Dramatic events of past weeks have highlighted the pivotal role attorneys play in the project of American democracy, from hastily convened gatherings in airport terminals, to the judge’s bench, to the halls of Congress. Less obvious is the influence some attorneys exert on public discourse and culture through the writing of poetry. Yet, poets diverse as Archibald Macleish and James Weldon Johnson, Wallace Stevens and Martín Espada, Monica Youn and Ken Chen, were trained in the finer points of U.S. law before making their marks on American literature. These lawyer-poets call to mind Ezra Pound’s claim that “If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays. Your legislator can’t legislate for the public good, your populace can’t instruct its representatives, save by language.” Wendy Sloan, who practiced union-side labor law in New York City for years, took her place among these ranks of protean wordsmiths with the 2016 publication of her debut verse collection, Sunday Mornings at the Caffe Mediterraneum. Like her legal work, Sloan’s poetry is committed to justice and order, to the cause of the common woman and man.
The dedication, “For my mother…and her three great-grandchildren,” introduces us to what will be one of Sloan’s central concerns in her book: intergenerational continuity of values, as transmitted largely by mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. This emphasis on the hereditary transmission of traditions is reflected in the book’s formal composition. Sunday Mornings at the Caffe Mediterraneum contains twenty-eight original poems, two original poem sequences (“Ruins of Paestum,” a three-poem sequence, and “Drahiv,” an eight-poem sequence), and seven poems translated from Italian poets who died before 1840. Among the original poems and poem sequences, there are twenty-five sonnets or near-sonnets of thirteen to fifteen lines. While these poems use a mix of rhyme schemes that prevent us from classifying them as entirely Shakespearean or wholly Petrarchan, all but five end with rhymed couplets that yield a sense of finality and closure. Even the book’s title seems calculated to communicate a love for traditions and patterned, repeated observances.
This theme is taken up and expanded on by the poems in the first of the book’s three sections, titled “Women’s Work.” Most of the poems in this section revolve around the relationship between a female speaker/protagonist and another individual or group, usually also female: a mother, a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a fellow patient awaiting mammogram results, “the Lady Invariably Seated on my Left at Lunch,” an anonymous handicraft maker whose antique trousseau the speaker buys at auction. The expressed emotions vary from a love so strong it almost negates the will to keep living (for the mother), to irritated bemusement (for the daughter), to coals-heaped-on-head resentment (for the unfair teacher), to somewhat catty jealousy (for the skinny lady at the lunch counter), to admiration and a sense of waste (for the handicraft maker). Though the emotions vary so widely as to paint a picture of almost the whole of life, the overarching theme is one of gratitude to mothers and foremothers, best exemplified in the contrast between the section’s two blank-verse dramatic poems, “Dead Young Thing” and “Rachel Warner.” In “Dead Young Thing,” the teen girl speaker harrowingly narrates how her abusive boyfriend repeatedly impregnates her and then persuades her to kill the infants once they are born:
…He never stopped,
before or after. Anyway, I knew
he never would. I left it, like he said,
inside the dumpster by the courtyard stair.
The poem ends with an almost feminist assertion of the self, à la Mary Hamilton denouncing the Stuart king from the gallows in the traditional ballad; still, there remain self-evident obstacles that prevent us from comfortably viewing the infanticidal speaker as a hero. In contrast, the turn-of-the-century mother who narrates “Rachel Warner” is presented as unquestionably a hero for her devotion to family:
…when fever flared, and when it broke I changed
the sweat-soaked sheets, remade their beds, told them
their favorite stories to help them sleep, until
their long sleep came,
and Father brought them up here to this hill.
Then I knew I could not go on. But the working did—
the cooking, washing, hauling in the wood
had to be done—and so go on I did.
The intricately linked poems in the next section, “Too Late Smart,” are harder to sum up than those in “Women’s Work,” but the vast majority are steeped in nostalgia and shadowed by death: the death of a pet dog, the death of Jim Morrison, the death of a nation’s innocence during the Vietnam-American War. Surviving life’s losses and betrayals, Sloan laments, makes us “too late smart,” leaving us with barely enough ground to stand on from which to counsel our juniors, “[N]ow celebrate…this silver night’s unbridled happiness./There will be but a few as bright as this” (“Epithalamion,” p. 42). In these straits, Sloan turns to her Jewish heritage for strength and comfort, as seen in the poems “Tipping the Whipper” and “Drahiv.” In the former, the speaker recounts a joke her father used to tell about a galley slave who, in the joke’s punchline, drolly asks, “How much should I tip the whipper?” Sloan then provides the following commentary:
joke, too, must be a metaphor for life—
something like Dante’s “mezzo del cammin”
but, being a Jewish joke, more middle class….
“Drahiv,” in contrast, is more tragic than comic, presenting the history of a family subjected to multigenerational traumas by the Holocaust and telling how new revelations after a father’s death unexpectedly alter the survivors’ self-perceptions.
The sisters stayed behind. Their father and mother
believed the girls would lose their piety
(such were the fears modernity instilled)
so in Europe they stayed, and in Europe they all were all killed.
In these lines, the taut continuous thread between the historical lessons of “Too Late Smart” and the feminist convictions of “Women’s Work” is clear.
The book’s final section contains Sloan’s translations of Italian poets, weighted toward 16th-century women poets silenced because of their gender: Veronica Franco, pressured to keep mum about the services she rendered as courtesan to King Henri III; Isabella di Morra, murdered by male relatives for daring to exchange amorous sonnets with a lover of her own choosing. These translations make especially legible Sloan’s project of embracing the sonnet form as a way to honor female forebears for whom it was a meaningful gesture of rebellion, of embracing poetic tradition as a means to show how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The law seemed not to be on Isabella di Morra’s side when she prayed that
mercy from heaven
reaches the heart of the King of France
so that, weighing the harm with just balance,
he reckons a recompense
consistent with the merit of my faith.
A poet like Sloan, well versed in the strengths and limitations of laws, is ideally poised to remind readers of how our language traditions, both legal and extralegal, both formally ordered and less ordered, can be critical armaments for wresting power from kings and returning it to ordinary people.