Review: “From the Fever-World”


From the Fever-World, Jehanne Dubrow
Washington Writers Publishing House, 2009, $15

This collection of urgent, evocative poems opens with a tone of deep foreboding, foreshadowing an ominous future for the fictional town of AlwaysWinter, Poland that Ida Lewin, an imaginary Yiddish poet, inhabits.

Avoid the red house in the forest,
beyond the plague of frozen fields,
potatoes hard stones,
new carrots like knives that cut
the soil.

We learn in the author’s “translator’s note” that Ida died in 1938 “during a flu epidemic that killed thirty-one other Jews in AlwaysWinter, including her only child, a baby girl named Rivka” and that her manuscript, a “sheaf of over fifty crumpled pages” buried in a metal sewing tin along with accounting ledgers and a handmade book of kosher recipes, was discovered by two schoolchildren in 1986.

With an imaginative authority that lends authenticity to Ida’s voice, Maryland-based poet Jehanne Dubrow, in her second collection, treats subjects ranging from religion — both the joy inherent in its rituals and the isolation of its taboos — to sexuality, marriage, motherhood, and, always, the specter of death.

Yet some of the most sensual and incisive of these poems concern the homeliest topics, such as a comparison of root vegetables.

If beets complain, they say,
the root of me is blood.
Although you wish me pale
weeping onion tears,
I can’t hide my heart despite
a pointed tip that jabs
the earth.
I end in sprays of green.
Why not looks past
my roughened skin,
the dirt I’m buried in?
Peel me.
I take your spice.

Another poem offers a wistful observation of the relative social liberties the Catholic women seem to enjoy, exemplified in the way their hands are allowed to brush those of the men to whom they sell honey and pork sausage.

What freedom in this commerce.
A woman brushes up
against a man, coins dropping palm
to palm, their contact quick
as breath and treyf as pork.

Ida is fascinated by the unkosher elements of her neighbors’ existence, but the rituals of her own faith offer beauty — “the flower painted in the pages/ of the sacred book” and solace from the unforgiving cold of the Polish winter:

Shabbes is a bride,
her gown embroidered snow.
The wind desires her, its breath
turned crystal on the windowpanes,
its nails sleet against the roof.
How welcome the candles —
small heats nestling between
my hands, blue birds in shadow.

Within the confines of her circumscribed life, keeping house for her husband in an arranged marriage, living more and more the life of her mother, who once rejected her daughter’s gift of a fish “with a poem in its mouth” and in whose kitchen “there was no Maimonides,/ only a woman’s guide/ to the farklempt-“, Ida is by nature a sensualist, and as she grows more and more feverish, this nature is gradually revealed.

In one of several poems that are told in two or more versions, Ida describes her uncanny transformation.

In the first version of the poem, she asks, “After such modesty,/ how did I turn to pollen/ carried everywhere?”

In the second, “I began in modesty but turned/ to pollen in my sleep -“.

Finally, in the third, “What need for modesty/ when I am pollen everywhere?”

We are shown three progressive drafts of Ida’s poem of transformation, the first beginning with a question posed, the second with a statement of fact, the third with a challenge.

Before the final poem in which Ida relinquishes her hold on the fever-world (“… Why wish for ice,/ when ice comes soon enough?”) she exhibits again what Dubrow’s translator’s note refers to as her “gift of Sight,” recognizing that her lyric incandescence is both harbinger of her personal destiny and an assurance that her furtively scribbled testaments will endure: “All cooking brings a death/ to its ingredients/ an alchemy that promises/ eternal taste, although/ a life must be consumed/ before it spoils.”

Although Ida’s natural death, of a fever, would spare her the all-encompassing horror she sensed would overtake her world, her haunting, prophetic voice, though invented, emerges as a movingly authentic tribute to the voices of the women like her who Dubrow claims, and then convinces us, must certainly have existed.