They Left a Reed Basket of Wind – This Dislocated World – Two Poems by the American Poet and Novelist Victoria Redel

American novelist and poet, Victoria Redel. Photo Credit: Counterpoint Press


In the first weeks
we already knew this was history,

that you’d speak of our nakedness,
the flat grasses we wove & slipped over

each other. First there was wild onion,
the sharp tang of shoot & bulb. Later

came frills of green leaf, stalks, tips too.
Then peaches. Standing together in sunlight,

of course, praise & song. We hardly cared
that you would get so much of it wrong,

that you would always speak of an apple or claim
that one of us was so persuaded by the snake.

Darlings, we imagined you. How over & over
You would break each other & wound this garden.

Only then, still licking the dried peach juice
sticky down our fingers, did we know shame.

Victoria Redel (1959) from Paradise, Four Way Books, 2022

As I think about a fall from grace, not the fall in Victoria Redel’s lovely retelling of the Adam and Eve story, but the awful fall from the grace of peace to the catastrophe of war occurring in Ukraine as I write, I am haunted by these lines of Victoria’s which manifest thematically through the collection:

Darlings, we imagined you. How over and over
You would break each other & wound this garden.

Oh, how we keep breaking each other and this planet. Yet where we can still eat peaches and lick their sticky juice from our fingers. The joy of that. And the curse of shame! Maybe we could agree: in most cases, enough of shame already!

I am grateful to Victoria and her latest book Paradise, published earlier this year. In a recent Zoom reading she said her poem Garden came after a dry period for writing and the rest of the poems in Paradise followed. Not surprisingly the poem that she wrote next after Garden is Snake!

Here are the last lines from Snake about the snake featured in the poem sheding its skin. Chilling!

I loved the papery, scaled ghost
I’d life up, not to commemorate
her chance to begin again, but
the cold indifference to whom she’s been.

As someone who has changed his life significantly after two divorces these lines give me a big pause for thought. This look at not how we start over but what we discard from our past too quickly. This is the kind of challenge to her readers Victoria writes page after page. It’s what makes so many of her poems stand out for me.

Victoria is a poet (three collections), author of five novels (her novel Loverboy was made in to a 2005 feature film) and professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York City. And also notable is Victoria’s literary lineage of notable mentors and teachers and influencers! A who’s who of poets and writers. In her own words from Rumpus, May 20th, 2019:

Grace Paley was never a teacher but was a terrific mentor. She gave me a way to imagine my life as a writer, a mother, a teacher, and an active citizen. I had the good fortune to briefly assist Adrienne Rich and that meant hanging around a formidable artist and mind. Way back in graduate school at Columbia, Dan Halpern assembled a remarkable group of poets. I was lucky to study poetry with Joseph Brodsky, Derrick Walcott, Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, Stephen Dunn. Stanley Kunitz was my last workshop teacher and he continues to be a wonderful influence in my life.

Gordon Lish was my fiction mentor. Lish is known as a writer and editor but he should also be extolled as teacher; in those rooms I watched the astonishing evolution of writers whose work I continue to cherish and am happy to call my dear friends. Gerald Stern selected my first book of poems for publication, and then became a good friend and mentor.

Victoria is a first generation American from a Jewish family of Belgian-Polish, Romanian and Egyptian descent. Her inherited sense of dislocation comes alive in her collection. Especially the poem If You Knew that so speaks of the tragic circumstances of the four million who have fled their homes in Ukraine in the past month. What a hymn it becomes for this latest major wave of refugees along with all the others that continue around the world.

If You Knew

He wanted to take the muddy stream where he sang with frogs.
She wanted to take dawn in the linden tree.
They left a reed basket of Wind.
He wanted the resin of August.
She left the feather grass of an evening walk.
They left all the tender minutes unbuttoning her blouse.
She wanted to pack the folded sun from the linen closet.
he wanted to take the shuffle of her slippers on the stairs.
She wanted her mother’s fingers rummaging through the button box.
He wanted the Steppe’s black soil.
They left moss between the stones, the steel winter light in the room
where she sewed, the jiggle of a key in the front door.
They left a cupboard of embroidered afternoons.


What would you take?
If you had a month, a week, an evening, an hour?
If there were no one looking, no saying: Don’t take that! Why take that?
What would you take if you thought it was temporary
relocation, transient, provisional, short-term shelter?
If you couldn’t used your ATM card, your credit card, cash in your stock,
sell your home, get a supervisor on the phone, charge your phone.
If you couldn’t keep your phone?
What would you take if you knew you’d never come back?
What would you take if you lost track of the children?

Victoria Redel from Paradise, Four Way Books, 2022

How Victoria brings out the seemingly intangible losses of dislocation and makes them so real. This attention to the lasting details of a life. What we can remember but not possess. How she takes the things we know so well and often take for granted and brings then into focus on a human scale: the folded sun from the line closet. Also, the moments of deep intimacy associated with a place. The poignancy of: They left all the tender minutes unbuttoning her blouse.

How she shifts in poem’s the second section. Makes it up front and personal for the reader. Takes it from the distant and far away of the experience of others and asks: what would you do? How would you react? Dislocation, refugee, displacement are all big abstract words. Victoria makes these ideas tragically and poignantly concrete. Invites us to go from the head to the heart of what the loss of a home and country feels and tastes like!

I feel wider and taller after walking among the poems in Victoria Redel’s fallen paradise of poems. And I am grateful for her hard-earned wisdom that radiate out this collection.

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