Jehanne Dubrow, From the Fever-World, Washington Writers' Publishing House, 2009
Reviewed by Kristin Bylar
WITH FEVER COMES REST
The poems of Jehanne Dubrow's From the Fever-World come as an offering, surrendering both the spiritual and physical in an exchange passed between the pages, one that draws awareness to our own existence in her fever-world while, at the same time, drawing us from it.
In a voice similar to the Shulamith of her chapbook, The Promised Bride, and with an immediacy more penetrating than her first collection of poems, The Hardship Post, Dubrow gathers for us the writings of Ida Lewin, the persona of an imagined Polish woman who lived in the town of AlwaysWinter. In the book's dedication, Dubrow devotes the poems to her two grandmothers, "...who sent [her] the ghost of Ida," and perhaps it is a gift of the senders that Ida's voice is one of familial intimacy and warning. The first poem begins with, "Dear one, I saw it in a dream./ Avoid the red house in the forest," which holds onto the prophetic conscious of Ida's dream.
From the Fever-World is divided into fours parts, but one of its wonders is the way that Dubrow blends them. Ida's consciousness is kneaded, folded, rolled out, and reshaped. The first line of every poem serves as its title, and the ingredients of the first section continue to interact in the others. In Part One, Ida describes AlwaysWinter and wants to know how and why she should, "...translate ripened fruit/ to sharpened stones." In Part Two, she has "hunger-dreams," but later "lose[s] the taste for flesh and dough." Much of Part Three includes Ida looking to her childhood and seeing, "...Hopscotchland is...a game of catch/ release and catch again." In the final section of poems, with poems like "In my mother's kitchen," and "That carp," Ida's voice edges bitterness and forgiveness towards her parents. She is aware that—like them—she is aging and she asks, "How can I rest inside/ the old intimacy/ of this body?"
Throughout the pieces, there is the aroma of bread, and Dubrow is a knowing baker; she permits the imagery to ferment, so that it is impossible to escape the cold of the poems. Ida's dream of, "...the red house in the forest, beyond/ the plague of frozen fields," is icy and sharp. Conscious of her waking surroundings, Ida then explains that in: "This town called AlwaysWinter—/ thistles remain needles, each/ blade/ of grass a blade that slices/ to our soles—how constant/ the wind, the tundra in our bones." So Ida internalizes the cold imagery again; images move subtly between consciousness and internalization, searching for footing in the fever-world.
The collection also contains various versions of Ida's poetry, published on consecutive pages. For example, in "winters in Poland [version one]," Ida writes that, "someone should write a book/ which chronicles/ the taste of kugel on the tongue. Start with blessings and end with melodies that don't endure." In "Shabbes is a bride," the second version, Ida writes, "I want to write a book/ which tastes like kugel on the tongue./ I want to bless this place and all/ the melodies that sputter out." Dubrow uses the succession of poems like these to show Ida processing her thoughts and to reveal more of her story. The second and third versions feed off of the previous forms. Not only is Dubrow patient in waiting for certain ingredients to react within the poems, but, by including a number of versions for select poems, Dubrow controls the impetus of the whole collection.
As the baker, Dubrow also knows that we need bread. We need food, and not only do we need it in order to live, but we desire it, and she provides it through metaphor. In "I cursed my body [version 1]," Ida comes to this: "—I curse myself/ only to remember/ that I'm both milk and meat, impure,/ my woman's body treyf as pork,/ my voice serrated, a filthy knife." Dubrow uses traditional Jewish doctrine concerning kosher and treyf, non-kosher, to describe the spiritual struggle. Ida knows doctrine, but desires what is treyf writing that, "There are evenings when I dream/ the taste of bacon, the soft whisper/ of a stranger's hand on mine./ His words are salt and sugar/ kosher but only in/ the sacred law of my own skin."
Often, the food in these metaphors turns to stone. In the first poem of Part Three, "In the fever-world, my dearest," there are, "cherries pitted with buckshot/ to choke the unsuspecting throat,/ and peaches whose centers hold/ dark stones of cyanide." Not only is the stomach weighted, but it is poisoned, and this poison is all the more potent because of the cravings fed in the previous part. In "late summertime" there is, "a plate of stones where plums/ had been, my fingers sore/ and bitten, my belly rounded/ like a plum/ as if I have myself become/ the seed, the source, the juice/ of appetite." In Part Two, Ida becomes the source of her own cravings, but is warned about the fruit she craves in the next.
In coming to the last of Ida's manuscripts, when the bread has been baked and sits on the table, it is no longer desired. Ida has searched for a place to rest, but the fever-world remains AlwaysWinter. She has eaten its fruit, but the food has turned to stone. In this way, the collection becomes nearly Ecclesiastical with life in the fever-world meaningless. However, it is at this point that Ida considers, "the fever-world a blessing/ on this decrepit house/ we call a body...." Through living in the fever-world, Ida learns that "All cooking brings a death/ to its ingredients/ an alchemy that promises/ eternal taste, although/ a life must be consumed before it spoils...." The temporary deaths provide a tasting of the eternal, and cause Ida to realize that, though she lives in it, she does not belong to the fever-world, and that is when we come to the realization: neither do we. And that is what makes living in the fever-world worth it.