The Lamps of History

Michael San­dler, Diane Kist­ner (Edi­tor)

  • Review
By – September 1, 2021

In his col­lec­tion, The Lamps of His­to­ry, Michael San­dler places nar­ra­tive poems illus­trat­ing moments from WWII and the Holo­caust next to lyric poems revolv­ing around suf­fer­ing, doubt, and hope. Through­out all four sec­tions of his book, San­dler inter­spers­es ekphras­tic poems, which he labels Stills” and which in the notes sec­tion he men­tions are based on pho­tographs by Roman Vish­ni­ac doc­u­ment­ing Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe between 1935 and 1938.” The ekphras­tic poems are the most image-dri­ven poems in the col­lec­tion and con­tin­u­al­ly bring the read­er back to Euro­pean ghet­tos and con­cen­tra­tion camps, despite the sur­round­ing poems some­times hav­ing lit­tle to do with the Holo­caust. The ekphras­tic poems end up inform­ing the way that the read­er inter­prets the oth­er poems; they evoke a med­i­ta­tive yearn­ing for peace amidst human suffering.

The col­lec­tion begins and ends with real­iza­tions about the near­ness of death. In the first poem, Gauze,” San­dler begins, A light shaft cleaves my gur­ney from the room / and its rood-tree of IV bags, tubes…” In the last poem of the col­lec­tion (“After Cer­ti­tude”), San­dler brings read­ers back to this moment of near death: I’ve set out for the after­life, / but I’ve lost my way…Once, I had courage to be hope­ful, / to expect a bea­con not far ahead.” San­dler reminds read­ers of the pre­cious­ness of life while book­end­ing the col­lec­tion with these images of near-death, and scat­ter­ing Holo­caust images in the ekphras­tic poems through­out, as a reminder that uncer­tain­ty lies ahead.

In addi­tion to the ekphras­tic poems, anoth­er one of Sandler’s most pow­er­ful poems is Ghaz­al to an AR-15,” which haunt­ing­ly ref­er­ences Sandy Hook and oth­er mass shoot­ings while treat­ing the gun like a sacred part of the body of its own­er. This poem, placed toward the end of the book and next to one of the Holo­caust ekphras­tic Stills,” feels like a strong com­ment on the dan­gers of what can hap­pen to a soci­ety more con­cerned with vio­lence and hate than lov­ing one’s neigh­bor and chil­dren, ideas that echo through­out the collection.

San­dler ref­er­ences many Jew­ish cul­tur­al images and moments in his poems, from dis­cussing each ingre­di­ent in kugel to imag­in­ing what real­ly hap­pened to his fam­i­ly in czarist Rus­sia to vis­it­ing Israel’s Tomb of the Patri­archs. In the poem, Knock,” San­dler writes that the Lord is watch­ing over our thresh­olds” and con­tem­plates the com­mand­ment of wel­com­ing the stranger while also safe­guard­ing his own home with sleep­ing chil­dren inside: I half-pity his drenched fea­tures, fath­om­ing / we’re not neigh­bors, just crea­tures who believe / doors are meant to piv­ot, fel­lows to commune…”

San­dler writes about his own family’s rags-to-rich­es sto­ry through ref­er­ences to his rag-deal­ing grand­fa­ther who trudged each win­ter / in a thread­bare coat” in the poem Scrap Mer­chants.” Read­ers find out in the poem Autonomous Son” that the speak­er is named after this rag-deal­ing grand­fa­ther. The speaker’s father, who encour­aged his son to join him as a lawyer, has a work eth­ic that San­dler admires. The poem Betel­geuse and Rigel” high­lights descrip­tions of the speaker’s father’s work desk and how the uni­verse of paper­work” and crys­tal ball with stars of glit­tered gas” are actu­al­ly just bills and bad debts. Still, it is clear the speak­er of these poems looks up to his father and hopes to be a guide for his own children.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth, pub­lished by Main Street Rag Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny (2018) and win­ner of the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award. Her poet­ry has been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ing: Voic­es of Pow­er and Invis­i­bil­i­tyLilith, Raleigh ReviewMin­er­va Ris­ing, Third Wednes­day, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been pub­lished in Green Moun­tains Review, the For­ward, Lit­er­ary Mama, and oth­ers. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She teach­es high school Eng­lish and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two children.

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