Saturnalia Books. 2017. 80 pages.
Reviewed by Brian Clifton
Hadara Bar-Nadav* begins her latest book, The New Nudity (Saturnalia Books, 2017), with the line “Who means what it is to be human.” (Full-disclosure: Hadara Bar-Nadav is a former professor of mine.) While contextually this line describes a thumb, it speaks to one of the book’s larger goals—to contemplate how objects participate in our lives, how things make us human. The New Nudity exists not so much within objects or those looking at the objects but in the relationship that develops between the looking and the looked at, and how that relationship creates the person in conjunction with the object.
This is not necessarily a new framework for Bar-Nadav, whose work frequently engages with visual art—like “Four Reds For Rothko” in A Frame Called Ruin (winner of the Green Rose Prize from New Issues 2012) and the title poem of A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight (MARGIE/IntuiT House 2007). The New Nudity, however, eschews the art object for the more mundane things of the everyday. What links Bar-Nadav’s latest with her past work is her ability to pare an image down to its essential parts. Throughout the book, her extreme concision paradoxically gives her images more depth and nuance—most like the fragmented prose poems of her previous book, Lullaby (with Exit Sign) (winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize 2013).
Bar-Nadav’s extreme concision forces objects and people to occupy the same grammatical spaces. Likewise, the form of her poems, mostly couplets and monostichs, further brings together the looking and the looked at. While The New Nudity is formally less varied than Bar-Nadav’s other work, her surprising use of form is stark and fiercely insistent. She uses couplets to their maximum effect—whether that is shaping and then reshaping an image (“Ankle bone cut/like a jewel” from “Leg”), juxtaposing the actual and the metaphoric (“the spoiled cream/of soft teeth” from “Sugar”), or showing the interior tensions and ambiguities of our own language (“Inside the dead/people live” from “Chest”). No matter how Bar-Nadav uses the couplet, there is always an energy that radiates between one line and the next, which works to create an urgency that extends from cover to cover.
An example of this urgency can be found in “Ladder.” Bar-Nadav writes:
Carriage for meat.
We keep her
In six lines, the ladder progresses from what it can do, to what it looks like, to how it is like a person. The associative leaps from body to personification are quick, yet what happens between lines and couplets is controlled and considered—because we get images of the body, we can understand intuitively the need to refer to the ladder with a gendered pronoun. The gendering of the ladder continues to conflate the human and the object as it speaks to the ladder itself while implying violence and sexual assault (“Heels bound/by black rubber,” “Someone opens her,/someone holds her down”). In these finely attuned observations, through their concision and fragmentation, the poem extends beyond detail into image, so that they reference both a ladder and the grisly reality of gendered and sexual violence.
Likewise, her concision allows her to step back from metaphor and personification quickly and surprisingly. “Ladder” ends, “We would not touch/the light any other way.” Stated as it is (and in the context of the poem), Bar-Nadav is able to show the mundane task of changing a light bulb as well the transcendental longing a person might be left with in the wake of trauma—the longing that their suffering might come with some deeper understanding. In this final couplet, the poem pulls back from its action and assesses that action without ever leaving the confines of describing a ladder and a person’s relationship to it.
But interrogating the relationships between people and objects is not the only thing The New Nudity does. Much like her previous books, death constantly hovers around these poems—sometimes at the fringes and sometimes at the center. That the book moves from how objects make us people to how death makes objects of us all seems especially apropos to the book’s contemplation of the Holocaust. While not always directly addressed, the concentration camps loom over Bar-Nadav’s poetry, as in “Oven”:
The hiss of history
my tongue and my name,
In these two couplets, there’s a back and forth between the present moment of an oven in a kitchen and the past of the Nazi gas chambers, and the vacillation between these hinges on two words “history” and “numbers,” both of which evoke (with “millions”) Holocaust imagery. But “numbers” also creates the ghost word “numbness” that happens with heat and the contemplation of tragedy so large that it becomes unfathomable. It is not surprising that this poem is followed by “Box”—another poem referencing the Holocaust (“Their oversized coffin/on wheels” as an image of trains to the camps).
And within “Box” floats more apparently the specter of one of the book’s many influences, Gertrude Stein. Lines like “A dozen voices and/a dozen voices,” “Box and a box/and a box,” and “each thundering one/and one and one” evoke Stein’s ideation that nothing can truly be mere repetition. In each utterance, the words are new and have added resonances so that by insisting on “voices” or “boxes” the speaker is looking at the myriads of ways grief enters the mind. And though repeated, grief’s many entrances never quite become less painful or less new. “Box” is, on the hand, about watching trains pass but it is also, simultaneously, about how pain creeps into the most innocuous moments (and how each time it is a wholly new endeavor). In The New Nudity, grief, in the wake of death, is not something that is ameliorated through familiarity; it is something to acknowledge, to sit with, to count “one and one and one.”
Bar-Nadav acknowledges how death and grief barge into life again and again through her powers of form and description. In her eyes, objects are recast with an uncanny glow, a transformation that is spooky not because death and violence writhe just below the images’ surfaces but because in these moments the objects become completely human, meaning what is familiar (our interior landscapes) becomes unfamiliar and eerie as it is projected onto the things of our lives. The uncanny, the spooky is in how empathetically Bar-Nadav treats the objects being contemplated—another way in which she interrogates the relationship between the looking and the looked at (by showing how one will always mirror the other, if only metaphorically).
This relationship comes (literally) to a head in the book’s concluding poem, “Zombie,” which starts “A zombie is a head/with a hole in it.” A zombie in the context of the themes in The New Nudity seems to be the ultimate conflation of object and person. The zombie itself is both person and object, agent and acted upon. But this conflation is dealt with both in the image of a zombie and the attention given toward language and how language constructs meaning. The poem (and book) ends, “We are made of/so much hunger.” As with “Ladder,” the pronoun opens this couplet (and thereby the conceptual restraints of the book). Throughout Bar-Nadav’s latest book, there are plenty instances of the “I,” the “you,” but there are far fewer instances of the “we.” And no other use of the “we” in The New Nudity includes the speaker and the object in the poem. The final couplet brings the two together for a moment, and a moment is all that is needed to show the dependence we have on objects (to be the vessels that carry our grief, our melancholy) and that our objects have on us (for existence, for purpose).
It is certainly a tall order to inject so much life and personality into objects, yet Hadara Bar-Nadav is able to do so seemingly with ease—perhaps a reason she was awarded a NEA fellowship last year. Throughout The New Nudity, whether a door invites the reader to look under its skirt and “see the darkness of another world” or a swan transforms into “death dressed in snow,” Bar-Nadav’s contemplation of the physical world quickly kaleidoscopes with the metaphysical one. In doing so, she investigates one of the ways we are human—our knowledge of death and our ability to see it squirm just under the seams of our lives.
Brian Clifton co-edits Bear Review. He is a PhD student at the University of North Texas. His poetry can be found in: Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other magazines. His reviews can be found in Sink Review. He is an avid record collector and curator of curiosities.