Review by Barbara Lawhorn
In Laura Bernstein-Machlay’s gorgeous debut collection of essays, Travelers, readers journey with an extraordinarily honest author who inquires deeply into place, past, the people who inform us, and how these glimmering threads knot within our present selves. These essays hinge on journeying– to become, to depart and arrive—and, also, to make sense and meaning out of the moments that accumulate into rich, complex lives. Bernstein-Machlay holds up a mirror to her city, her family, and to herself as well, but dives beyond the reflective surface so that the reader must hold up the mirror to themselves too.
Bernstein-Machlay was born in Detroit, Michigan, leaves it multiple times, but returns to and is rooted to the city, where she lives with her husband and daughter, although the suburbs sometimes send a siren’s song. The city is a vibrant, complicated backdrop to the internal terrains she adeptly charts. It is tattooed on her skin and sewn into her heart:
I live here so I can say this: I sometimes hate my city with its throwaway humans, my city of bulletproof glass, of shuttered factories. City of Downtown and Midtown newly thriving, alive with millennials in their shiny condos, with business men buying up all the good buildings, even as the rest of the city scrabbles along as usual, because that’s what people here know how to do. (33)
And yet, her deep and complex love for the city is evident before she admits it in the conclusion of “True”, explaining, “And if people honestly wanted to know…I would tell them I love my city for all of the reasons I hate it (36).” Detroit has laid claim to her, but Bernstein-Machlay lays claim to its tarnished glory too, and allows tourists to see it with the eyes of one who has come to intimately know it, and be transformed by it.
Bernstein-Machlay is an award-winning author of poetry and creative nonfiction, and her essays are rich with vivid imagery, and stunning prose. This is a gorgeously written collection, thoughtfully curated as far as the order of the essays, and hard to put down. While Detroit is important, Bernstein-Machlay also considers who we are from, not just where we are from. She writes with careful consideration, but no kid gloves of her Jewish grandparents, Zaidy and Bubby, who were instrumental in raising her. She paints a clear, yet compassionate portrait of her mother who was deep in the becoming of who she was during the author’s childhood. Bernstein-Machlay trusts the readers with the multifaceted richness of love and its failings. She also allows us to see the ways in which we come to know ourselves through mother-love. She writes stunningly of her daughter Celia, choreographed grace on aerial silks, “Celia, poised there for a single breath—infinite. White lily hanging in the white sky, single snowflake hovering above the village” (88). When writing about her daughter, precocious where the author was not, her own waterfall of magnificent hair untamed and inviting her mother to let her own curl fall, the prose truly lifts and soars with such evident, adoring love. Celia, who gives the gift of words, explaining over the author’s shoulder that she’s the best mother for her.
Bernstein-Machlay allows us to be travelers with her, through love, loss, friendship, marriage, motherhood, leaving home and coming home—to a place and to ourselves. Whether it is backpacking through France and Ireland, working in an English cafeteria with her college roommate (who she will carry like a backpack, always), deciphering childhood, escaping high school, moving toward an MFA in Seattle, or praying her way through the mountains with nothing but what her duct taped car can hold, she reveals, again and again, that which is sacred through her mastery of sewing words to reveal her life, so that readers may more carefully consider their own.
Travelers by Laura Bernstein-Machlay
Sonder Press, 2018, paperback
Barbara Lawhorn is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. She’s into literacy activism, walking her dog, Banjo, running, baking and eating pie, and finding the wild places, within herself and outside in the world. Her most recent work can be found at Poetry South, Flash Fiction Magazine, High Shelf Poetry, and forthcoming in White Wall Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her kids, Mars and Jack.