“We are not merely connected like two ends of a thread,” the speaker says. “We are the thread./ One and whole.”
“Alone is an illusion,” says the speaker of Heart Map and the Song of Our Ancestors. Which is to say that, as we move through the “great journey” that our lives can be (if we push deep into the wilderness), this book offers us the welcome possibility of support and companionship along the way. Or, rather, the possibilities—what Spier’s multivocal first book of poetry ultimately offers us is a vision of bountiful connections.
Given the way Heart Map portrays a life’s journey, we’re going to need whatever help and companionship we can get. This is a “path of un-becoming,” “off the grid,” “upside down,” a “search for freedom that does not end.” We remember that “narrowness has been our passage” and are advised that “the space between remembrance and redemption is best filled with falling.” Spier urges us to engage with the unknown and unseen, to engage with the sources of our pain and struggle. Again, though, the emphasis is this: “Despite the wilderness, I am never truly alone.”
Some of the support comes from our ancestors. There’s “Sarah, cursing and laughing./ Hagar, with thirst still yearning./ Miriam, without timbrel or dancing./ And Hannah, ceaseless and crying.” There’s “Daniel at the window,” Akiva the “shepherd,” “Ruth’s loving embrace.” There’s even the unnamed visitor to the Rabbi Adam Ba’al Shem, bringing question upon question (perhaps echoing our own questions) to the rabbi’s door. They’re all with us.
“We are not merely connected like two ends of a thread,” the speaker says. “We are the thread./ One and whole.” And, “Our ancestors, like our future, exist within us.”
Other connections come between the reader and the complex speaker of this poetry, who talks in many registers. At times the voice is oracular, making declarations about the nature of life and the journey, as in these lines:
Love is not the possession of commandments of stone
Or a lover’s banner dangling pleasingly on the skin,
But the moment after the last song is sung
And all the wine has been drunk,
When only woundedness
And the revelation of a prolonged aching keep us company.
There are also moments when the book dwells in a deep faith and an ongoing conversation with G-d, offering traditional or invented prayers (“give to us not eyes that see/ But hearts that feel”). At still other times, the speaker pushes back against tradition—the cruelty of the Akedah, the ways that Torah has been used to support xenophobia—or sometimes faces it with helpless longing: “How can I dress the Torah when I can barely dress myself?”
Indeed, while sometimes the voice feels timeless and larger than life, like a psalmist (“I have been cast out and disparaged”) or a prophet (“one day, prayer will leap joyously again from your lips”), it also often feels quite immediate (as in the repetition of “Me too” in one section) and warmly personal (“The doctor talked so casually of my desert/And so definitely of my future”). Spier ably uses the hypnotic power of lyricism to shift from voice to voice, from feeling to feeling, throughout the book. In doing so, she offers us company, a host of role models, and the feeling of being seen, ourselves, through her examples on the written page.
Across the length of this collection—or is it the winding road of a single book-length poem?—we end up somewhere new. “There is a space/ Beyond guilt/ And struggle/ And shame./ The space where the ladder ends./ And we all begin.” Spier is not promising us an easy journey, but she is inviting us to find deep meaning in our steps, some of which will take us deeper inside. “Our desert thirst is worth more than the mythic homes we set out for,” we learn. “And to walk is greater than to grasp.”
David Ebenbach is the author of The Artist’s Torah, a spiritual guide to the creative process; plus three books of short stories, including, most recently, Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House); a novel; and two books of poetry. With a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ebenbach teaches literature and creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.