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Book Review :: Poèmes deep/Gravitas by Amy Berkowitz

Review by Jami Macarty

“Poetry was a place to play / with language” for Amy Berkowitz: “There were no rules.” That is until she went to “grad school” and “learned” “that she had nothing to say” from professors in a creative writing program who “refused” to protect women students from the “serial abuser who’s been molesting / and harassing them for decades.” She had “been accepted to the program on the merit of a writing sample,” yet in response to what she was writing while a student there she was told her “poems lack gravitas.”

In a particularly adroit maneuver, Berkowitz claims the word used to undermine her artistic confidence. She titles each poem in a series of thirteen “Gravitas” followed by a numeral and a colon, e.g. “Gravitas Ten: The Size of the Problem.” In each poem, she describes an aspect of the gendered power struggles, violence, and abuse, and how sexism impacts expression within academia. Though the oppressive experiences at the academic institution Berkowitz attended are foregrounded, “the shit” she shares with readers “happens fucking everywhere” where there is “a guy like that” and “the lives of women…aren’t taken seriously.”

“It’s incredible how an institution
can make it impossible for students to have certain thoughts.
So much violence in that, so much power and control,
so sinister, so invisible.”

Ultimately, Berkowitz finds “some measure of control over [her] life” “in kitchens” where “[w]e cooked for each other, took care of each other. / We wrote hundreds of collaborative poems together.” She found a creative environment that was welcoming and curious about the way she rendered her experiences in language: “It was magic / but what caused the magic / was our oppression.”

By refusing to be silenced, Berkowitz’s turn of strength allows her to transform the triumvirate oppression-repression-depression into poems “straightforward,” where she “proves them wrong.” What she has been “wanting to say,” she says: “Look who’s got gravitas now, motherfuckers.”

The bilingual edition includes two poems from Berkowitz’s MFA thesis to “represent [her] lack of gravitas” followed by “Living room musings,” a conversation between translators Daphne B. and Marie Frankland in which they talk about “the female ‘I’” in poetry, whether or not “ordinary language” can “reflect our experiences,” and their “collaborative, creative process” while translating Gravitas into Poèmes deep.

Read Poèmes deep/Gravitas! Magic!

Poèmes deep/Gravitas by Amy Berkowitz. Éditions Du Noroît, July 2023.

Reviewer bio: Jami Macarty is the author of The Long Now Conditions Permit, winner of the 2023 Test Site Poetry Series Prize, forthcoming fall 2024, and The Minuses (Center for Literary Publishing, 2020), winner of the 2020 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award – Poetry Arizona. Jami’s four chapbooks include The Whole Catastrophe, forthcoming summer 2024 from the Vallum Chapbook Series, and Mind of Spring (Vallum, 2017), winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award. To learn more about Jami’s writing, editing, and teaching practices visit her author website.

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