Grace Schulman’s seventh collection, Without a Claim, is concerned with edges. It looks carefully at a life that is familiar to all of us, one that contains beginnings and endings, innumerable questions and rather fewer answers than we’d like. With great care, Schulman considers different modes of making meaning from life’s small but tectonic shiftings: music, stagecraft, faith, violence, and poetry are all interrogated as ways of constructing identities. These tersely coiled poems take no shortcuts on the journey, and they don’t sum themselves into pat answers at the end – instead, they struggle against the limitations of their genre, pushing the reader to continue beyond what the collection can offer. What that is, in Schulman’s case, is a careful greatness, posing as both a map and a springboard for the reader’s own grueling journey. This book is not an easy pleasure – it is a necessary one.
In the beginning, the speaker – a city native – is struggling to comprehend her inheritance of a piece of land on the tip of Long Island. But the first question of balance, between city and seaside, spirals beyond itself as quickly as the first poem. Refusing to restrict itself to the dichotomy of the urban and the natural, the opening raises questions of permanence, of how to find balance in a life and on an earth that not only shifts, grows, and changes, but decays and dies. In spring, after a catalogue that reads like a modern hymn to nature, the speaker mourns “what does not come back: the movie theater…your rangy stride;/my shawl of hair; my mother’s grand piano./My mother. How to make it new,/how to find the gain in it?” This question of meaning guides the rest of the poems, as the speaker bounces between physical locations and emotional concerns. The reader learns early on that poetry itself is not, for Schulman, adequate – it fails alongside that other great guarantor of meaning, faith: “What to believe? On a flat bay, wet wind/washes me clean. Crows are crows, not prophecies…I cannot see the fire in the poplars.” At the end of the first section (the book has five), the poet realizes she cannot be simply anything: city or seaside, religious or atheist, perfect or imperfect. Instead, she opens herself to the inescapability of the broken and the complicated, the “bodies [that] merge in sleep/and fit unbroken, like the one perfect shell/I’ve never found.” And she refuses to abandon poetry despite its insufficiencies, offering prayers of a sort to Walt Whitman and Derek Walcott, those masterful wrestlers of multitudinous identities.
As the collection progresses, Schulman looks at other artistic modes, from classical music and jazz to set design and Jackson Pollock’s visual cacaphonies, considering the ways in which “the beauty of incompleteness” and the “leaf shadows [that] dance on whitewashed walls by candlelight” can “hin[t] at a world of thing unbroken” – “art the miracle” that can help the individual define her self. She doesn’t ask for an art of beauty – just truth: “ourselves/rise, as they are, dissolved in watery forms,/color of muck.” And this collection is not a poetry of easy prettiness. Its firm confronting of the Holocaust and its legacies, of ongoing violence in Gaza and the very different violence of her husband’s damaged body requires an unflinching tone and a willing reader. Schulman drags herself bloody-fisted through these concerns, and the audience is not invited to take a safe or easy tourist’s path – never allowed the easy confidence of the young girl in The Last Crossing, who strides onto a ship with the blind faith of an American youth going sightseeing in a land of violence, unaware that her own sturdy foundation will “sink one day in tow…before it could be fired for scrap iron.” Schulman’s readers must confront the world’s violence alongside her. She is an empathetic Virgil to our Dante, admitting that it can be hard to hear “reports filtering in,/of planes, oceans away…when bells pealed/and my street jangled in full color at noon.” And, humanely, she allows room for the small but infinitely important facts of individual, intimate lives, of one man stepping “gingerly,/lame but not lost, with your own name,/taking the high risk of this morning,/one hand on your cane, the other open.” But the broader world stage, where “only the ocean breaths, and the radio’s news/is slaughter” cannot and must not be escaped in this collection.
And it is for this reason that Schulman interrogates art so stringently – what is its mode? Its method? Its worth? How can the poet “write lines [her] father might hear/over bombs and gunfire” and why should she “race to show you hickories,/their nuts shrunken brown globes, soon to fall”? How can music address “[t]he question, still unanswered,/why do nations furiously rage”? And how can the reader or viewer or listener relax out of these anxieties long enough to “let the bass roar with winds that tell the story”? Art is never unimportant in this collection – it has gone on as long as violence, as Schulman points out when discussing the earliest-known cave drawings in Chauvet: ““What drew him there? Not hunger but the hunger,/when winter threatened, nightfall terrified,/the clan slaughtered, to see in blackness/a golden plain. Some say that cave was an altar,/the beasts sacred, but I think the task/was to get it right.” And her poems move precisely, brushstrokes attempting to accomplish just that correctness – to build a new language, “the sounds of consonants, hard c’s and k’s” that can handle this interrogation, can withstand it as weaker forms cannot, those old forms like the “shell in my hand, split open…mute,/a broken temple” that leave her “shattered, in doubt, inside chipped walls.” This new language must “kindle lightning bugs and luminous/plankton on sand arching to the stars,” must be able both to witness and to ignite that fire burning in the poplar’s thin bushes, to serve as “a circus wire strung between landings.” She has abandoned the unachievable “reach for completeness/when fragments are all we have,” but she refuses to abandon language and art as methods of attempting meaning, even if unfinished, even if insufficient.
Returned to the city in the last poem, the speaker observes a disintegrating brownstone on East Eleventh Street, fallen from its grandeur in the time when beauty “in oils, in inks, spoke for the wholeness/of art above their maker’s fractured lives.” Disappointed, seeming to surrender to the grim despoliation of the once-majestic building, the author wonders if language, finally, has failed to provide any shore against the world’s unending conflicts and difficulties: “Soon she will sort/jottings which might either fill pages/or else be scattered in a breeze.” But with the introduction of a new character, “a man in jeans with a wheeler bag,” the collection closes on a note of hope – for art, for life, for the ongoing struggle: “New lover? Foreign guest? I don’t know yet./Cancel the ending. The story begins here.” And the reader, after a moment of disappointment at this refused but certain closing, blinks, lifts her head, and stands to continue Schulman’s beginning.