Birthright: Poems

  • Review
By – December 3, 2019

Birthright is Eri­ka Dreifus’s first book of poet­ry, but it is pre­ced­ed by her prize-win­ning short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Qui­et Amer­i­cans. The poems in Birthright often feel like sto­ries in minia­ture, replete with set­ting, char­ac­ter, dia­logue, and plot, across a wide vari­ety of reg­is­ters and con­texts, rang­ing from bib­li­cal to per­son­al, famil­iar to his­tor­i­cal, lit­er­ary to polit­i­cal. Poems that draw from bib­li­cal sto­ries are inter­spersed with per­son­al sto­ries, which pro­duc­tive­ly com­pli­cates both types of poems. The Autumn of H1N1,” which cri­tiques med­ical and social atti­tudes toward women who have cho­sen not to have chil­dren, appears beside Ruth’s Regret,” whose title char­ac­ter laments, No one said that milk would leak from me / while my baby nes­tled at Naomi’s breasts.” The con­trast between the set­tings and speak­ers of these two poems adds rich tex­ture to both.

Dreifus’s fic­tion-writ­ing sen­si­bil­i­ty is both a strength and a weak­ness in Birthright. Some­times, the use of con­ver­sa­tion­al lan­guage feels fresh, like in Kad­dish for My Uterus,” which plays with moments of humor, under­min­ing the for­mal expec­ta­tion its title sets up. This Woman’s Prayer” express­es grat­i­tude to be born in the last third of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, / a time after peni­cillin / and before social media.” These are joy­ful, com­plex, mourn­ful, love­ly prayers — fit for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. At oth­er times, Dreifus’s casu­al lan­guage can feel pro­sa­ic. Parts of Dias­po­ra: A Prose Poems,” sound more like an email than a poem: I wait for my plane to Colum­bus, Ohio, where the elder daugh­ter of a sec­ond cousin will be called to the Torah as a bat mitz­vah in the morn­ing.” That pro­sa­ic ten­den­cy is also evi­dent in three poems inspired by icon­ic twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry poems: Lucille Clifton’s Homage to My Hips,” which becomes Homage to My Skull”; Auden’s Sep­tem­ber 1, 1939,” which becomes Sep­tem­ber 1, 1946,” and, after Wal­lace Stevens, Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at My Lat­est Cold.” The orig­i­nal ver­sions of each of these poems work thrilling­ly with form, line breaks, sound, and tone. In com­par­i­son, Dreifus’s poems seem less excit­ing, because they don’t engage poet­ic tools as thoroughly.

My favorite poem in the book is the final one titled, With or With­out,” a prose poem that takes full advan­tage of some of the oppor­tu­ni­ties that poet­ry offers: free­dom from gram­mat­i­cal con­straint and close atten­tion to pat­tern, rep­e­ti­tion, and sound. Dreifus’s delight­ful ten­den­cy to mix reg­is­ters is evi­dent in this poem, which begins with a chant-like direc­tive: Come with me sit with me stay with me play with me lie with me with all your heart…” and touch­es on many of the con­cerns Birthright explores, like pol­i­tics, geog­ra­phy, per­son­al and famil­iar his­to­ry, and sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence. Drei­fus writes, with tears with­out stop­ping with a smile with a laugh with fin­ished base­ment with washer/​dryer with sky­lights with bath with salt with fries with dress­ing on the side with cheese with tax with fees with hon­ors with dis­tinc­tion…” This poem’s won­der­ful mish­mash of reg­is­ters shows Drei­fus at her most pow­er­ful­ly resonant.

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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