Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld

kronenbook
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Review by Richard Nester
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Judy Kronenfeld’s narrative powers are on full display in her latest collection, Bird Flying through the Banquet, a book whose central concerns are signaled by its cover art, a recasting of Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Peasant Wedding. Kronenfeld’s approach is ekphrastic with regard to multiple mediums, primarily visual, but musical also, as the book’s cover art presents a complex chord that the book’s contents both riff on and elaborate.
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A close look at this opening chord shows how complicated it is. Two ideas stand out: first, there is the Venerable Bede’s assertion found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England (731 AD) that man’s life can be compared to the flight of a sparrow through a mead-hall on a winter night from dark to dark, unknown to unknown; second, is the way that Kronenfeld applies that metaphor to Bruegel’s painting, where the darkness is represented by the graying-out of two strips at the left and right margins and the sparrow is added as a silhouette.
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Both of these ideas find a place in Bird Flying. Sometimes Kronenfeld’s subject is the ineffable itself, the permanent in the transitory, the missing in what remains—the sparrow’s all too brief but still exquisite journey. At other times, she foregrounds her immigrant experience, captured in the trope of the peasant gathering of Bruegel’s painting, which differs in one important way from the mead-hall gathering addressed by Bede. Bede was speaking to an audience of nobles, whereas Bruegel portrays a peasant banquet, more pot-luck than fine dining, an image Kronenfeld uses to bring together a series of poems that are both celebratory and richly peopled by person and places from her memory cupboard.
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Bird Flying is an intensely visual collection with a palette that ranges from the concrete to the imaginary,  from the “cracked sidewalks flashing mica” of “My Long-Left Birth City,” where the “newsstand, candy store, barbershop” are “utterly, beautifully, unremarkable,” to the mental vista of “Rothko Dark,” where after “long looking . . . giving oneself to darkness / faintly lightens it.” This poem does not refer to any particular Rothko work, but rather, to the optical vibrations created by the painter’s characteristic methodology, an effect Kronenfeld mimes in her memory portraits. The careful reader will note that “Rothko Dark” contains but one sentence, elegantly formed, as graceful in its lines as it is in its forward movement. So composed, it mirrors the book as a whole and the way individual poems propel it forward, while not sacrificing any of their individuality.
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 Kronenfeld’s fascination with time is constant. Examples include timepieces, her father’s alarm clock in “Ten Minutes,” times of day as in the lyrical “The Braille of Evening” with its “last coins of sunlight” and “darkness-gathering trees,” important dates such as yahrzeit in “Neighborly Sorrow” where the memorial candle “burns now in my agnostic /house, three thousand miles /from the Bronx,”  or time itself, as in “Grief-Shock.” “Grief-Shock” is worth careful study both with regard to its imagery and its sound. In the first place, this is not time as an abstract entity, but a particular kind of time, that is “grief” time, which simultaneously rushes our sorrows forward and stacks them up in a series of “after[s]”that leave us “stranded” and “despoiled.” At the same time that the imagery strands us—a clever but nonetheless organic wordplay (Kronenfeld is never witty for wit’s sake) on the shore, its language propels us relentlessly forward by a series of “s” sounds—“spot,” “homestead,” “stomped.” Every line has at least one “s” with one telling exception: the line that sets up the poem’s conceit in the first place “but time—like the metronome clicking,” a reference to time’s twin character as both object—  metronome—and process.
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Kronenfeld is seldom overtly political, but when she is, the effect is startling. The poem “What We’re Reduced To” offers such a moment, one where Kronenfeld’s husband is “reduced” to filing his protest on a scrap of paper shoved into a sidewalk crack, a comic rendering of the Jerusalem Wailing Wall, where worshipers place rolled up paper messages in crevices between the wall’s stones. Overt politics aside, her poems possess a high degree of civic involvement of a kind not reducible to slogans, as if they have decided to conduct politics by other means, those of language, family, and neighborhood.
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In this regard, I find itj instructive to contrast Kronenfeld’s use of Bruegel with that made by Auden in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” one of poetry’s the better known ekphrastic poems. Auden references Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and his verdict with regard to art and its influence on the larger world is the same in “Musee des Beau Arts” as it is in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats, ” where he says that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Art can call attention to the “astounding” moment and the way that it is ignored by the demands of commerce but that is all. In Icarus, the ship witnesses suffering, “a boy falling out of the sky,” but ignores it in pursuit of business as usual. In fact, the witnessing agent is not animate, not the sailors on board, but the ship itself, and all art can do is record that indifference.
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In contrast, Kronenfeld offers us a different Bruegel painting, Peasant Wedding, and a different set of conclusions about the human community and its resources. In “Ten Minutes” she shows us that business as usual is accompanied by bone-weary sacrifice, a poem in which suffering takes the form of an alarm clock whose demands can only be bought off for a few minutes. Nevertheless, Kronenfeld closes the emotional distance between art and suffering by offering us a father and daughter with a common set of problems. One way or another both are bullied, the father by the necessities of earning a working class living (witness the living room hide-a-bed) and the daughter by school yard injustice. Kronenfeld folds their two experiences together while merging the strategies each uses to cope, the father’s snooze alarm, which offers him a middle ground between sleep and waking, and the daughter’s cupcakes. Kronenfeld mines this memory only with great effort:
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            It’s terrifying how far back
            this memory goes. I feel as if
            I’ve had to lie on my belly
            with a head lamp and inch forward
            in the dark to see it.
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Nevertheless, the ore recovered is precious “as if / ten minutes would sweeten arm-twisting /death, or gentle me into braving his.” The minutes gained are a reminder of the celebratory meal of Peasant Wedding, where time is suspended by a community event that weds not just a couple but a community.
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Another back-channel source of recollection occurs during a dream recounted in “Lives of the Dead” where Kronenfeld’s parents, neither of whom can spell, play an “anarchic” game of Scrabble while she attempts to inform them that she has been robbed. They are suitably non-plussed, because after all they are dead, and, thus, immune to time’s persistent robberies, taking place downstairs and outdoors in the waking world. What makes this dream convincing is its intensely visual nature combined with the narrative grace Kronenfeld employs in steering her parents “to their little pocket of moored time.” The poem opens with a typical Kronenfeld canvas that renders the mundane beautiful: “Alive in my dreams, and serene /they sit in our 40-watt /dim Bronx kitchen on the lollipop-red /dinette set leatherette chairs.” Again, as in so many of her poems, the speaker is confident in her resources, able to gather the ingredients she needs, emotionally and linguistically, to serve and participate in time’s banquet.
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Mercy and compassion are far more prominent in these poems than complaint, which is not to say that the speaker is always content—far from it. There is a restless, probing energy in every poem, exploring and seeking answers, however elusive. Nevertheless, Kronenfeld locates the grandeur and consequence in apparently inconsequential lives, and in so doing, rescues us all. You will feel more alive for having read her poems.
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Richard Nester has twice been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has published poetry in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo and Seneca Review and essays in the Catholic Agitator. His work has appeared most recently in Floyd County Moonshine.
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