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.
the hands and feet.Cascade
of muddied ribs.We keep her
locked in the garage.

 

In six lines, the ladder progresses from what it can do,