The Empty Bed

by Rachel Hadas

Hanover : Wesleyan UP, 1995
84pp., $12.95
ISBN: 0-8195-1225-7

Review by Chris Lott

Despite some inconsistencies, the best poems in this volume are both
powerful to read and fine lessons in the art of using formal techniques
in a contemporary poetry setting.
Bottom line: Poets, buy it; others, check it out at the library.

Rachel Hadas' latest book of poems, The Empty Bed, is a strangely uneven volume. There are many books of poetry out there which contain flashes of brilliance hidden within an otherwise ordinary, or even outright poor, collection of poems. What is strange is that a book belonging to this group would be penned by Rachel Hadas, a deservingly well-published poet with a string of great books behind her, including one of my favorites A Son From Sleep.

Even at its weakest moments, when poems such as "Literary Executor" are amazing me with their ordinariness (as well as engaging my generalized aversion to poems about writing poetry and poems about poetry itself), one realizes that Rachel Hadas possesses an inordinately strong sense of the sound and rhythms of the English language:

"Dreams that fade back into the sky,
old quarrels between you and me
leave us delighted and distressed.
Imperfect dawns light up the east.
Incomplete sunsets flood the west.
No closure-- this is poetry,
unfinished business."

Such mixtures of wonderful language and rhyme with clunky moments that ring hollow with attempted trickery characterize the mediocre poems of the volume. At rare, but notable moments the volume reads as if some of the poems were rushed into print without sufficient attention to revision and the afterthought needed to contextualize a poem and, as a writer, revise with an eye to the way a reader will be seeing it.

Hadas' strong use of metre and rhyme allow her to get away with a level of abstraction in her poems which would normally call undue attantion to itself, as in the first lines of the poem "Upon My Mother's Death," from which the volume gets its title:

"The empty bed. And instantly I knew
and also didn't, as I do
and do not even now

where she had gone,
precipitously, leaving me alone
to telephone

and do whatever else had to be done."

The tension carried in this poem, which I wish I could reproduce in full here, gives one the sense that every word is in its perfect place. Indeed, even the slightest rearrangement or subtraction and the poem would provide any astute reader with a wealth of opportunities for basic criticism: the level of abstraction, the sudden interjection of the technical sounding 'precipitously,' the telling instead of showing. But again and again Hadas is able to transcend these rules as only the best poets can.

The majority of the volume is dedicated to poems looking directly at the power and sanctity of loss-- of friends and relatives-- brought about by AIDS and cancer. According to the jacket information, Hadas was confronted with the death of five poets with whom she had worked at the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the death of her mother. Like Galway Kinnell in more formal clothes, Hadas is searching for the redemption that comes with this kind of loss, finding what can be filled in lieu of that which must always remain empty, sometimes more subtly:

"You come; magnolias explode,
birds hurl themselves across the sky
again-- the while world's that one word.
Perhaps you have come back to die.

The city's an immense machine,
multiple layers for living in
gaudily now festooned with green.
You stand at a gateway marked Begin

and do not look left or right.
Friends can gesture, nothing more.
The season holds its thrilling note.
You put your hand out to a door." (April Heat)

and sometimes more directly:

"Spring means all it ever meant,
but the earth where I lay my head
covers my two beloved dead.
They do not say "forsake the sun."
They say "We loved it, and we're gone."
That golden magnanimity!
Ten minutes is enough for me.
Opening my eyes, I readjust
my mind and body. For I must
gradually as in a dream
return to vertical again,
stand up and somehow move beyond
my buried mother, my buried friend." (May)

In either mode, however, the best poems in this volume are incomparable: haunting and full of loss but somehow also affirming and hopeful. Hadas is a masterful poet who is able to take issues which some would consider so overused as to pose insurmountable obstacles in terms of originality (death, even in the age of AIDS, is still death) and form new and beautiful things out of them. And perhaps this really is both the point of the volume and the point in which the truest sense of affirmation lies: if we look hard enough there is room for movement and discovery even in death. It might be true that, as Hadas puts it in "Peculiar Sanctity," death is "something not curable by elegy / (silence is death and so is poetry)," but it is also true that in coming to terms with this we, as readers and as people, can find much to be thankful for.

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