To recognize that our parents were people before us, without us, is one of youth’s most startling discoveries—a turning point in any coming of age. How can we know the people they were? How can we enter the worlds they once occupied? Art presents a portal. Call it the speculative, or the subjunctive, or the surreal: it is my favorite passageway to the Before-World, the Before-Us World.
This is where Sharon Olds travels in “I Go Back to May 1937” (The Gold Cell, 1987), that iconic poem, written in fire and ash. This is where Lucille Clifton travels in “june 20” (The Book of Light, 1992), that unforgettable poem of reckoning and renewal. Annette Allen travels here with deft lyricism in “The Day Before I Was Born” (Country of Light, 1996); Peter Bethanis, with narrative flair, in “American Future” (American Future, 2009).
And the prosists—they travel here too, with grace and humor and curiosity, their mode of transport paragraphs instead of stanzas: Bernard Cooper’s “Where to Begin” (Truth Serum, 1997); Anne Panning’s “Remembering, I Was Not There” (In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal, 1999); Paisley Rekdal’s “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, 2002).
Now, in 2015, a new collection of poems passes into my hands. Imagine a whole book dedicated to mapping the Before-World. Call it the speculative, or the subjunctive, or the surreal. You’ll call it stunning and surprising, too. Jehanne Dubrow’s The Arranged Marriage unfolds into an intricate atlas of heritage. Here is its legend: “That our/parents have lives before us is a secret we/ close in a dark compartment.” Watch how Dubrow opens it, skillfully, reaching into the deepest corners, those places otherwise hidden from light.
Writing of her mother’s early arranged marriage to an oppressive man, Dubrow’s speaker positions herself and her reader as captive spectators, helpless to intervene but unable to turn away:
She enters the marriage, as if through a
terminal, misplacing her name the way a
traveler misplaces a glove. She loses the
edges of herself. In his country, she is a tourist
who stares at Mayan pyramids.
This is third person, yet third person of the most intimate kind. We hover close to this “she.” We stand in her shadow. We fear with and for her.
Never static in perspective, Dubrow’s speaker soon zeroes in, closing the gap between self and subject. She claims the “she” as mother—her mother before her, her mother without her, battered, camouflaged, afraid:
My mother is made of stone.
Before she steps outside, the man demands
foundation the color of skin. Cover yourself, he
says. His palm is everywhere, the little spots
of swelling on her cheek, the wince and squint
of it. How to hid the purple by the eye? The
cut with powder? How to pencil in a pair of
When I teach my course in Poetic Techniques, I ask students to identify the “heart poem” of each collection we read. This is my term for the poem that epitomizes a collection’s range and power, the poem that pumps lifeblood to the rest of the book.
Reading The Arranged Marriage, I identify “House of the Small Dictatorship” as this book’s most vital organ. I tell my students remarkable poems remind us of other remarkable poems, and this one is no exception. Though comprised of short stanzas instead of a single block of text, “House of the Small Dictatorship” evokes an equivalent visceral terror to Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” (The Country Between Us, 1981). Feel all the little hairs on your arms rising as soon as the poem begins:
Tripe soup for supper: because a man’s belly
must be full when he surveys the terrain of the
You can’t help but notice Dubrow’s precision, her diction sharpening to knifepoint:
Sometimes he takes his coffee on the terrace.
Sometimes he takes his wife.
I decide to bring this poem into my summer class. The students read it alongside Forche’s poem. They recognize the power of anaphora here, how the second “takes” differs from the first. They see a common word transfigured, suddenly charged with sexual violence. They understand, perhaps for the first time, that repetition does not mean redundancy.
You can’t help but notice Dubrow’s images either, her deft latticing of the senses:
If there are cigars, they clip themselves. They
light into an orange tip.
Go cut papaya and bring it here, he says.
We hear the clip. We see the light. We smell the smoke that is only conjured and taste the fruit that has yet to arrive.
At the end, the word “tyranny” appears, twice:
inside the house a tyranny
A tyranny of sherbet for dessert.
In class, we have been talking about abstract and concrete nouns.
“Tyranny is abstract,” a student says. “But the word repeats, and we know it’s important. We can’t picture tyranny exactly, but we can feel it. We’ve been feeling the tyranny through the whole poem.”
“And you can see it, in a way,” another student observes. “She has tied the abstract noun to something concrete and unexpected—to slippers and sherbet—things we expect to be soft and sweet.”
I decide I will have to bring more Dubrow poems into my class—but which poems should I choose for tomorrow? As I re-read the collection, a triptych seems to emerge.
The first in this series is a poem called “Ode to Breaking Things.” The speaker goes meta in a single-line stanza, breaks the fourth wall by telling us, “This is a poem about captivity.” We understand our speaker stands at a great distance, surreal witness to her mother’s distant past:
For a year, she
is Mrs. Someone Else. So beautiful in all those
photographs I’ve never seen.
But these poems, I realize, are those photographs. Dubrow has made of language a visual art. She has, in essence, created the album that is not there.
A few pages later, in a poem called “Chronic Pain,” the second panel of the triptych appears:
At seventeen, I watched my mother dress.
“Mrs. Someone Else” is now “my mother.” The daughter bears real witness as the two women’s lives overlap:
I liked her best in shoulder pads
Or a pair of heels that announced her body’s
I remember my mother as often lying
Down—tender spots and trigger points, a flare-
Up when it rained.
First, there is the distant past of lineage. Next, there is the recent past of recollection. Now the two compound to form this present and third panel, “Café con leche”:
It’s ten thirty at night. My mother leans across
the stove to check the boil on the milk, whisk in
her left hand, a jar of Folgers in her right. […]
We’ve been standing in the kitchen,
talking about marriage, not wanting to sit or fall
The reader is standing in the kitchen, too. My students understand that this is what we mean by scene: “actually being there, not just being told about it.”
I wrote early on that Dubrow has unfolded for us an intricate atlas of heritage. Now we feel the line in lineage, the tug of the past in the present as our speaker confides:
The coffee tastes like coffee.
With my eyes closed, I can’t tell the difference,
which has always been the problem for women
in my family—the way so many of us would
rather drink something instant, that bitterness
can be hidden with enough spoonfuls of sugar.
Near the end of The Arranged Marriage, our speaker contemplates a painting by Frida Kahlo: “Those could be my mother’s toes in the bathtub.” Yet there is only a glimpse of them, “Only her feet and legs.” Dubrow is engaged in a project analogous to Kahlo’s, similarly visual, sensuous, and far-reaching. She reflects:
As is the way with
parents, how we see parts of them, the rest
Call it the speculative, or the subjunctive, or the surreal. You’ll call it stunning and surprising, too. Dubrow has transformed language into paint, film, and shutter. She has stretched back in time to the beginning before the beginning, out in range to the landscape beyond the frame. Her book is a map. Her atlas is a canvas. Her history is a photograph.
Put another way, her project is part genealogy, part inheritance, and all art of the highest order.