Personal to Universal: Robin Becker’s The Black Bear Inside Me

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I seem to have a lot in common with poet Robin Becker, who recently released a new poetry collection, The Black Bear Inside Me. We are both Jewish lesbians, post-war baby boomers, raised in large East Coast cities (Becker in Philadelphia, me in Washington DC) who knowingly present with “East Coast Jewish” attitude. One difference: Becker is strikingly butch, and I lean femme.

I met Becker at an AWP conference, sitting across from her delightful presence at an event, and my press, Headmistress Press, has made a Lesbian Poet Trading Card for her, as a tribute to her person, her feminist scholarship, and her poetry. But my first introduction to Becker’s work was reading her poem “Yom Kippur, Taos, New Mexico,” from her 1996 collection All American Girl, a poem that continues to have piercing resonance for me.

Today all good Jews collect their crimes like old clothes
_______to be washed and given to the poor.

The poem is not naïvely about Yom Kippur—the Jewish holy day of atonement—but about a private atonement for being “still capable of inflicting pain / at this distance.” The poem suggests in the most direct, and yet restrained, way that the writer has left one lover for another, one landscape for another, one lifestyle for another, with lines like, “these strange divagations I’ve come to love: midday sun / on pink escarpments.”

Becker follows this formula in The Black Bear Inside Me, offering turns that enlarge what is essentially personal to embrace what is universal, and recounting ordinary events that gesture back to a private life. Returning to the theme of leaving a lover, she recognizes the price paid by the discarded one in “Theory.”

__________________________In one theory,
the troubled family sacrifices one member,
as plants surrender leaves in times of drought.

In the title poem, “The Black Bear Inside Me,” the voice of the fierce mama bear is borne inside the poet; she shows us the miraculous feats of the animal in her natural environment:

They know
I will out run, outswim

out-climb, bluff-charge,
and in winter

drop my heart rate
from 40 to 8 beats a minute

And “they” also “know they will take / me in the September / kill.” But most profoundly, signposting the political divisions that are tearing us apart in the present tense, is this warning:

They know they need us
who are so like them

________***

________. . . .without us,

adapted to scarcity and woodland
loss, they’re going down.

We can read the “us” here as a reference to the LGBTQ community or any marginalized group. Alternately, the poem reads as a caution about the damage humans do to the natural world which will, if we don’t adapt, be our demise.

The poems in The Black Bear Inside Me are written in long, musical sentences, often missing expected punctuation and periods, as if to emphasize a continuing conflation of thought; the words sustain and embellish thought by making the reader slow down. There are some not quite nostalgic poems about the poet’s childhood (“I’ll never get a chance / to apologize for all the trouble I brought to 7th grade / science” in “Elegy for the Science Teacher”), references to youth (“desire incoming as the tide” in “Bluefish, 1970”), and plots of a life-as-professor (“Like everybody, I’m loathe to trade / the indenture I know for woe / I can only imagine” in “Blastoff”). However, it’s the present-day poems—ones in which the writer is freed from roles to fully become herself—that are golden. These poems bear the richness of rural community—horses, dogs, fields, crops, flowers, neighbors—in their fullness of season, celebration, death, and grief. Their homespun appeal is located in a rural landscape populated with characters-as-comrades for whom the writer shows great affection and bonding.

In “Men as Friends”—“I have a few which is news to me”—Becker catalogues intimate friendships with chums such as Harvey, “with whom I enjoy long pauses in conversation,” and Tom, who “drops by in the mornings with his travel / mug my mother would call it a coffee klatch.” And when “the retired Marine with the schnauzer” asks if she is married, the laid-back reply is, “I don’t care for men / in that way.”

The poems reflect all seasons, but, as in “Clearing,” seem to favor spring, a time when “All of July and August lie ahead but I want only June.” In “Whitetail Spring,” the writer admits to human desire to touch a newborn deer, telling us that the doe “will consume her fawn’s urine and droppings” to disguise her scent and thus protect her from human contamination. And in “At the Memorial” she shows how an aging community not only celebrates but survives its dead citizens: “the late June / afternoon gives way and almost everyone has a life to return to.”

Becker stands firmly on the shoulder of earlier lesbian-feminist poets while inhabiting and describing our current era of new challenges and old shibboleths. She is keenly aware of her heritage. In her poem titled “Yom Kippur, 1984,” Adrienne Rich presages Becker’s faith in friendship, loyalty, and the need for constant wakefulness with these words:

Find someone like yourself. Find others.
Agree you will never desert each other.
Understand that any rift among you
means power to those who want to do you in.

Becker’s unique gift is her generous attention to and comfort with the diversity of others—human and non-human, fauna and flora, music and dance, neighbor and family. In “Alex, an Obituary,” recounting the story of a thirty-year relationship between a psychologist and an African grey parrot, the parrot’s voice speaks to our need for connection and the transformative value of love, even beyond death:

Each night, when she put him back
in his cage, he said “I love you. See you tomorrow.


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, publisher of LBT poetry. Her most recent poetry collection is slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018). She blogs at risadenenberg.com. More from this author →