Eyes, Stones is my book club’s first poetry selection, and I can’t wait for our discussion on Jan. 19. Poet Elana Bell is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, so it’s not surprising that the poems in this collection touch upon the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The poems are grounded in history and human suffering, and Bell gives voice to both sides of the conflict.
Bell uses narrators to tell stories in verse, and she manages to convey a significant amount of pain and emotion in so few lines. I was most affected by the poems featuring Zosha, a Holocaust survivor, particularly “God,” in which she arrives home to find that her mother and everyone else have been taken away and questions her faith.
You sit put. So that’s how
I survive. What do I know
from God? … (page 21)
There are poems about survival, like “Visiting Auschwitz,” which considers the randomness of how one person survived and another did not.
what glint willed the breath
what saw her and said live. (page 28)
Some hit you immediately with their descriptions of violence and feelings of hopelessness and despair, like “Kishinev,” which is about a three-day pogrom that occurred in 1903.
We are inside the dream of a God who’s forgotten us. There is no other way to say it. Through the stippled glass I watched the neighbors hammer nails into the Jewish babies’ eyes. (page 16)
But Bell goes beyond the persecution of the Jews and tenderly writes of the Arab connection to their homes and land. “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm,” focuses on Amal, a Palestinian whose family has farmed their land for generations, and her love for this land, juxtaposing her life with that of someone who moves around and has no connection to the earth. I was struck by the beauty of these lines:
…Amal loves this land
and when I say land I mean this
exact dirt and the fruit of it
and the sheep who graze it and the children
who eat from it and the dogs who protect it
and the tiny white blossoms it scatters in spring. (pages 36-37)
The Girl (age 12) read the poems aloud with me, and though we both know little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we appreciated the stories told here about people who are divided yet have a common understanding of what it means to suffer. My daughter’s favorite poem was “Refugee,” about the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, in which the Arabs of Ramla were displaced by Jewish immigrants.
Who lived here? The doors swing
like slabs of meat on their hinges.
Inside, the cupboards gaped
to reveal their goods, stacked tight,
except a few cans rolling on the floor,
a pot on the stove still steaming.
Who lived here? I tiptoed
into the smallest room and crouched
by the foot of the bed. Mama
pulled me up and cupped my face.
Tonight you’ll sleep in a proper bed
she crooned. (page 9)
While content to merely listen to me read the other poems, The Girl wanted to spend time with this one. She was struck by how it described the end of a certain way of life for one family and a new beginning for another.
Eyes, Stones is a slim volume of poetry that can be read fairly quickly, but it begs to be pondered in more depth. My husband (who is new to reading poetry) loved it and wants to buy his own copy so he can spend more time with these poems. Bell is skilled in her ability to tell both sides of the story in a compassionate, respectful way, exploring the gray issues of a contentious conflict.
Disclosure: I borrowed Eyes, Stones from Serena.
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