Lullaby (with Exit Sign), Hadara Bar-Nadav’s third book, creates not a soothing lullaby but an elegy, one wide-ranging, searing, aching elegy for many different lost loved ones. The title poem says:
My family sings
its death march.
They are the size of the moon.
No, they are the size
of thumbtacks punched
through the sky’s eyelid.
Ghosts populate the book, “Ghosts born two at a time, tearing / from my nostrils” (“Family of Strangers”), ghosts who “beat / my ear canals like bells / and whisper along the length / of my neck” (“Close Your Eyes to Catch a Ghost”). But more concrete images of hospitals and waiting rooms also appear frequently, resonating with reality as well as with an eerie unreality, as in “I Sing to Use the Waiting” where the “loudspeaker sputters, mumbling to the air like a drunk. Two children take turns screaming from either side of the room (or I am the child screaming from my mouth to my ears).”
To say this is a book I enjoyed reading would be impossible. Enjoyed is not the word for such pain or for some of the visceral images, especially in the book’s third section. However, it is an accomplished book, and one I admired. These poems mourn, they lament, they cry, but they do so skillfully, universally, and with enduring strength and no apologies. In “One Need Not Be a House,” one of many prose poems in the collection, the speaker says, “Say it plainly: To be alive is to be Haunted; to be dead is to haunt,” before invoking those who haunt the book. “Who calls your name?” the speaker queries and is answered, “We do. Who speaks from your mouth? We do. Father, mother, daughter, we do.” Later a poem title claims that “To Ache Is Human.” Such bold declarations could be off-putting from a less adept writer, but Lullaby earns them with its sharp, surprising words and elegantly crafted lines.
Bar-Nadav’s language is precise throughout, clever, unexpected, and sometimes even playful. In “Prayer is the Little Implement,” for example, she writes, “Little Woe Weep has lost her sleep, or a hack on pills went up a hill to fetch a pain of daughter,” then immediately steps back. “Put down the scalpel and syntax,” the poem continues; neither medicine nor poetry can save lives in this book. In “Infection in the Sentence Breeds,” the speaker says: “With commas come a promise, with dashes come piece—misshapen grammar writ in bone. // I overhear an orderly say he breaks the limbs too stiff to fold. I over hear.” Although language can hurt, it also provides a focus and a sense of order.
In addition to deliberate reflections on words and grammar, the book uses the words of Emily Dickinson as a touchstone, incorporating italicized lines and phrases in a way which seems entirely appropriate for the theme. The book includes an erasure of Dickinson’s letters, the poem called “Master (Pieces),” but she generally peeks through in short phrases, flawlessly melding into Bar-Nadav’s own sentences. One lovely example comes in the book’s penultimate poem: “You once were,” the speaker says. A general “you,” all the “yous” of the book. “You once were. Then. Letters through which a promise drifts, until the Matter ends.” The promise of life, of love, filters through Dickinson’s words, through Bar-Nadav’s words, resonating after the book is closed.