Gail Fishman Gerwin
Aldrich Press

Reviewer: Adele Kenny

          Gail Fishman Gerwin wears the crown of a skilled narrative poet who writes about memory and connections to the past (its time, its people, and its places). In her new collection, Crowns, Gerwin offers her readers a jewel-studded diadem that is rich in memory, metaphor, symbolism, and detail. In her foreword, Gerwin explains that the “crowns” in her book are memories that she carries within.

          She adeptly shifts back and forth between the past and the present. She calls up those who peopled her own history and places them side by side with those who fill her life now.

          We meet her young loves: Tall Richie from Manhattan, Charles (who left her for a rabbi’s daughter), and the “proper gentleman” she married. We meet her family, her adored daughters, and her grandchildren:

“For Jordan: Seasons 2013” (64)
“For Ben: A Year to Remember, 2014” (66)
“For Brandon: Parking 101” (68)
“For Liv: Blazon as She Turns Eleven” (69)

          Among a host of fascinating others, we meet her Skype cousin Hadassa (who created the artwork on the book’s cover):

Technology takes us across miles and years that separate us,
lets us share our aging faces, lets us learn about each other
as we never could when my mother told me—you have
a cousin Hadassa, she lives in Israel, her mother and I
share the same name. (24)

There’s Slick the plumber:

Gentle Slick who visited whenever puppies were born
to watch them suckle, quiver in their sleep, tears in his
eyes at life’s miracle. (58)

And Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle:

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle didn’t care about her arteries,
she cared about the town’s children who’d flock
to her upside-down house on the way home from school.
No track team, no soccer, no debates to distract them
from this humpbacked lady who wore a tiara… (86)

          Gerwin doesn’t merely write about her memories of these people—she places on each a metaphorical crown and celebrates them as the special “gems” they are to her.

          Gerwin reflects on the years she spent as a teacher (“What Did They Learn from Me?”):

I wonder if any of them became poets,
the students I taught in my first married year.

… Do they write about the father in the attic,
the terror of crossing a quiet suburban street,
the teacher who carried a dragon almost
to term in front of their eight-year-old eyes?
Perhaps they write about the Friday spelling tests,
new words not memorized from lists, the tests
that brought Jonathan’s mother to the school
on Sycamore Street to lodge a complaint. (53)

          And we meet her dogs, Schepseleh and Eliza Jane. But these are not just poems about Gerwin’s pets. As we read, we share with Gerwin the sadness that all pet lovers ultimately know, expressed by Irving Townsend as, “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.” Gerwin, a longtime Cairn Terrier breeder, would “live no other way,” and she poignantly expresses what so many pet lovers have feared and felt in “Two Dogs”:

She doesn’t know she’s ill, her short
breaths at the top of the stairs now an
everyday sign.

She doesn’t know our fear, that one
morning we’ll come downstairs, find
her lifeless or worse—know that we’ve
come to the day of decision. (71)

          Gerwin’s is an authentic voice, and her poems are infused with an abiding sense of truth. Images and details rise naturally from the “crown” of the poems’ content. There is gentleness, subtle humor, and deeply felt love. There is also steadiness in Gerwin’s lines, deftness in her rhythms, and euphonies that underscore meaning.

          This collection, like Gerwin’s previous two, is the story of a life, rendered in vignettes that map the geographies of the poet’s past while the poet reflects upon the seasons and years that have brought her to the now of this collection. As she leads us through the various landscapes of her life and introduces us to the people she knows and has known, Gerwin shares the sense that, although the specific details of our lives may be different, we are all, nevertheless, connected—the processes of living, being, and remembering are the same.

          At the collection’s end, we see Gerwin crowned by her mother’s hats—hats that symbolize all that is past and present, things that teach us and bring us light, hats that crown the tenderness and pathos of what was, the gift and grace of what is.

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