Friday, April 19, 2013

Book Review: Shaindel Beers The Children's War and Other Poems

The Children's War and Other Poems
Shaindel Beers
72 pp., Salt Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-84471-930-3

Having read Shaindel Beers' first book of poetry and identified with it on a personal level, I was excited to read this book.  From the moment I heard the title, I knew I was in for something special and meaningful.  The title certainly is up-front and honest.  There is no subterfuge.  The world Beers brings forth in this book is daunting and relentless . . . and worth every minute you spend engaged in it.

Beginning with stunning first person narratives of war and violence, Shaindel Beers begins to discuss the things we know of but would much rather forget.  That in itself is an easy statement to make, because we would all rather forget about war and violence, but there is a deeper indictment going on here.  The unsettling truth these poems begin to reveal is that we would much rather forget the violence, pretending it doesn’t exist, than actually doing something to stop it.  This is a bitter pill to take, but swallow it we must.  At times we would like to believe we are as impotent as the children as they recount their tales, but in the backs of our minds always lingers the truth that we are not only culpable for the violence, we remain ever capable to make the world a better place yet unwilling on so many levels.

Walking into the title poem, Beers gives us little respite from the heartbreak, but one kindness she bestows is breaking the poem into smaller, separate sections.  In this we are able to take on manageable fragments, digest as we like the compelling stories and images.  Slowly, the poems begin to expand in scope and emotional landscape.  With each passing section, a larger picture is formed and the reader can’t help but be drawn into a higher level of consciousness, more in tune with the larger world.

One such passage, the opening lines from “After Martija’s Watercolor, Croatia” gives us this:

There are things that can happen that you can’t draw.

A soldier ripping off a baby’s diaper and slamming him

into the wall because it will be easier if the baby

cannot cry. Your mother without a head. You paint splotches.

Of course the shock is intentional.  To hide this sort of thing from the reader might let us get away clean.  Like any responsible artist, Beers knows some things are absolutes.

In the second, longer section, we are graduated to the more complex understandings of war, violence and pain.  It is a testament to Beers’ ability to know where that line is because I will be honest and tell you it took me going back into the book to realize that divide.  It is this second section which begins anew, serves to show in some ways how pervasive the epidemic of violence has become— how much of the culture of war we have internalized into our own lives.  Here there are poems which highlight the war each of us wages with other people, our lives, our past, and families.

My favorite poem from this section is probably a strange choice. “Dark-haired girl in the park—” shies away from the weightier structure of most the other poems and presents a war of almost the mildest sort, the conflict between parent and child as the child comes of age.  Using that struggle, we see there is some necessity in struggle.  A young girl sees herself as a sexual being much to the dismay of her parents.  Her need to tear herself away from them is not based in hatred, but rather the need to be desired.  The girl is young, innocent to what may result in her defiance.  We are reminded that for many of us, especially in the privileged first world, our first struggles are mild in comparison to the reality most children in the world face.  We look back to our adolescence with nostalgia, a sweetened pain which is often savored.  Most of the world’s children are not so lucky.  Most of the world’s children could teach us all about real pain and suffering.

Ultimately this is an important book on many levels.  The Children’s War and Other Poems is a sharp departure from Shaindel’s first book, A Brief History of Time.  I do not like making comparisons between two different works of art so I will simply restate this book is a bold and sobering step away from her first book.  The Children's War and Other Poems carries with it a wonderful voice, weighty ideas, and an unflinching eye for our darker expressions.  It is a book which you will want to return to again and again.
her first book.

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