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Poetry Review: “Blood Lines” – Living in the Dark

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By Leigh Rastivo

Presumably, as a policy scholar, Ann Bookman sought to turn ideals into practical reality. Conversely, here in blood lines, it unfolds reality to regain emotional clarity.

blood lines by Ann Bookman. Books by Kelsay, 114 pages, $19.

All personal accounts are perforated – full of facts but also full of gaps, unknowns and secrets. Family histories are the most difficult accounts to trace and notoriously unreliable. Second collection of poems by Ann Bookman, blood lines, struggles with this combination of reality and mystery. Through verses interspersed with prose, this book explores the intrigues, puzzles, and very DNA that binds a family together, including a harmful BRCA gene mutation that may produce the hereditary syndrome of breast and ovarian cancer in the women.

blood lines immediately announces the theme of obscure links, the poetess dedicating the book to her “ancestors, known and unknown”. The initial epigraph shouts about the now “scattered” “true affections”. Then, in just eight lines, with lyrical precision, the first poem, “Migration Routes” equates the “personal but shared” blood of stealth immigration, describing a body colonized by “prophetic genes” carried “through the salty ocean” of blood circulation. . The poem ends with the author’s palpable feeling of helplessness and resentment in the face of his biological misfortune: “No one asked to enter my body.

Singing at the crossroads of tangible and invisible family ties, blood lines is both very specific to one woman – the poetess who inherited the risky BRCA mutation – and common to all. Bookman is no stranger to the collective needs of women. A Boston-based poet whose first book of chapters was published 10 years ago, she is also an anthropologist and social policy expert on women’s issues. Among other appointments, she served as director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School until 2018. Presumably, as a policy scholar, Bookman sought to turn ideals into reality practice. Conversely, here in blood linesit unfolds reality to regain emotional clarity.

The poems in blood lines best achieve this emotional clarity when they use a concrete image to represent the darkness of barely known relatives or unseen concepts, as in “Migration Routes”. Another example: in “White Satin Wedding Slippers”, while studying a wedding photo of her grandmother Edith, who died at the age of 41 of ovarian cancer, the poet realizes that as a child she played without the knowing how to dress up in Edith’s slippers: “I was standing in front of the mirror in my parents’ bedroom… without knowing what shoes I was wearing. Here, history exists despite our ignorance. It doesn’t matter whether the poet knows these people in the flesh or can see this genetic mutation. Both live in it.

The poems in the first section evoke premature deaths in Bookman’s matriarchal line and question loss: in “Rivka” we hear unanswered questions about a great-grandmother who died at age 30; and “Reason Why” wants to understand the purpose of “some children [living] without a mother. The loss here is so confused with the connection that the two cannot be analyzed. Death does not break the relationship — death is relationship. In “Handmade”, the poet tells us that she has never met her grandmother but nevertheless knows her grandmother’s face “as [she knows her own] Face.” The absence of this matriarch is a mirror, inseparable from both the poetess’ self-awareness and her family experience. Death is the point of contact.

The poems in Section II dig into and detail death. We hear of surgeries, hospitals, recurrences and “a cavity – between the lung and the membrane – that fills with fluid”. In “Shaking Steps”, we learn that the poetess was in the air, on her way to visit, at the time of her mother’s death: “my plane has landed / she has climbed”. Poem after poem – 15 of the 18 in the section – chronicles the battle with cancer or its aftermath. It’s almost relentless, with the noticeable divergence of “Don’t Throw Bouquets” offering a radically different tone and subject. An ode to coming of age as a ’60s kid’, a ‘fuckin’ feminist [the] back room,” striving to remain celibate, this aberrant poem shakes the reader, reminding us that the heartbroken girl was also a spirited, sexual, and political being. With the brooding, there was life in the world.

Poet Ann Bookman.

The world – especially nature – becomes prominent in Sections III and IV. The later poems are more grounded. Many use nature to reflect experience; few now focus directly on deaths. “Hidden Treasures” finds an apt metaphor for maturity in the “salt marsh decaying as it blooms” and fiddler crabs molting “in tunnels of transformation/one body dropped, another entered”. We also see the poetess daring to navigate in the “fragile crystals” of a sometimes frozen river, without knowing if she should “liberate [her] lester.” In “Georgica,” the poet cheerfully rides her bike, describing herself as “a firefly with [her] own light.

The poems that end this collection reflect a sense of discovery, attempting to make sense of mystery. “I am a bridge to myself / connecting the divided parts…close to hope” the poet tells us in “Morning Ritual”. We find her “taken by surprise / by [her] its own power” while “Learning to float” and sensually romantic in “Constellations” and “Acqua Alta”. In “Simplicity” we hear contentment: “I no longer yearn for an ‘e’ / at the end of my name. These reconciliations find satisfying context in the final poem, “Hymn to be Sung at Astronomical Twilight,” which comes full circle to address the resentment expressed in the first poem — not with a con but with a concession. The very last stanza of blood lines listens back and embraces that earlier perplexity, telling us that we must patiently adjust to grief to be comforted:

If you think it’s hard

distinguish shapes and meaning

rotting dirt, then wait

until your eyes are accustomed to the dark:

you’ll see animal hearts and ghost skins

you will see tender shoots and saplings…

With the endless heartbreak of women gone too soon and the possibility of lurking cancer, blood lines walks a tightrope between fate and probability, portraying an intimate disquiet that is also universal. These poems offer no respite from darkness; rather, they live in the beauty of it.


Leigh Rastivo is a fiction writer, critic and essayist. She was recently accepted into the international residency Under the Volcano where she will present and perfect two novels (one literary and one speculative). Leigh’s shorter fiction has been published or is forthcoming in several journals, including the Almanac MicroLit and Literary magazine L’Esprit.

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