A Review of
Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir
Reviewed by Jenn Moland-Kovash
on accusations of plagiarism. She has refuted these charges,
and been backed by many of her writer colleagues.
Despite these charges, this book is one that merits our attention.
The first thing you need to know about Poetry Will Save Your Life Buy it in print. Buy the hardcover edition. This is a book you’ll want to hold. Keep the dust jacket on as you read it: the jacket has a fine texture to it, the finest of fine grits of sandpaper. And once you open the cover, you’ll find a marbled green and gold paper lining the front and back. Is it supposed to evoke topography, the ranges of life? Or an art project from youth? Or do the glimmers of gold shimmer with the insights that Jill Bialosky, the author, draws from the lines of poetry tucked inside her memoir?
Broken into short chapters with a poem or three paired with a memory, she takes the reader through her life. It’s structured roughly chronologically, beginning with her childhood; you can certainly read it in the intended arc from the beginning to the end (I did). But each chapter or entry also carries a title that you could use to guide your reading, going from “Sexuality” to “Legacy” to “Mortality” near the end and back to “Death” which is near the beginning. As I made my way through the book, I began to envision pulling it off my shelf in the way I do Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, paging through it to find thoughts or poems on a topic.
In the Acknowledgments, she credits her editor with a conversation about “poems that were crucial to [her] coming of age” that ultimately became the book. For people who have read poetry throughout their lives or even sporadically, the short lines and vivid imagery often stick to specific times and places. My grandmother had an Emily Dickinson poem framed on her bedroom wall; it felt both perfect and incredibly out of place in the simple farm house, and I would sneak onto her bed every time I visited to read it as child. I’m a generation or so younger than Bialosky, but we both discovered Adrienne Rich during our college days. “All poems become, to a certain degree,” Bialosky states, “personal to a reader” (148). She has written her memoir in a way that made me wonder what poems I would credit with various parts of my life, a question that provides more than a small amount of reflection.
While not the primary focus of the book, Bialosky weaves bits of teaching into her writing, too. She reminds the reader that “A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that rhymes in a particular pattern.” She doesn’t get into the details of that rhyming pattern, but explains that “it makes a sonnet an easier poetic form to memorize” (93). These bits of writing are more formal than memoir writing, but they do instruct the reader in a gentle way. When writing about Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” she points out that each line is iambic, and then goes on to refresh anyone’s (my) memory as to the details of what makes a line iambic. As someone well-removed from formal poetry classes, these passages were helpful and not intrusive.
In addition to the instructive passages about poetry in general, she often includes biographical information about the poets included, quoting their own biographers or other poets. We learn that Elizabeth Bishop’s father died when she was a year old; her mother committed to an institution when Bishop was five. These experiences, understandably, lead to her themes of grief, exile, longing. Adam Zagajewski writes from a post-war Poland. Louise Bogan was described by Richard Howard as “the best American woman poet between Dickinson and Bishop.” And Bialosky reminds us that Emily Dickinson published only 12 poems during her lifetime and rarely left her home after attending a year of college. As much as this is a memoir, it is also a primer of poets, whetting the reader’s appetite to learn and read more.
The passages of her early life weave together family, faith, and adolescence. Her father dies when she is very young and books become her “secret companions” (17). She has memorized “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson, and it (the poem and her shadow) follow her when she’s outside. In Hebrew school she hears the poetry of the Bible and sees the parallel of poetry and prayers. Her eyes “fill with tears in remembrance” when she recites Psalm 23 in synagogue. As people of faith, these words connect us to the generations that have gone before us, as she reflects in a chapter called Ancestors: “Psalm 23 reminds me of the spirit of my ancestors, of those who came before me that I did not know, but whose essence live within me” (34). And, while I don’t believe there’s medical power intended in the title, she writes of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” that it provides a “cautionary tale of what can happen when we cross over the line [between being cool and darkness and danger]. “We Real Cool” should be taped on the refrigerator of every house with a teenager.”
The irony was not lost on me when I pulled this book from my hastily put together travel bag to read in my mom’s hospital room. I might have even barked a quiet, pained laugh at the title, though I knew there was a deeper life-saving intended. Mom rested quietly as I turned the pages, my fingers tracing the embossed letters on the cover. Poetry would not save my mother’s life. There were days when I couldn’t read the book, sitting as I was next to my loved one traveling that narrow space between life and death. But Bialosky has sat in that flimsy space, too, and has poetry to set beside it: poetry that helped her live, words that propel me forward. “Perhaps,” she writes, “we turn to poetry because it can fathom and hold the inexplicable, the gasp between words, the emotional hues impossible to capture in everyday speech or conversation.” Throughout the memoir, she remembers and shares the poetry that has done just that – held the inexplicable, the gasp.
Jenn Moland-Kovash is a Lutheran pastor in the Chicago suburbs. She has written for The Christian Century, Gather, and various denominational publications. She tweets infrequently as @pastorjennmk, where she claims to be a lover of laughter and splasher of baptismal water.