A Messenger Comes
By Rachel Tzvia Back
Singing Horse Press, 110 Pages, $15
Mourning propels us. We are, none of us, immune. It is the first thing children fear: loss — of a parent, a friend, a sibling, a grandparent — and the first lie we tell them, or half-truth we impart, as parents, promising, as vaguely as possible, that we will always be there.
Poet Rachel Tzvia Back, an American by birth, an Israeli for the majority of her life, palpates the edges and depths of grief and mourning — in anticipation of, in the moment of and in the teary months after — the deaths in one year of her father and older sister. The text in her latest book of verse, “A Messenger Comes,” is unflinching and raw. We are under the covers with her, outside and inside the hospital room, at the edge of the grave, in her subconscious, in her sleep, in her dreams; we ache with her as those she is losing and has lost abandon her once again upon waking.
Back’s previous books weren’t light. In “On the Ruins of Palestine,” she narrated the years of suicide bombings in Israel in stark language — “when we no longer care /who or how many/are dead/our own/running through sprinklers /in the still/ablaze/afternoon” — and graphically described the heavy losses endured, on both sides. But even the deaths of her countrymen and women; even the deaths of others’ children, painful and bloody and horrifying; even her own political wrestling can’t quite come close to the experience of loss so personal, so profound.
In “Lamentation (For my Father, on his dying),” Back’s season of mourning has begun, as we witness her father dying slowly, shrinking from the man she’d known into a patient, a child. But as painful as these pages are, it is the last poem — “Elegy Fragments” — dedicated to her sister Adina, that will unravel even the hardiest of reader. “My sister died/in mid-summer, in the middle/of the night, in the middle/ of her life.”
In these verses, we see the bewildering cessation of a sibling bond, far earlier than anyone of us ever dare to whisper can be possible: “We were just three/girls from Buffalo… When you left the childhood home/I slept in your room/In your bed/I imagined I was you.”
Back tries to understand losing her sister, rages against it, even as she holds onto her memories, desperately, impossibly. “Fugitive dreams — Steal you back home to me… Then day breaks into terrible light/Sleep’s mercy denied.” She toggles back and forth, later recalling a moment of her sister’s lucidity at the end, suppressed, otherwise, by palliative care. “In a morphine sleep for long days when you/open your blue eyes suddenly to see/us all gathered around you/smile weakly while we/call for the others to come quickly to/not miss a moment with you we are/Elated/ to have you back. /Afterwards, when everyone leaves/you whisper to me/in your new/unused hoarse voice — How moving that was.”
Back is not alone, though she feels as though she is; her daughter jolts her from the depths of her mourning. “My daughter hovers near/Watching closely from quiet/corners from under covers/from the curve between my/shoulder and breast where she/rests her head as I/ weep/thinking she sleeps/ One day she wants to ask/ a ‘theoretical question’:/did I think one could/run out of tears?”
This elegant, slim book of poetry is heavy in its loss, in its impact; we are among the mourners of Zion, with Back as she struggles. Other mourners — that is, all of us — would gain much from reading this beautiful fist to the sky.
Sarah Wildman is a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins. She is currently working on a book for Riverhead Press.