Charles Rammelkamp Review of
No Way Out but Through
by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
No Way Out but Through
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017
$15.95, 88 pages
Probably best known as a novelist, Lynne Sharon Schwartz brings her keen observation and playfulness with language just as admirably to poetry. No Way Out but Through is her third collection. In Solitary and See You in the Dark are her two previous titles.
The title of the new collection comes from a poem about her older sister’s painful cancer death in a section, “For Beverly,” devoted to her memory. The line is repeated in the book’s penultimate poem, “Leaving”:
No way out but through the gates
Flung open to our common fates.
No chance to flee. No frightened pleas
Can halt our end or change our dates.
The poem about her sister begins:
I have to die, but not today,
my sister’s joke, her every morning mantra,
when she was old, before the thorn took hold.
And it ends four three-line stanzas later:
No way out but through. You have to live it.
You have to live it. Later her mantra changed:
I know I have to die, so let it be today.
Death is inevitable, yes, but it a sense you have to earn it.
The most poignant poems in this collection are the ones involving people becoming enfeebled with age, dying. As well as the poems about her sister Beverly (“Reduced” ends: “You were the big sister. Now / I simply stroke your hands.”), we see this particularly in the poems about Brooklyn, in the final of the four sections that make up No Way Out but Through. Brooklyn is where Schwartz grew up, the scene of her childhood, so vividly described in her novel, Leaving Brooklyn, which was a PEN/Faulkner finalist in 1990. “Losing Touch” is a sweet poem about the fading of her mother’s memory, just as “Taking Out the Garbage” is a recollection of her father. “The Grandfather” shows us an old man who is dwindling like Tithonus in the Greek myth, who, though granted immortality, continued to age.
His handwriting, still sternly vertical
is narrowing, illegible, the letters cramped,
leaning on each other like a row of tenements,
his voice so soft we need to ask, What?
“Miss Darlene’s Dancing School” is an elegy for her old neighborhood, which she remembers so fondly, While acknowledging that the neighborhood is no longer the same, that it’s changed over and over again since she was a girl in the 1950’s, still she remembers Miss Darlene, who married, got pregnant, closed the school, remembers the family that owned the funeral parlor, the hearse in the driveway ready to fetch another corpse. A Mister Softee truck is in its place now. Her part of Brooklyn is now inhabited by West Indians and no longer the Jews of her youth. As she stands on the sidewalk looking at her old home, a woman approaches suspiciously.
A woman asked, What was I doing there?
I didn’t say this was my childhood home, simply
that I wanted ice cream, and she said,
You must want it real bad, to come out here.
As this poem suggests, Lynne Sharon Schwartz also has a subtle sense of humor, a keen feel for irony. This is on display in many of the poems in this collection, including such titles as “What the Poets Never Write about Love” (“The actual words murmured, not / Ah your silken thighs, your breasts / like tender hills, but, Shit, my zipper’s stuck….”), “A Dress Laments,” “Pope Says Internet Is Gift from God,” “We Pre-Boomers,” “Cookies Foretell a Refreshing Change,” a poem that parodies Chinese fortune cookies with eloquent insight.
Now Way Out but Through is a playful collection of poems with the kind of reflections that come with experience, not hit-you-over-the-head wisdom but a sage perception nonetheless.