In her new book, Thank You for Being, Merle Bachman produces a hybrid work, a prose-poem of sorts. Although the book sketches various locations its poet-narrator has lived or traveled, her real home takes place in words. “Never wanted to be tied down” becomes the mantra of this reflection of a life: no house but books; no children but poems; the grandmother’s mother-tongue a place where Bachman must learn a language new to her—Yiddish—and become the translator of other poets’ work.
Bachman has published numerous books of poetry—The Opposite of Vanishing (Etherdome), Wrecker’s Ball (Finishing Line), Diorama with Fleeing Figures (Shearsman), and Blood Party (Shearsman)—as well as Recovering Yiddishland (Syracuse University), a book of literary criticism and translation. Bachman traces in Thank You for Being the way a life lived in words and reclaimed by re-reading a lifetime of her own journals intersects with those “ordinary” milestones of other people’s lives that she renounces, refusing to “settle” except in books, and in the pages of this particular book. “A book to contain everything—that’s what I want to write,” she explains her as intent:
But isn’t that a life? Wrapped in delicate paper, written on
the inside, cells always in motion, figuring and reconfiguring
until the words sink into a patch of ground.
Although the opening chapters and her reminiscence of being Adrienne Rich’s student at Brandeis focus on the narrator’s birth and development as a poet, by the time she approaches her early 20s, “poems get shoved to the edges” for a time as “the poet-become-incessant journal-keeper.” Journal entries both elicit memories and new language, sometimes in poetic fragments, and allow her to reflect on the meaning of home by returning—and always leaving—the Albany, New York neighborhoods where she grew up. Moving from place to place, always transitory in her mind even when not literally, always choosing “apartments, compartments, meant to be temporary zones of habitation, not ‘owned’: so you never buy the final set of dishes, the ones for ‘company,’ … you get by with the desk picked up off the sidewalk on junk collection day—but you make sure to have sturdy shelving for books.” When she moves from place to place, she finds herself “living in an imaginarium built of words.”
She studies Yiddish and discovers the Yiddish poet Rosa Nevadoska, with whose life her own shares some parallels. She lives for a while in Jerusalem, travels often as her job allows: to London, to Edinburgh, to other parts of Scotland. Throughout, Bachman resists the orderly rule of narrative, creating a form that holds a fragmented mirror up to memory, finding its ground in images: “As a person, I’ve been a stone that skips across water. / It’s been a surreal bounce, never quite tasting the waves.”
By the book’s end, she has “retired” from her job and moved to a town in another state to live with a new boyfriend, giving her “such intimacy with one other” she thought (since much earlier divorced) would never happen again. And her task in this new life, and as the book moves towards its close, is to live in parallel. The man loves the material world, walking in it, building, planting, tending chickens. “And my ‘material’ is words; often no one sees them but me.”
She travels, still, in her thoughts, and so, after fifteen years of almost annual trips to London and Edinburgh, she revises her sense of home beyond words and language to include the gestural life of city streets, where she embraces “a place of sharing that is impersonal yet embodied,” where “people move at a tempo unfamiliar yet / charged & you wish to keep up with it.” The city, like herself and like the book she is writing, embodies its own restlessness, prefers also not to “settle.” Thank you for being, City, she seems to say.
Although the book’s title refers to a specific item from her journals, when I read the following passage, I understand Thank You for Being to address we willing to enter into the unfinished life of the poet, always under revision:
This one had to write, in order to assemble an ego:
(and still must write, to remain a tender animal),
And must write about this self—
The one who writes,
bearing witness to its way of being.
Thank You for Being becomes as much a model for exploring our own life as it is the record of its particular poet-memoirist. As she explores the archive of writing she has kept for decades and finds images and clues to what her life means and what writing means in her life, she suggests a process that might begin with the writing of a single poem but doesn’t end until “the words sink into a patch of ground”—or become a book like this one.
Thank You for Being: A Poet’s Memoir of Home, by Merle Bachman. Wet Cement Press, May 2022. 218 pages. $18.00, paper.
Marjorie Pryse is a writer living in the Baltimore area. She has published memoir and creative nonfiction in Broad Street, Evening Street Review, and Months to Years, and has recently completed a novel. You can see her full publication history at her website, marjoriepryse.com.
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