Mapping the Chaos

58 pages,
ISBN: 155065070X

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A Self of One's Own
by Malca Litovitz

Here, a contemporary woman orients herself in the concentric circles of being. As Erich Fromm writes in The Art of Loving: "Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one `object of love'."

Tregebov believes that one has to love oneself, then extend that love outward to one's birthplace, family, and current place of residence, as well as to the rest of the world, including the stars and sky. Love guides the compass that forms circles around oneself.

Her epigraph holds the key to her philosophy when she quotes Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" Some of these poems deal with self-love. When she watches the break-up of her cousin's marriage, sees for the first time "two good people bad for each other," she questions her own self-confidence and thus, her ability to love.

it's me, what I keep
doing wrong, how I can't forgive myself,
won't forgive others so I bash
...against other people.

When she jogs as a grown woman through her neighbourhood, she feels her confidence in her lungs and limbs that will carry her through her life.

An inner core of tenderness for the self makes Tregebov a potential role model for young female writers, who have to come to terms with the self-destructive tendency residing in much of the life-denying side of the artist's persona. This is aptly defined in A. Alvarez's The Savage God, where Mikhail Bakunin writes in the book's epigraph: "The pattern for destruction is also a creative passion." Tregebov's generation of female poets has to deal with writers like Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Anne Sexton. This is a painful, terrifying legacy that we must acknowledge and surpass. In "Mental Illness", Tregebov writes: "...fear is logical, seductive. Fear is wise. And I was young enough to hate that best friend, the fear friend, the one who knew how hard it is to draw one breath and then another." In the end, she needs to think of her friend as alive. "I need you still, vibrant, those hands translucent with life, real on the steering wheel."

Tregebov also sees herself alone in the universe, at times; for example, when she goes into retreat at a writer's workshop. "I want to stop being wonderful," she writes, acknowledging that one cannot live wholly for others. She must establish this Woolfian "room of one's own" in relationship to older women, as well as to men. In finding herself on the map, she must look at her mother's life and how it shaped hers. She must engage in the difficult drawing of boundaries between her own life and that of her mother, "who never drew the line between herself and her mother."

She speaks for some modern women who are assessing a life of service. In "In the Nursing Home, 1966", she writes of the volunteer work she did as a child growing up in Winnipeg and how she "thrill[ed] mostly to [her] own goodness," felt this benevolence saturate her life forever. However, she also thinks of "what [her mother] is in the midst of paying for her goodness, and the hard voice in me says not me." The speaker here longs to strike a balance between preserving her own identity and giving freely of herself.

This persona is not a selfish Randian figure jogging through life to goals of her own choosing. Her concentric circles extend everywhere. In the early parts of the book, she rides the subway meditating on the life of the poor. She witnesses a mother abusing a child in "North on Yonge", and acknowledges that money makes a difference. Tregebov's speaker is middle-class; she "can afford compassion, the rent money in the pocket...can walk to the money machine, punch in the magic code and stuff [her] wallet with twenties till it chokes." She realizes she is a privileged bystander to the poor and the angry.

She also feels vivid connections to the displaced. Like the marginal Jews, her forebears, she knows what "Filling out the Form" means-the title of a fine fine poem of hers. Much of her work is framed by her Jewish roots. In "The Bloor Line", she writes:

Where am I? Here. Going home
...and across from me sits my little shadow, the Jew
in the hat, beard, neat black suit. We're used to this.
Sometimes I remember everything is borrowed.
We're on the train. Going home.

Tregebov's roots are in Winnipeg and Toronto, but also the Ukraine and Europe. A person, particularly a Jewish one born in 1953, after World War II, may not have lost relatives in the Holocaust, may not fully be able to relate to that horror or write about it, but when one maps the chaos, a writer with as broad a vision as Tregebov's cannot forget the historical perspective. It can give her an edge, too-a heightened awareness of the suffering of others, an ability to identify with our own society's marginal people: its panhandlers, its abused and abusing mothers, those on the violent fringe. In "At Spadina Station", she writes of a woman shaking her head "as if she were uttering a constant no; no to the wait and the bad air on the platform, no to her rusty handbag and her broken coat and shoes and no to all of it, to what takes her and takes us all...."

Her poem "Edge Zone" plays brilliantly with both the prairies and a Jewish prayer shawl as metaphors for borders. As a child, she loves sitting on her veranda, "being in two places at once," partly in her house, partly in the open air. As a Canadian Jew, she is part of two worlds. She loves fingering the fringes of her scarf, of her father's tallis, feeling fabric and air. She enjoys breaking the boundaries between the men and women sitting separately in the synagogue as the Orthodox tradition decreed. Out of this rich material, she spins fine poetry:

In the smell of chalk and paper of the synagogue I straddled
then broke the boundary between the women and men, small
enough to be allowed to sit beside my father, braiding
the fine silk fringes of his prayer shawl, lulled
by the singsong, the call and response of my father
tongue, the vowels and eastern wail of it.

While she identifies with her rich Jewish heritage, she does not concern herself here with God. Rather, she turns to the worlds of history, mathematics, and physics, to orient herself in what she calls "The Big Picture". Like T. S. Eliot in The Four Quartets, she writes of a "collision of times. And who can tell me why it is that often when we make love I am among the arches/ under the New Sacristy in Florence...."

Perhaps her fascination with the real world will move her away from the world of lyric poetry into the world of fiction. In an interview with Susan Helwig on 88.1 FM's In Other Words, she said that her style is looser here than in her earlier work. She includes prose poems and even a clever experimental poem, "Problems", in which she imagines arithmetic assignments containing relevant social issues. This drive towards prose makes the book readable, almost novelistic. However, lyricism is at times lost, as more prosaic elements enter the equation. Tregebov is a writer with broad interests: she finds inspiration in newspapers, radio broadcasts, and speaks of "physics envy". This gives her poetry breadth, but for readers of poetry longing for lyrical, intense moments of rapture, this work may leave something to be desired.

Malca Litovitz is the poetry editor for Parchment. Her work currently appears or is forthcoming in Writ Magazine, Parchment, Prairie Fire, and the Windsor Review.


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