Carnal Fragrance Florence Weinberger. Red Hen (CDC, dist.), $12.95 (72p) ISBN 1-888996-95-1
In this blunt, book-length meditation on her husband’s death from metastatic melanoma, Florence Weinberger rips the morphine drip of poetry from her reader’s arm. These poems are powered by a savage, penetrating intelligence. Penetrating because it exhumes buried stratigraphies of feeling and motivation. Savage because it is the instrument with which she punishes herself for failures as wife and lover.
She writes, “I documented everything that took its emotional toll on both of us, the reaction to the diagnosis, the course of treatment, including several hospital stays, and how our relationship was affected.” Death, of course, does not end a relationship. It is the ultimate estrangement and precludes any reconciliation. Anything that was left unsaid, any lingering, half-remembered, misremembered injury or offense remains unresolved, growing and intensifying with the length of time since the partner’s death.
These poems are plain spoken, plain as a slap in the face. Yet even the simplest language becomes an opportunity for insight. In the description of her husband’s cancer protocol (“A treatment every four weeks….The twisted wreckage of the sweet word treat” (19)) we notice the stiletto pun and mordantly reverberating rhyme.
The outrage embodied in that last phrase fuels and strengthens her. In the poem “My Tenderness,” for instance, she observes that “my sorrow turned to muscle // while I lift him to his feet, / my voice ordinary, as if it is ordinary / to die accompanied by tenderness” (26).
This tenderness is complicated by a recognition of her husband’s wounded nature. A survivor of the Nazi death camps, he found it almost impossible to enjoy life’s small pleasures. “He held fast to everything, wore some clothes / threadbare, saved the favorites / by scant use.” His inability to simply enjoy life seems to have been a frequent source of tension in their relationship. His stiffness is mirrored in her unwillingness to give the unworn “favorites” away, holding onto them “as if they waited only his return / and if he came back, they’d urge him / to put them on, enjoy the wanton pleasure / of their feel against his skin, / teach him what he could not learn before” (50).
His failings, and hers, are ineradicable. Thus, guilt is never far from her consciousness. A self-lacerating note is struck early and often as if the speaker, wounded by history, cannot trust life.
Friends were falling all around us.
I felt lucky, untouched, puzzled how it skipped around
as if we lived on a street in Bosnia
where every wall had bullet holes and every
doorstep except ours was stained with blood.
As the rest of the book testifies, this is just a temporary Passover. Like everyone else, they are marked for suffering.
Yet when suffering comes, and death, the speaker tries, with characteristic ambivalence, to maintain her grip on what was positive in her marriage. In “Pasting Stamps on Envelopes,” for instance, she offers friends and relatives:
I love you all
for telling me
how much you loved him,
how pure his soul,
how open his hands.
to remind me
what was lost.
The extremity of her pain is suggested in the simple act of removing her wedding ring: “Months later, when I was twisting the ring off my finger, / my finger became engorged like a sausage, / it turned crimson with outrage. I thought / it would pop off. I stopped / breathing” (55). The sexual charge of the imagery is exceptional, as is the doubled, rhymed suggestion (“pop off” / “stop breathing”) that in removing the ring, she herself is dying.
These poems function as “a dream of what you burned into me” (68), physical tenderness, sexual intimacy. “It is a dream of a man who yearns to be touched again / lying still in the skin of a woman who wants desperately to touch him” (68). Loss is impalpable, intangible, precisely what cannot be touched; yet she touches it whenever she touches her own body. She has discovered an irrefutable paradox. And paradox is the only language for what has disappeared but is everywhere: “death plants for eternity the seed of silence” (65).
And yet as we all must, the speaker nears acceptance even as she asymptotically veers from it. In a poem about a trip to the beach, she addresses her dead husband, “This is what I came here to do: / To purify with waves of salt water the stinging assaults of memory. / And like you, to move on” (64). The churn and hiss of the ocean becomes an aural analogue for memory.
Memory is all she has, and in her effort to reconstruct the man she loved, she discovers not only the impossibility of her task but also her own implacable selfishness. With his death, the fragments of memory which constitute the man begin to flee her control. “You are being deconstructed down to letters and spaces like the original Torah / to be flung out among the multitudes like pieces of bread” (42). Despite the sacramental nature of the bread (the communion wafer), it is a disturbing image. She returns to the notion of fragments again at the end of the poem. “I ask angels to bless my hands / while I gather your facets like shards from a broken vessel.” We are reminded of contemporary Israel where after suicide bombings religious rescue workers gather body parts in accordance with Jewish Law.
Finally, despite her best efforts, she admits she has failed. Without the distraction of the living man, she can begin to see what it was she really loved, a matrix of dream and wish-fulfillment. The real man goes missing. The poems themselves are fragmentary products of a fractured consciousness: “These pieces of anguish are unpatterned / and appear suddenly,” she admits. “They do not add up. / Death remains a philosophy and religion” (54). What a strange assertion! His death is all she has. And in devoting herself to Death, by professing Death above all else, she is somehow saved. “In my denial,” her denial of ordinary life, of life without her husband, she tells us that, “I feel infinitely healthy” (54).
— Lee Rossi