Books: An intimate view of poet Linda Zisquit

llinda zisquit 298 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
llinda zisquit 298
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
"I don't think I can ever write something that doesn't take me to some extreme state." Listen carefully, this is no abstruse, academic comment by poet Linda Zisquit. It is a warning. To read her poetry is to approach and often share those extreme states. To read her latest book of poetry The Face in the Window (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2005) you must be prepared to let her gentle tones take you to the bedside of her dying mother, a mother with whom she shared a touching and troubling relationship. And there are also poems which bombard you with shocking and terse sexually- explicit text. This is a book that exposes much that most of us would preserve as private. Many of her poems admit us into an arena where we are forced to confront painful perceptions of our own closest relationships. The sharpness of her observation is presented to us with a piercing clarity. And yet not all is unfolded before us; a deep and beguiling sense of mystery remains. It was 11 p.m. last Saturday when we both found the time to meet at her home near Jerusalem's Rehov Emek Refaim that houses her well-known gallery Artspace. Sitting at her work-table in the corner of a welcoming family kitchen, I couldn't help but wonder how she felt about her children reading her emotionally powerful and explicit poetry. "They pick and choose... I don't think any child wants to know that her parent has a separate life from the one that the child knows, ... so it's always a kind of dangerous zone." Her husband, American lawyer Donald Zisquit, also selects what he reads. And I too selected. Drawn by the delicate intimacy she expressed in her poems about her mother, but repelled by the opening poem in the book. "Shocking," Zisquit agreed. It hadn't been chosen by her. Originally the first poem was "K'desha," also shocking since the title refers to a temple harlot. "The sense I had of myself in my mother's eyes," she adds. Zisquit explained that it was the publisher who selected the more sexually explicit poem "Verse" to open the book. "I said, 'OK,' and then thought 'what have I done?' This poem should have been embedded in the book. Now I'm glad... it's wild and wanton but it's what I hear from my mother." Then she adds with a girlish giggle, "I don't know how I wrote that poem." She is alluding to a recurring theme found in many of the poems in this book - her understanding, and misunderstanding, of the relationship with her mother. The daughter had always been sure that her mother viewed her with disapproval and mistrust "at least from puberty." As "the face in the window" of the book's title, her mother had stood at the large picture window of the family home in Buffalo, New York, waiting for her teenage daughter to return home. It was a face that Zisquit read at the time as full of disappointment and harsh judgment, even though she "wasn't a naughty girl yet." But now, with "the space of time," she recognizes that the face was "quite benign... waiting, worrying about me and looking for me." Only since her death has Zisquit begun to discover another aspect of her mother's nature. "I started to understand that she was such a patient human being. After her death, things rose, waiting for me to appreciate them." The truth and the tragedy are sharp. They are sensitively revealed in the last poem of this book, entitled "Airmail." Zisquit explained "I had boxes of her letters but I couldn't bear to read them - I couldn't read them because they seemed to be the same letter of bitterness. "When I went back to read them, after she died, suddenly they weren't bitter, they expressed love." Zisquit explains that it was the poem itself (see box 'Airmail') which helped her find this fresh view of her mother. But this new-found perception of maternal love does not help ease the memory of all the difficulties in their relationship. "In my later years," Zisquit openly confesses, "any subject that was close to my life gave my mother pain. The fact that I lived here (in Israel)... she couldn't bear it. She was heartbroken and her being heartbroken was a burden I carried." But this "burden" did not obliterate tenderness. And Zisquit is especially poignant and sensitive when writing about her dying mother. The physical details, the clear perception of emotions expressed and hidden. These poems unveil the complexities of a universal agony. They stand apart from Zisquit's other poems, which are usually terse and spare with three-word lines. This series has much longer lines and most are written in an unusual format, with 19 lines. Those written by her mother's bedside are in italics. "I would sit by her bedside writing poems, filling up Israeli notebooks. After she died I was in the room in Rehavia where I worked. I had a little Olivetti manual typewriter and I played the Olivetti as if I were playing the piano. I realized, at a certain point, that I was writing exactly the same number of lines, 19 lines, as on a page in the Israeli notebook." Zisquit describes these poems as "more like letters" and explains how she would "start with something in the room" where she was working as the initial focus for "talking" to her mother. The 19-line poems became a form that contained the chaos of her feelings; subconsciously imposing a structure which was a "little bit uncanny and a little bit wonderful." Every day she wrote two poems; it became a ritual "like saying kaddish." Some of the 19-line poems were cut later. She then began to write the 19-line poems more consciously and when getting to 16 lines "I'd say, only three more to go." And then her father died. His death, only seven months after her mother's, was "an interruption" in the poems she was writing. It was also his way in life, as in death, to interrupt the conversations that she had with her mother. And now she says, in a very matter-of-fact tone, how there is a man living on her street who looks so much like her father. Regularly she sees this man "even stopping the traffic just like Dad." For anyone who has lost a parent this is a familiar fleeting experience, a distant glimpse of conspicuous similarity that makes you slip back through time. And here is part of what makes much of Zisquit's writing so compelling for me. It touches the universal in such a frank and incisive way that you are forced to confront the discomforting tragedies of reality. Her friend and mentor, recently deceased American poet Robert Creeley, comments on the cover of this book: "As ever her articulate poems... speak of things almost impossible to say, yet they do so with directness and generosity. The result is a moving and altogether remarkable book."