I put down Laura Johanna Braverman’s poetry collection, Salt Water, and lay in bed thinking, “Is it possible for something to be contrived and honest at the same time?”
This book touched me greatly. I cried many cathartic tears with her as I lived, through her words, an experience of immigration that is familiar to me, and will be familiar to so many others. Braverman writes, “I realise/ in the strange, simple way an insight/ that should have been obvious/ all along suddenly ripens/ and drops from the tree:/ I am the fruit of exile”, and I nod, having realised the same thing in the same way not long ago myself.
Braverman takes us on a nauseating-nostalgic journey, carried by an underlying theme of water, but with a broken fluidity. She splits her story into five discrete parts: California, Salzburg, London, Beirut, and Elsewhere. In each of these sections, poems about a vast range of topics, written in very different styles, are put side by side. For example, “Iris Immortal”, which opens with the mystical lines “I glide/ along an arc of light, soar/ to land from heaven’s eye”, sits next to, “337, 26th Street”, which as the title suggests, unlike its neighbour, is a poem very much grounded in physical space and time, describing how “Billie Burke lived in our house before we did./ So I was a girl with certain rights to the Good Witch/ of the North”. The entire book is curated like a collage in this way, and the result is a scrapbook of Braverman’s different selves. It is this broken fluidity that to me, both makes and breaks Braverman’s writing.
When I first received this book to review, the title “Salt Water” and the foreword which told me that Laura, “doesn’t simply write of things, but seeks to lessen the gap between word and thing”, made me think I was about to float seamlessly on a transcendental body of work. I put the book next to Ursula Le Guin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, which I keep on my bedside table, ready to lose myself in a new, related flow. And I was not wrong – the two works are related, telling of a womanhood that I am just beginning to discover. That is, a womanhood written by women, fluid and complex and symbolised by water. . In both cases, woman holds water and thus life. In both cases, woman is a constant and a site of healing. However, unlike Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching, which really does use words in such a way that they seem to embody their meaning exactly, Salt Water is not a transcendental text, and depicts the personal and specific over the universal.
When I began to read Braverman’s poetry, I didn’t like it at all. I found the language choices to be half-inspired: “heady scents of honey and pepper, citrus spice”, or convoluted: “we reach the alpine tundra”, and the content to be a mixture of self-evident concepts explained: “the name of a thing does/ not equal/ the thing itself”, and cultural references that were inaccessible to me: “I watch the movie Brooklyn again”. I struggled to keep reading.
Then I started to understand. Braverman was not writing for me, she was writing for herself. What I had been perceiving as an incoherent amalgamation of styles, voices, subject matter and locations were in fact a very coherent expression of Braverman’s experience, as she travels from place to place, getting lost in time and space along the way, and tries to make meaning where there may be none. Braverman doesn’t lessen the gap between the word and the thing; for better or worse, she ascribes words to the gaps. As soon as I stopped trying to act as Braverman’s intended reader, and adopted the role of her follower, walking in her footsteps with her, everything began to make sense. The strength of Salt Water is not in its poetic brilliance, but in its unveiling of a soul, complex and wonderful.
It seems somewhat ironic to criticise a book of poetry first and foremost on its use of language, but I guess what I am trying to say is that Salt Water reads a lot better when you abandon the notion of “poetry” at all, and instead see it as a sort of diary, or autobiography, whose writer chooses an interesting and unusual format in which to document her life. Seen like this, I think Salt Water is a rich, enriching and deeply intimate text, written with a rare and precious honesty that allowed me to feel very close to its writer. By the end of the book, I had seen the death of Braverman’s father, her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, her relationship to German and to Arabic, her love of classical music and her relationship to Judaism from so many different perspectives, merging and colliding and crossing the geographical borders that mark the book’s chapters, that I almost began to carry the weight of Braverman’s past with her.
I stand by the fact that the repeated use of words such as “counterpoint” and “fugue” feel forced and made me want to put the book down. I also stand by the fact that Braverman’s numerous references to films, art, and music rely too heavily on a background knowledge of the works in question, making some verses inaccessible to those without. On page 64, I said out loud to myself, “stop specifying things!”, as it bothered me so that Braverman insisted on mentioning every detail, in this case writing out in plain English “my younger son” and “my older son” as she described their actions, to the detriment of the sonority and weightlessness of the otherwise powerfully evocative poem, “Altausseer See”, which captures a moment in which the poet puts her head under water. Just a few pages later, as if to answer my cries, I got to a poem called, “A Dream of Fixing What Will Stay Broken”, in which I found the following stanza:
Through webs of branches
I see a weathered door-
when I turn, one more behind.
I know the names of these two doors,
my old friends. The one in front: Hold On,
the other one: Let Go.
What is this letting go?
An overworked command- words tossed
round, wrung out,
so they mean nothing anymore.
Yet- here stand
the doors with their changeless
When Braverman does let go, she often words things beautifully. The line “motionless at a window, gazed at patio/ furniture and some beyond too, perhaps” in Little Requiem or the line “girl smiles- the late/ amber light sings a/ hymn of missing those/ not yet loved, morning/ falling on a cheek” in “Sonata in A, Op. 69” have in common a gentle gaze, that in not trying to depict too much, and in resisting the temptation to transcend the everyday, depict so much more than when Braverman peppers her poems with extra factual details. This being said, the above passage perfectly words the exact dilemma that had been making her poetry so familiar to me. We who identify ourselves as fruits of exile often carry a certain responsibility towards our past, knowing that landmarks, spatial memories, and the continual practice of cultural traditions will not always be there to help us keep track of our history. In the poem, “Not Another Song About an Edelweiss”, there is nothing particularly beautiful about the line in which she describes her Gamma, “At thirty-two, a Wednesday forced a narrow escape from the country of her birth- November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht”, and it clutters the poem, making it feel clunky and prosaic (it is for this reason that I find the remark about Braverman’s writing lessening the gap between word and thing odd).
However, putting the matter of poetic language to one side, it makes perfect sense for Braverman to leave this piece of information in. It is the kind of detail that gets revealed that one time, in the lucid moments of encounters with relatives, after hours of easing out of them whatever stories or fragments of the past you can. It is the kind of detail that once you have, you don’t want to let go of, but that you have no place to put. When your life’s history doesn’t belong in any one place in the world and does not run in parallel with the events of any one history book, it is up to you to piece together your own muddled story. Nobody else is going to tell you who you are; what you are made of or where you have come from. What Braverman very successfully does by leaving these factual details in her writing is leave a legacy for herself and her family. She leaves enough of a trail behind her that were someone to ask, “who is Laura Johanna Braverman?”, they could piece an image of her together from the words of this book: an image that is broken, fluid and healing.