by ROBERT COLMAN
NEWMARKET REVIEWS WINNIPEG
[Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2020, $17.95]
Most of my favourite lyric poetry involves poems that propose broad but endlessly relevant questions. E.g., What do we carry with us of our years of experience? How do we witness our lives and of those who touch us? And how do we continue to build upon that?
Tamar Rubin’s debut book of poems, Tablet Fragments, encapsulates these questions in her title, referring as it does to the fractured stone tablets Moses cast down in anger on seeing the children of Israel worshipping a golden calf. The children of Israel carried the fragments with them on their journey through the desert. Thus, brokenness “is an essential aspect of the wholeness of life,” as Rubin writes in her “Prologue.”
Given this frame, the author explores her own life’s fragments – a broken marriage, strained family relations, wrestling with her cultural identity, the challenges of medical practice – alongside the newer, more whole love she acquired through heartbreak and constant questioning.
Though this is a debut, Rubin’s voice is a mature one, confident and stylistically tight. Consider this description of her first husband’s view of orderliness in “Culture and Sensitivities” (p 17):
He tells me an abscess is a healthy body
sequestering infection after failing
rejection. Inflammation organizes –
platelets, fibrin skin cells like soldiers
guarding their target.
The orderly thinking of the person described is echoed in the orderly file of “infection,” “rejection,” “inflammation,” while “platelets” and “target” hold in the “fibrin skin cells.” And when Rubin comes to capture the “messiness” the same man can’t abide, rhyme and personal pain are reflected in a looser construction:
Milk left out on the counter, months
planned carefully, a bloodstain
on a perfectly good pair of panties.
The judgment suggested in the phrasing of that final line is palpable. It’s in these nuances that Rubin’s work shines.
The challenge that some debuts suffer from is a voice and structure that gets repetitive: a whole book of one-page poems using the same form throughout. Rubin dodges this effectively, mixing short and long lyric pieces with short pieces that act as statements of intent from the narrator, like these lines from the poem “Promise to Algonquin Park” (p 47):
This is my oath to trees:
I will not pine.
I will read between leaves.
I will try to find moments.
More than anything, though, Rubin expresses intimacy – both in anger and tenderness – with a sureness that is admirable. These lines from “Attachment Theory” (p 28) offer a good example of this:
When I was one, I was born
out of my mother’s back. I found memory
suspended in a fabric sack.
We used to dance, me half sleeping
while she tapped
the beat of a bo bo bo.
This is how I learned to speak:
the shake of her voice
from her breath, to my teeth.
Here Rubin combines an arresting image of being born through a mother’s memories with the sonic intrusion of that “bo bo bo” creating a mystical dancing scene. It feels that the connection/transference between mother and daughter is completed in the rhyme of “speak” and “teeth.”
I look forward to seeing what comes next for Rubin. Tablet Fragments is a remarkable beginning.
Robert Colman is a Newmarket, Ont.-based writer and editor. His most recent book of poems is Democratically Applied Machine (Palimpsest Press 2020).