The Stone of Language
Poetry by Anya Achtenberg
West End Press, 2004
If you have trouble believing that poetry with a “social message” can also be art, Achtenberg will change your mind. The Stone of Language is a remarkable book of urgent, intelligent, artful poems with a conscience. And, fortunately, there’s no “project” here—these are not speeches, disguised as poems. This is not a single-minded treatise, but a collection that explores a range of subject matter, including (though not exclusively) themes of social and political significance, in language that is always original, and more often than not, breathtaking. These are poems that change you while you’re reading them and after you’ve closed the book. Achtenberg prepares us for the difficult subjects she’ll tackle in the first few lines of the opening poem, “City Poem for Hanuman, the Monkey Scribe”: “You write in darkness under / eclipsed sun / black moon, collapsed stars. / You write by glow of catastrophe…” She prepares us, too, for the patterns and preoccupations she relies on in the poems that follow, links between the natural and the human-made worlds, attention to breath (“You scramble over rubble / to the one breath rising,”), the precarious balance between a realistic sense of the world’s true troubles and a sense of purpose, even of hope (“The city is falling / . . . Still, you write. / Ink is abundant / and will not stop flowing.”), and verse created of small, exacting details, matched by expansive, global metaphors (“his satin flesh” . . . “a history of journey”).
I was particularly moved by poems in the section titled “Occupations” (which, among others, includes street vendors, a torturer, and circus performers). Achtenberg’s language remains controlled, often elegant, even as she depicts the most difficult and painful scenes and images. Because the poems are so adeptly and intelligently composed, they evoke not pity or horror (or perhaps not these alone), but something more complex and ultimately more useful, a fuller, deeper (more poetic?) response. The damaged world we have created is as vivid, perhaps more vivid, in fact, than in a fine essay of photo journalism. For those of us who prefer words, the effect is more striking and more lasting. Here is one small example from “Work Abroad: Riddles”:
Who will buy a woman, or parts of a woman,
the sacred parts: soft fire of the temple,
breasts of life, the whisper behind her eyes,
her dreaming hands, the ancient animal that shadows her,
tongue of her cries, light she reaches for?
Who will buy her mother a refrigerator,
save her sister from the same business,
who will buy her
after a good meal, know her
and know nothing, take her
and have nothing?
– Sima Rabinowitz