by Brandon James Anderson
Bertolt Brecht was a 20th century playwright, poet, and director. After gaining fame in his native Germany, Brecht sought refuge after the Nazi Party came into power. He moved to Sweden and eventually came to the United States, working in Hollywood until being blacklisted when the concerns of World War II were replaced with those of the Cold War.
The opening section of poet Monika Zobel’s An Instrument for Leaving opens with an epigraph from Brecht:
In the dark times, / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / about the dark times.
It’s a fitting point of reference for the reader as Zobel’s collection, winner of the 2013 Slope Editions Books Prize, is a moving collection of poems that hit at the gravity that is the pain of human existence.
In the first poem of the collection we are introduced to the prevailing theme of separation, invoking for the reader the image of Milan Kundera, or Yves Bonnefoy, if not Brecht himself.
Separation comes into play in “Before I Leave This Country,” in which Zobel writes:
…Before I leave the country / the waitress serves me birth certificates / of our ancestors dipped in cornmeal / and egg yolk. Everyone soaks up a secret / with last century’s bread and lets / the future have the leftover crust.
Indeed, a common trope among the collection is the notion of seeing what’s been lost through the banality and commonality of life. Such is the case with one of the finest of the book’s poems, “The Market Woman Blames Apples for Her Loneliness,” in which the titular is cleverly and wonderfully described evaluating and squeezing produce as if they were once-sentimental articles discovered in a lost shoe box amid a backdrop of “rum-bloated men” fondling broccoli.
Other symbols of innocence are used by Zobel in thoughtful juxtaposition to the themes of hardship and loss that many of her poems embrace:
A stray balloon swallows / boy’s happiness / and you, you with storm-heavy / eyes blow silence / into the shape of a swan.
Closely intertwined with those themes of separation and loss is the idea of destruction, also prevalent among the poems here. In the poem that gives the collection its title, Zobel, profoundly laments that “the boot is an instrument for leaving.”
Making the ordinariness of life interesting is tough. Making such writing connect with the reader so as to share in both the grief and joy of the ordinary is an entirely more inordinate task. And it’s something Zobel handles extremely well.
This is a collection that tackles deep and serious emotions and truths that are universal. And for doing so inventively and beautifully, this is a collection well worth delving into.