THE PAINTINGS OF OUR LIVES by Grace Schulman

THE PAINTINGS OF OUR LIVES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Schulman’s fourth volume is a collection of elegies and prayers, whose last note is an injunction, overheard rather than delivered: “Praise life.” But most of these poems are works of remembrance, and often grief; they concern lonely stretches of road, dead mothers, and heroines lost at sea. The need to rhapsodize apparently comes later, when the ghosts are, if not quite laid to rest, at least faced for what they are. Schulman writes a graceful line, with such subtle shifts of syntax and direction that only after eight lines of muffled pentameter (in “Poem Ending with a Phrase from the Psalms”) do you realize that the whole affair is a single sentence. Her rhymes, sparingly employed, can be so understated that they nearly merge with the meter, eschewing the hammer blows of emphasis: in “Carnegie Hill Birdlore,” she links “wake” with “mosaic,” and “icons” with “stones,” all of which takes a fine chisel. Though she does not strike too many classicist notes, Schulman is comfortable with the formal devices she selects, which include a powerful sonnet sequence about her mother’s death and her own attempt to see that life as it was, in detail. Schulman’s other large theme is New York, a city that presents itself to her in ancient dress, a kind of Rome for the New World. Whitman and Crane necessarily loom like skyscrapers in the background, but Schulman’s treatment is deflationary: it avoids cosmic allegories in favor of the personal and historical. In “Brooklyn Bridge,” the poet meets “a vision of my grandmother in 1920, / belled skirt, braided red hair. She slithers under her stalled Ford and out again, tarred black, then cranks the engine.”

Schulman's range of tone is not wide—it runs from somber to meditative—and does not dare too much, but in its limited sphere her golden bowl is flawless.

Pub Date: Feb. 12th, 2001
ISBN: 0-618-08622-6
Page count: 96pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2001