the Day Asks,” when we are so bluntly told “do you know this world is beautiful/will you vow to look.” By reading Miraculum, we already have.
Reviewed by Frank Izaguirre
Miraculum by Ruth Schwartz
Autumn House Press, 2012