BILL SCALIA Reviews
Woman in the Painting by Andrea Hollander Budy
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2006)
Budy divides her book into four distinct, but (obviously) related sections. Part 1deals with the poet’s growth into social and aesthetic awareness; part 2; with the poet’s loss of her mother to cancer; part 3, with the loss of her father; and part 4 with her own education, career, and parenthood. In a sense we might say that the book charts the poet’s odyssey from becoming to being, from child to parent, from a precocious beginning to enlightenment, through prescribed, though very real, trials. On my first reading of the text Budy’s emotionally evocative writing lifted me from reading into experience, in a visceral and, in a certain sense, physical manner.
Budy’s most effective poems end with an aesthetic resolution (the tensions in the poem are resolved in a neat stanza) and transcendence; the resolution of one set of tensions gives rise to a larger, more abstract set of tensions – larger either by degree (superficial tensions abstracted) or kind (physical tensions extended to spiritual tensions). The effectiveness of these poems lies in Budy’s ability to enlarge her poems through this kind of resolution without managing to abstract them into mere ideas (or ideals). In an aesthetic (as opposed to a political) sense, though Budy elevates her work into larger, global contexts, she never loses sight of her local focus. The effect is cumulative, making her poems seem nested vertically (I might say concentrically), rather than connected (developed) horizontally.
Parts 2 and 3 of the book are the most difficult to read; this is the double-edged sword of Budy’s evocative talent: the poems are so beautifully rendered they are hard to ignore, yet so painful they are hard to read. Budy’s work in these two sections performs the increasingly difficult task (at least in contemporary literature) of the ethical turn: her work provokes the reader into a visceral relationship with suffering and loss. On one hand, who needs more suffering and loss? On the other hand, who needs less sensibility to the suffering of others? If we think of an ethical approach to literature not in terms of how a text affects a reader (as in Wayne Booth’s literary ethics), but in terms of how we recognize the Other in the texts – that is, the text is the Other, and thereby engaged in ethical exchange (Clark Davis’ literary ethics) we see clearly the poles of Budy’s work: we cannot turn away from the experience of suffering.
But if the book were only these two parts, it might be too much for us to take; that is, we might be left with the feeling of uncontrollable emptiness (such as we get at the end of Hitchcock’s Vertigo). But the center of Budy’s book is bracketed by a larger perspective: that of coming of age (physically and literarily), understanding what it means to be a daughter (part 1), to becoming a mother herself (part 4), and reliving – perhaps re-perceiving is a better term – her children’s early development through her own experiences – as well as apart from those experiences – gives the book both generational weight as well as a sense of continuity, which is especially necessary in light of the middle sections. In part 2, Budy defines her role as daughter and caregiver in way possible only through suffering and loss; in part 4, she defines herself as mother and caregiver in a way only conceived through the loss of her own mother.
This is to say that, while the middle sections of the book are the most affecting, they exist within a context that gives the poet’s experience of loss unique meaning and relevance. Hence her practice of composing her poems in stanzas of short 3 or 4 enjambed lines, and her effective practice of breaking the stanzas either after a participle (continuing action deferred) or between a subject and verb (definition deferred, and thus re-contextualized). The breaks also serve as silent transitions, in which a central idea is carried from one stanza to be re-qualified, and furthered, in the next. This is not so easy to accomplish as it seems. Budy’s ear is so finely tuned that the effect of breaking after a participle gives the effect of breathlessness between stanzas; conversely, her other stanza breaking strategy, between subject and verb, allows the reader to perceive the subject qua subject, before the intervening qualification of the verb – in keeping with the book’s overall theme of separation and reconnection. She does this selectively, not with every stanza; but she does this in such a precise way as to execute a physical effect in the reading of the poem.
As well, Budy’s book demonstrates another fundamental aspect of human experience: the double edged sword of memory. In loss, memory is all we have of the experience of loved ones; also, however, memory serves to resurrect our loved ones in spirit and at times remind not of what we had, but that which we will never have again. Budy’s book works both sides of this divide. Her own motherhood resuscitates, in a way, her own love for her mother; the unspoken idea is that one day, her son will be himself in parts 2 and 3 of his own experience. The cruel inevitability of this lurks in the background of the book; however, because Budy chooses to leave this unstated, she chooses not to live in death’s shadow but to exult in memory’s (and life’s) light.
Thus the impact of Budy’s remarkable poem “Arrival,” the next to last in the book. The poem describes the poet and her family returning to the US from a trip to France; her son
pointed to the white line being left
by a jet we couldn’t see,
which reminded me of Hansel
who thought it would be easy
to follow the marked path back.
Coming at the end of this book, “the path back” is both memory (of her own path) and anticipation (of her son’s). This path is, and will be, difficult. But Budy has one more poem for us, the book’s last poem, “Remission,” in which she reminds us:
you wander, too, away from the house,
the neighborhood, along the road and up
through the pin oaks and pines that cover the hill.
In the hollow on the other side you stop
among the apple tress now empty
except for a few small fruits too high for anyone’s reach.
You have never been this rich.
You lie on the are ground, that small truth you had
somehow not counted on, sweet
with the wine of fallen apples,
empty and sweet yourself, nearly drunk
on the sound of your own breath
rising in its bounty from your mouth.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.