Excerpts > Summer 2004

Adrianne Kalfopoulou
Review of Ruth L. Schwartz's Edgewater

Ruth L. Schwartz’ third collection, Edgewater, a 2001 National Poetry Series winner, continues Schwartz’s impassioned dialogue with the body and embodiments of human fallibility. Edgewater builds from Schwartz’ two previous collections, Accordion Breathing and Dancing (a 1994 Associated Writing Program winner) and Singular Bodies (the 2000 Anhinga winner for poetry) in its focus on the implicit tenacity of the terms of “true love”; Schwartz’s eros of engagement is a fierce wager against the plagues of our times. AIDS dominates and haunts her first book, also making its appearance in Singular Bodies along with kidney failure and urban violence, yet whether she is speaking of “the lovely buttered bodies of the disappearing men” (Accordion Breathing and Dancing) or “this passage/ through the sightless water” (Singular Bodies) involving a lover’s kidney transplant, Schwartz affirms the almost incandescent terms of regenerative physicality. Finite, organic nature is, for Schwartz, its capacity to imbue the world (and the poet) with an astonished wonder at human resilience.

In Edgewater’s dramatization of our mutual dependencies I am struck by Schwartz’s lyricism of loss, of the always yearned for contact with the other and the gamble for transcendence, or more fundamentally for expanding the terms of the human that, again and again, are threatened by the fact of the human. In “Millennium Love Poem”(a Nimrod Pablo Neruda Prize winner), she writes:

A man enters a store
from the gusting street,
muttering about trust,
how there isn’t any,
and ‘cause of that, he says, I’m gonna have to
murder all of you,
in your beds
and then leaves again.

Jesus, how we hate and crave
this clanking of one awkward heart
beside another.

Like Edgewater itself, “an actual edge,” in the poet’s words, where a “large body of water rests against the flesh of land,” the terms of our survival are intimately connected with, and born of, a nature that simultaneously supports and destroys us. Though poisoned (pollution), diseased (AIDS, drug addiction, kidney disorders) or damaged (the various consequences of poverty and violence), human existence for Schwartz is also a source of gratification, the connecting tissue of our redemptive possibility. The water is “unhealthy” in “The Sky at Edgewater Park,” the fish with “eyes and mouths wide open, lay against the tide.” And while the “seagulls disdained them” the speaker tries “to open wide/the jaws of love,” remembering hunger and her longing to hold her lover “completely,” the desire “not wrong,/only unattainable.” Despite inevitable loss and the fact of death, desire is affirmed because essential: “I did not know why the fish had died,/but I touched them, their silvery scales in my hands,/full of the lake which bred/and was the death of them. I touched my hunger/gratefully…”

Necessity as urgent as hunger propels the poems in this collection into epiphanies of our imperfect condition, but it is also the conduit by which Schwartz constructs a version of Lorca’s duende, an expression of suffering that celebrates our needs. In a poem from her first book, “I Keep Coming Back To This Longing” she prefigures the achieved ambition of Edgewater>/i>: The men “in loving each other are loving, not death/but the life which rises to meet it, when it must,/just as the land’s edge seems to tilt/raising itself to meet the sky.” Among the “ravaged bodies of styrofoam cups” in “Sandusky,” the “polluted, finite” water in “Sunset at Edgewater Park,” and our “stumbling in our separateness” in “Not only the words, but the bodies we have,” we have, in Schwartz’ vision of embraced life, “This”:

we will not be saved.
All our perfect appetites,
our stubborn praise
will not be enough.
The truth is
larger than salvation.
In the shifting flooding times,
our lips take root against the melting
river of the other, and the body
no matter who we are, no matter
who they are—

we were born because of this,
we were born for this.

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