Review by Mindy Kronenberg
To Set Right is a collection of poems that hovers in time and place, summoning an almost mystical journey of resilience of the self, ancestry, history, and the fragility of the physical realm. Shapiro also connects her Jewish identity to the many revelatory rites of passage in her life, and the events of each of these eighteen poems float and shimmer on the page with the dream-like quality of the airborne subjects of a Chagall painting. The contents and titles of each work run sideways on the page, also presenting a “tilt” in the reader’s experience as they go through the book.
The journey starts with “Ear to the Ground,” that wonders how we lose the precious protection of our cultural origins and juxtaposes the crisis of the bee population to the dissolution of our own society. We are asked “What keeps us safe?” and must consider how to reverse the ways we have contaminated our world:
In “Reverence for Bees and Being(s)” there is also regret over how the hypocrisy of human conceit and politics corrupts the ideals of eco-advocacy. The poet shares the experience of buying and freeing a songbird in Morocco and then a long sequence dedicated to an incident of a group of Palestinian beekeepers prevented from attending a global conference. The esprit de corps within the mission of this event should transcend suspicion. “What is simpler,” she asks, “than the scent of almonds in bloom,/the sounds of bees in our gardens/ the spontaneous celebrations of family,/lunches with friends, sweet traditions/that remind us of love and loss?” The disappointment of the latter rhapsodizes on the diminishment of this opportunity for a special camaraderie among conference participants at an event organized to preserve “…a golden global hive.” (p. 18)
Realizations of conflict and otherness can arise in one’s childhood, linking a pained awareness between generations. An unexpected lesson is revealed in “Spoken and Unspoken, Ozone Park, Queens” when the poet pleads for her grandmother to buy a beautifully appointed doll, (“painted blue eyes/yellow braids/a calico babushka on her head…”), whose thigh reveals a black-stamped “Poland” when its skirt was raised. The silence of the grandmother, who purchases the doll without commentary on its uncomfortable historic connection, is matched by the granddaughter’s reticence when returning from playing outside:
The broad devastation of the Holocaust is captured and intertwined with nature’s instinct for survival, as an encounter with a grasshopper who shed legs to escape with its life is recalled at an execution site in the Ponary forest where women would strip, facing death, and
…silently relinquish their babies
to still-warm piles of clothing
so to face the pit’s black edge
with empty arms and a heart still beating
with a modicum of hope.
To Set Right is also a testament to ethnic legacy and tenacity, the time-honored rituals of celebration and persistence, as in “My Grandfather’s Sister’s Great-Great-Grandson’s Wedding, Borough Park, Brooklyn,” (pg. 38) images wrapped in tender and determined pageantry, where the poet is seated “opposite rows of fedoras and fur/in a garden of tailored gowns” and ancestors “have descended, right now, ten generations in this room.” “More than Four Questions” is a Passover Seder turned personal inner odyssey, a soul-searching journey through recitation and ancestral reconciliation.
Lynne Shapiro’s poems are often buoyant in exultation and have the graceful heft of gravitas. Her work seeks balance and redemption in a world that has been set askew by pandemic, climate crisis, human tragedy, and the struggle to retain faith. She reminds herself, and the reader, in “May This Poem be a Portal” (pg. 23), that there is beauty, and hope, in the migration of birds, “…Stretches of joyous configurations” resulting in an inspiring convergence, and in the human desire to seek fellowship, freedom, and community.
To Set Right by Lynne Shapiro
WordTech Editions, 2021
ISBN-13: 978-1625493866, 56 pages, $16
Mindy Kronenberg is an award-winning poet and writer with numerous publication credits world-wide. She teaches writing, literature, and arts subjects at SUNY Empire State College, publishes Book/Mark Quarterly Review, is editor of Oberon poetry magazine, and the author of Dismantling the Playground (Birnham Wood), Images of America: Miller Place (Arcadia), and OPEN, an illustrated poetry book (Clare Songbirds Publishers).