For a time I worked on my own, in a small office in the downtown section of our St. Louis suburb (pop. 27,154). I was a short half block to our train station, a block from the farmer’s market, next door to the bakery. I was on the first-floor of a two-story building (we call that a skyscraper here), sandwiched between a seamstress’s shop and a hair salon. Most days, my spaniel joined me, sleeping somewhere near my feet.
One morning, I turned on my computer and pulled up AOL (this was years before social media). The first thing I saw was smoke pouring from one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I flipped on my portable television and watched a plane hit the second tower.
The Amtrak station was still half a block away. The farmers market was opening up. I could still smell the leftover fragrance of doughnuts frying at the bakery. The hair stylist had just welcomed her first customer of the day, and the seamstress was working on adjusting a party dress. The dog was still asleep at my feet.
I wasn’t sure whether my immediate environment or the scenes on the television were the more real or unreal.
Can poets and poems make sense of something like this?
Why do I write of hickories, whose boughs
touch other boughs across a slender road
when our neighbor, Haneen, born in Gaza,
cried that a missile ripped her niece apart
in the family garden? The child’s father
found her intestines stuck to a cypress bark
and he, too, perished in the raid. Her mother
wrote to Haneen before the news was out,
“Help me. Take my hand.” Why do I rave
of hickories reaching out their crooked fingers?
Because before the fires, the child, Lina,
was dropping almonds into a linen napkin.
Soon she would run to offer them for dinner.
Like Lina, I race to show you hickories,
their nuts shrunken brown globes, soon to fall.
For all the graphic images of missiles, death, and destruction, it is a remarkably quiet poem, and the quietness is what gives it its power. While few of Schulman’s poems in the collection are as unsettling as “Hickories,” they all share a sense of quiet repose in the face of discontinuity and the futility of what contemporary humanity puts its faith in—technology, power, wealth, music, art, culture, even physical therapy.
But ocean liners will sink, bodies will decay, houses and bridges will eventually collapse. Tragedies happen. Even the subject of a poem like Handel’s Messiah (and one of the poems in the collection is indeed about the Messiah) is ultimately about discontinuity and upheaval.
So we turn to a line of hickory trees to attempt to make sense of a child dying in a missile attack. Or, in the face of the destruction of the buildings of the World Trade Center, even those of us hundreds of miles away and unconnected directly to the tragedy did our own version of writing about hickory trees. We called our spouses, children, relatives and friends, to hear their voices and so assure ourselves that the entire world had not gone mad.
Schulman, the author of six books of poetry and several other works, cites a number of poets as major influences, including Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante, and Marianne Moore. Several are cited or memorialized in the poems of Without a Claim. They, too, are often about change and discontinuity, and how one deals with both.
With quiet words and unsettling subjects and images, Schulman captures our attention and makes us ask the eternal question, “Why?”
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