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book image Country of Memory
Poems by Charles Fishman
Uccelli Press, May 2004
$14.00, 115 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 7.75 out of 10 stars

View more poems from Charles Fishman in the Archive


Uccelli Press's second full-length volume of poetry is Charles Fishman's Country of Memory. As with John Amen's debut release, it is a beautifully-made and chancy book, but whereas Amen's poetry is stylistically adventurous, Fishman's has an older feel. He privileges sound and uses recurring lyric images for emotive effect. A meticulous poet, he is less conscious of being new than of writing poems that speak truthfully. This time around publisher / editor Toni La Ree Bennett did the design work herself and has done a beautiful job of it; at 115 pages, the book is long, as far as poetry books go, and reasonably priced.

The collection, divided into four sections, opens with the poem "Beginning with a Line by Eugenio Montejo", in which the disyllabic "Dearson" is both a bell and "a voice that speaks / from the lost land of being and memory / where a vanished family lives". The first section then progresses — as if "Dearson" were still resonating in the bell's overtone series — through the early fifties and on through much of that decade. Through slice-of-life vignettes we are given portraits of the speaker's parents, grandfather, and various other relatives. We are there as the speaker learns to swim, to dance, and makes choices that will affect him as an adult. These early poems are some of the best in the book, given to us with the kind of true nostalgia that can only come from the distance of years and reflection — nostalgia in its truest sense: bittersweet longing. It is the kind of nostalgia — as evidenced in the closing lines of "This House" — that comes with the price of knowledge.
                     Over a slow cigarette, Mother
dreams in the kitchen: the mail will not arrive for hours

nor will Father return from the daily seige of his life
before night sifts down   and grass deepens its hold

on the season   In this house, as always, it is the past.

In sections two and three the focus shifts away from linear development and more toward deeper understanding. In section two, for example, there is a sequence of four poems about the speaker's father. In "My Father Washing Dishes," he is presented, as we might expect, in the act of washing dishes — but the act itself is a kind of ritual of remembrance in homage for his deceased wife; and it is painful for him to stand.

This kind of tender portrait can only have come after some cost and transformation on the speaker's part. The last in the sequence, "My Father's Heart," opens with the lines:
My father's heart stopped being angry
and started to love. It decided to love
as if to love were a thing given to us
to decide.

The speaker does not enumerate all the ways the father was angry; we are only given the vague, "slights and cuts and humiliations" that might or might not have been the way the father really felt, or may or may not have been the way the speaker felt of the father. This ambiguity feels deliberate. At some point, don't we start to empathize with the plight of those we've formerly judged? The poem closes with "He became / a loving man, and his love outgrew his strength" as if to suggest that change has occurred in both speaker and subject, and it is this change that makes all of the father's portraits possible. In fact, change and reevaluation are themes that Fishman returns to again and again in this book. Isn't this the business of memory? he asks us. Isn't remembrance, as an act of investigation and preservation, what a "Dearson" does?

The closing section of this book, "In Unknown Tongues," is about travel through Greece, Rome, Israel, and Egypt. The same devices of portraiture and vignette are used but the placement of the poems appears to be a kind of opening up, as though to suggest that not only are we citizens of family and place, but of the world and the larger family of humanity.

In all, I think this is a brave book. If I have a complaint it's that the events are so personal and so clearly signaled as such that at times I feel like an outsider, and become a little alienated from the text. Honestly, there are also a few poems clearly not up to par with others in the book. In my opinion this would be a stronger collection, for example, if shaved ten to fifteen pages, but others may think differently, and clearly the length and broad sweep of this are important to the poet. I think Uccelli Press has another good book on their hands, and I sincerely hope that it does well for both them and for Charles Fishman.

Poet's Biography:
  Charles Fishman directs the Distinguished Speakers Program at Farmingdale State University. He created the visiting Writers Program at Farmingdale State in 1979 and served as director until 1997. He also co-founded the Long Island Poetry Collective (1973) and was a founding editor of Xanadu magazine and Pleasure Dome Press (1975). He was founder and coordinator of the Paumanok Poetry Award competition (1990 - 97) and Series Editor for the Water Mark Poets of North America Book Award (1980 - 83), and he has served as Poetry Editor of Gaia, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Genocide Studies. Currently he is Associate Editor of The Drunken Boat and Poetry Editor of New Works Review. In 1995, he received a fellowship in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Fishman's books include The Firewalkers (1996), Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (1991), and The Death Mazurka (1989), which was listed by the American Library Association as an "Outstanding Book of the Year". His other books include Catlives (1991), a translation of Sarah Kirsch's Katzenleben, and Mortal Companions (1997), a book-length collection of poetry. His 10th chapbook, 5,000 Bells, will be published by Cross-Cultural Communications later this year.

He lives with his wife, Ellen, near the Great South Bay, on Long Island.

© 1999 - 2004, by the poets featured herein.