Book Review: Fountain and Furnace by Hadara Bar-Nadav
Hadara Bar-Nadav’s Fountain and Furnace explores life through everyday objects—the door, the oven, the sun, the spoon—and even goes so far as to break the body down into objects. Winner of the second Sunken Garden Poetry Prize selected by Peter Sitt, the chapbook’s twenty-three poems mesh minimalist form and diction with shifting perspectives and changing syntax to explore the intricacies of observation, understanding, and existence itself.
These poems are ambitious, challenging, and sometimes jarring. Because of the chapbook’s short form and the poems’ shifting perspectives, there is no time for the reader to settle in. The poems abstain from lyricism while simultaneously resisting narrative. No syntactic gesture lasts long enough to become familiar, so the speaker of one poem may be the poet or the object itself, and all of that may shift again before the poem is done. By necessity, each reader must find his or her own point of entry.
The nearest constants in the volume are form and diction. Most often, the poems are shaped by couplets that stretch phrases over their line breaks and employ simple language to create tension and emotion. There is inherent risk in this choice: When the form and diction are well paired, the results seem effortless, stark, easy even. However, Bar-Nadav’s chosen strictures also leave the smallest margin of error, submerging in one poem what is sublime in another.
With clearly identified speakers and subject matter tied up with the body, poems such as “Nightgown,” “Mouth,” “Spine,” “Ladder,” and “Heart” offer easy entry into Bar-Nadav’s work. Poems like these use tight form and diction to best effect. “Ladder” builds over couplets, the ladder gendered “she,” and the observations enumerated, two by two:
Carriage for meat
The hands and feet
Of muddied ribs
We keep her
Locked in the garage
Or tied up in the back
Of a truck
The poem’s undertow of menace backgrounds the final couplet, “We would not touch / the light any other way,” and earns this deeper commentary through the sustained darkness, violence, and power in the ladder’s depiction.
Other poems pick up and put down repetitive syntactic structures familiar from other list poems like Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno.” Poems such as “Thumb” and “Balcony” use structure to aggregate their mental circling. In “Thumb,” the speaker observes,
Who means what it is to be human
and is scarred by childhood
Thick and neckless. Your head shaped
like a gravestone.
Who holds a pen and lies
Who holds a chopstick
in the language of still-twitching fish.
The repeating structures list the thumb’s qualities ecumenically, genius beside mundane, each elevating the other. These observational list poems read like anatomies, each stanza and strophe offering information on a subject until, eventually, the mass constructs a whole.
“Cradle,” “Hand,” “Oven,” “Shadow,” and “Spoon” often hint at the personal while revealing little. In “Hand,” the speaker states, “I had given too much. / I had taken too much.” The poem ends with the hand expanding to the size of the wind until “it was no longer / my own, until / the weight buried me.” But the burden’s source is never signaled; it’s simply allowed to enter and exit the poem unmoored from narrative or explanation. These poems seem to offer words rather than disclosure, a mood rather than a story, a how without a why. Yet, taken within the larger volume, the same poems may offer another kind of observation, one where the observed moment is a glimpse, and the forces that make a whole remain beyond our grasp.
In Fountain and Furnace, as the poet pares down, the reader must work all the harder. In some ways, Bar-Nadav’s choices make the shared situation of the poem between reader and poet at once essential and liminal. Nonetheless, throughout the volume, Bar-Nadav’s stripped verse suggests, again and again, the occasion for the poem is the object itself. Your gaze, my gaze, the poet’s gaze, and all of our imperfect understandings will not change the simple fact that things continue, things exist—even down to the very objects that comprise us—whether or not they are observed or understood.
Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers’ work has been published in Gemini, The Missing Slate, The New Poet, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, and The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss, edited by Tanya Chernov. A native of Pennsylvania, she currently resides in Buckingham, Virginia.