What a delight. Judy Kronenfeld pulls out all stops in Groaning and Singing. Stops? Uses all registers masterfully. Kronenfeld’s poems are brutally honest, gentle, loving, lyrical… I think I may be missing a few. She pulls us into the “klezmer concert / at the synagogue, all through the wailing, laughing, / talk-back violin, the clarinet cavorting” through her train of remembering, her mother, religious observances to the tenderness of her own’s son’s love for his mother.
We do indeed groan and most definitely sing with her words. I couldn’t help it, it’s my Europe, my generation, my memories that had me immersed in “Inner Zest” in her description of her mother’s two faces, the one shown to the world, and the one reserved for the comfort of home: “At home, she ate sandwiches of thickly / buttered bread and radish, oily and pungent; / she ate jellied calves’ feet / with garlic-rubbed toast—Jewish soul food, / humble, but relished with peasant abandon—”
I could wax lyrical just about the first part of Groaning and Singing and read it over and over again. But there is so much more. Kronenfeld takes us to “the honking Manhattan street” and the Bronx, profound changes and painful moments when all you can do is hold your breath: “As a young child growing up, / here, in this country, I wasn’t compelled / or even invited to dwell on, to picture, / the shattered hours of those relatives / I could never meet: the broken glass / on the streets, the stars shining / on their coats, the black engines / steaming in the station, the swallowing / fear in their stomachs, then the soup / of potato skins, the lice— / their starved flesh and protruding bones / becoming smoke about the time I was born / on a golden, free street.”
She takes us to her father’s decline and in a few words breaks our hearts when he hugs the “enormous white teddy bear prop, as instructed” and from reminiscing to sharing a painful unknown presence in “Short Dream of Old Terror”: “then steered me to / a tiny, curtained room— / only to show / where his ribs were cracked, / explain his heart’s / fragility.”
She lets us see a “line of students” on a “Non-Teaching Day” “flowing inward and outward to the sound of bells”, comparing their hearts to “brimming bowls of guarded water carried from a desert well.”
Kronenfeld again touches our hearts with love and honesty when she wonders about the relationship with her old dog whose health is failing and asks, “Was this relationship signed on / for better or worse? There are / times, touching her, I feel repulsed—”
Throughout the collection the reader gets glimpses of a burdensome body as, for example, in the “Night before Surgery” and “Coming Up from Under, after Surgery for Multiple Fractures”: “Freed / of my broken self, I ride / my own calm swells / of breathing, as if, at a distance, / I am watching healing weave— / from the crumbled inside out, / from the ravaged edges in.” She observes couples and wakes alone: “I can taste / the ultimate aloneness like metal / on my tongue.”
There is a dazzling sadness in Kronenfeld’s work, there is humour, beauty and tragedy. And she will always lead us back to nature, in a respite from bodies that break, people that age, in gratitude: “And hair of hoarfrost feathers, / retinal smoke and mirrors, / spindle-ankle dizziness… / then something—a silvery harp / arpeggio, ice-sheathed twigs / tinkling in a mild wind—a prelude to / some memory but, after, / only an unblemished / Arctic whiteness, like music’s / silence.”
Judy Kronenfeld invites us into the intimacy of her now family, for example the joie de vivre of her six-year-old granddaughter. She moves us with a few words, when she shares her grown son’s unexpected need to hug his mom. “‘It feels good to hug you, Mom,’ he said / during the long seconds beaten out / like gold to blazing brilliance.”
There is the power of words, a letter to the ministry of loneliness, and a poem about not getting the mail. There is beauty, wonder and magic: “It is quiet on one frond / of the fern, which looks like something / singled out, something bespoke.” And a lament about the arrival of the mobile phone: “Soon the talkers / gobble up the universal air.”
In passing we watch with Kronenfeld a “Girl Brushing Her Hair in a Window”: “and know nothing / about her except / she’ll never be / encountered /and are inspired /with such/ tenderness—as if / your own / were a story / lost.”
Kronenfeld has lost nothing of her story, shares her intimate memories, observations, and whimsies, giving us privileged access to a world seen through her poet’s eyes and experiences. The world would be a poorer place if this book had not been written.