Victoria Redel. Woman Without Umbrella. New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2012. 84 pp. $15.95, paper.
Victoria Redel’s third book of poetry, Woman Without Umbrella, is an exploration in witness and meditation. So perhaps it is fair to begin with a brief biographical note: Redel is a second generation American of Belgian, Romanian, Egyptian and Russian descent; a younger sister to two other women (one of whom the book is dedicated to); a mother of two boys; and a writer who is as accomplished in prose as she is in poetry.
In some ways, for many years, unlike its European and international counterparts, American modern and post-modern poetry has not shown sustained interest in interpersonal relationships. Redel’s personal history connects her to the older landscape of Europe while her own American life (more European than Puritan) has honed her experiences. Her poetic enterprise of content born in language (along with the likes of Edward Hirsch and Joseph Brodsky) has not abandoned that meditation of risk, balance, and observation. It is a kind of conservatism. Woman Without Umbrella is easy to read. No pyrotechnics. Redel is imaginative and lively—but is no hipster shaking the tree of effects or trendy subject matter. The poems are elegantly cosmopolitan; no references that any well-traveled, reasonably well-read person will not readily know. The poems are civil—liberal and brutal—in their tether between daily life and poetic meditation. What is at stake is always in the interpersonal. If one is looking for the hard edge of irony, pre-processed fear or hate tainted with malice, or the unrefined or savage imagination, a reader should look elsewhere.
The book opens with a pairing of poems that consider the clumsy opening of a relationship between a young man and a young woman and then the quiet closing of a relationship between a mature husband and wife. The poems are the fore and aft of the adventure of a life with another. Redel’s aesthetic revolves around affection: the notion that living beings like lying/living next to other living things. It is a simplicity that can lead to a neurotic silence…or, with skill, a poetic voice of revelry:
At the end of the marriage they lay down on their big, exhausted bed.
It was crowded with all the men and women they had ever loved.
Of course their fathers and mothers were there and a boy in uniform
she’d kissed on a stairwell. His first wife spooned her first husband.
Ridiculous Affair held hands with Stupendous Infatuation.
There was a racket of dreaming and, though both were tired
from the difficult end and in need of sleep, neither could sleep,
so they began telling each other the long, good story of their love.
There is an appearance of Circe, a lesson in how to say “I love you” in Greek, an appearance of the Wolf (erotic counterpart of Little Red Riding Hood), and then…a woman without an umbrella. Umbrellas involve the mechanics of protection and, as such, fall in the category with mirrors, garlic, the hand of Miriam or Fatima, and condom use:
A month after turning forty-five, every last egg in her body
is a Rockette doing the can-can. Use me use me use me, they cry.
I’ll be the easy child, the I-won’t-wake-you-up-in-the-night child.
Now every city block boasts the popular miracle—
Keep away, she says to civilized men who stop at crosswalks.
Do you see this glittered fertility, this fishnet stocking hunger?
Hunger propels the young forward. Redel also weighs in for those in mid-life; no less hungry, but perhaps less prone to careless risk and more attuned to the bases of sustenance and happiness. The word courage takes its origin from “cor”—Latin for “heart”:
Wherever you are, driving
whichever back road
of suburban middle-age,
brings you through
to whomever you love,
there it is again,
the old frontier.
Redel is subtle, adept, and clear. Fragile things may be damaged, broken, or worn beyond repair: the soft bodies of adolescent sons with an eye for sports, mechanisms that turn up at the Customer Service Counter claims department, the cardiologist’s report of a father, the beeping monitor of a friend, the subjects of stories. Ants become “killers.” Shores restrain. Anxious romantic desire is measured by a famous poet in a chain of cigarettes. Beauty shops become the place of assignations. In one poem, someone gently touches the hair of a beloved; in another, someone recalls a mother drawing the famous line, “Over my dead body.”
The poem “Woman Without Umbrella” itself concludes:
The dark came on with orange in the clouds.
Swallows feeding over the lake.
No one had anything left to say.
If she hadn’t said it before, or enough, she was sorry.
The poem “Auspicious Subway” later in the collection concludes: “Just you wait, Sweetheart. Just wait till you hear what in the world’s going on out there.” Redel’s collection shows us much of what is—revealing both the wearying elements and the fantasies, illusions, and beliefs we assemble to protect our vulnerable selves from those elements, even—and perhaps especially—in such close proximity to one another. Like with her title character, however, Redel sees that sometimes we’re left to the weather with no protection at all.