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“Crosshatching the Loom”: A Review of Hilda Raz’s All Odd and Splendid

January 30, 2009 by · 1 comment

Jessie Janeshek

Photo: hansvink

I’ve been lingering over Hilda Raz’s new book because of the breadth and depth of her voice; she’s confident in her wisdom yet open to learn, objective yet welcomingly warm, serious yet light. No matter where her poetry takes us—and it takes us great distances—Raz’s speaker returns to the comfort of early mornings, the poet in her bathrobe gauging the coming day by the measure of precipitation in the birdbath outside her window, “the grey woman”

who planted her garden in stone,

this woman, her flesh cold

in this early morning cold,

still weaves her silks and linens. She stays still, early morning sunlight

crosshatching the loom… (“Dante’s Words”)

The image evokes the classical tradition of woman as weaver, singing her stories next to the fire, but if you’re familiar with Raz’s oeuvre you know—and if not, you’ll soon learn—this is a Penelope with more than a dash of paprika.

Raz immediately complicates the hearthside ambience in her poems by also associating them with controversial mid-century photographer Diane Arbus. Known for her portraits of those on the fringes of society—the economically low, the prostitutes, the transvestites, the “freaks”— Arbus captured her subjects at their most wide-eyed vulnerable moments. Taking the title for her book as well as several section titles and subtitles from Arbus’ writing, Raz similarly notices the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice versa, chronicling and celebrating the “especial shape[s]” we all “come in.”

In one sense, All Odd and Splendid can be read as a collection of Arbus-like portraits in which Raz examines her speaker as well as those surrounding her. Writing of a character in “Water Ceremonies” whose “arms [are] too long” and whose “hip thrust at a twist,” she muses, “Others might cast him as ugly./I gave him a halo, bent to praise.” Her poems throughout the book “halo” the people and situations we encounter, reminding us to constantly reappraise the world and those existing in it.

Raz’s writing often concerns her own loving and complex relationship with her transgenedered son, Aaron Raz Link, with whom she co-wrote a memoir, What Becomes You (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). As she states in her ackowledgments, Aaron is “everywhere here,” inspiring and speaking through a number of poems. In “He Graduates from Clown School,” Raz uses a performance of Aaron’s as a means by which to explore not Aaron’s change but her own, the adjustment that comes with changing from the mother of a daughter to the mother of a son.

But that girl is this boy now

who wears boxing gloves

in a natural ring with his teacher

who is hitting him back, POW!

and nothing I can do—was there ever?—

will stop the fight…

Raz is consistently at her best in poems that weave in and out of dreams and visions, and “Credo,” in which she details a vision she had of Aaron “eight months/into [his] change,” is no exception

In my vision I slept

you within me my knuckles

raw from worrying the tent flaps closed

next to your brother who was lifting them…

Change as a theme spirals through All Odd and Splendid. “Tyr” recounts the story, as told by Aaron, of the one-handed god of strength and truth, establishing an epic undercurrent in the volume; our poet is bold enough to start with the first story of the earth. The world perpetually shifts, and Raz senses the very particular results of these shifts by noting the changes in the people she brings us in her poems. The couple in “Storm,” are freed from hatred of one another when the weather varies

And then it broke, the weather warmed, a rush

of melting filled the pond, the window wells…

They rose up early, worked like men with men

to find that place renewed in each…

Section IV of the book, “Seeing the Changes,” chronicles the various alternations of body and mind in those who are ill, their caretakers, and friends. A breast cancer survivor who has written eloquently and honestly on illness and healing and who has edited a collection of writings on breast cancer, Raz crafts her poems with passion—anger, sadness, love—and grace. Especially poignant is the longer poem “Suite,” which provides her the opportunity to explore a friend’s death from several perspectives and in several poetic tones and forms, including the moving “Her Ghazal” and the open form “Her Dying,” during which she once again veers successfully into the realm of the surreal:

You’ll slip or

You’re falling

Into the run off.

The white rabbit

Your heart

Thuds blue, tart prickles burnt

Towers in the far garden. Prairie overtakes your bed.

Such poetic range is apparent not only in “Suite” but throughout the entire collection. Raz’s work is an intriguing blend of lengths and forms, including villanelle, pantoum, and, in “Fire Should Be Measured by What Didn’t Burn,” aphorism

…The field is only battle when the mess hall shuts its doors.

Wind brings down the enterprise, no matter our delight…

What continues to delight me about Raz is her ability as a singer in our lyric tradition to crosshatch the loom, to draw together contrasting elements into seemingly effortless poems. Though they give us much to value during a first read, these are truly poems to savor. We come away richer with each perusal, reassured that this difficult world is never without its rewards, “bags to pack, words to write/early morning light, the chant of the cat.”

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