Seldom does a volume of poetry conclude with an annotated list of the names that dot its pages, but so ends Garfinkel’s third collection, and with cause: these characters are real, their names notorious. A science policy analyst and speech writer for high government officials, Garfinkel is the daughter of Hyman Wendroff and the niece of Dixie Davis, both attorneys to legendary mobster Dutch Schultz. The relationship of the poet’s family to one of the loosest cannons of the 1930s New York underworld lends these poems a brutal yet fascinating intensity. Descriptions of Schultz blinding a foe by wrapping his eyes with gauze “soaked in a brew of gonorrhea pus / and rat droppings,” and murdering another by carving the beating heart from his chest and then passing round “a glass of warm blood / to quench the thirst to tell,” are as gripping as they are spare. But beneath these extraordinary atrocities lies something more intimate, devastating, and ultimately common—the poet’s relationship with her mother. A good third of the volume is comprised of “dialogues,” short transcriptions of conversations wherein the adult daughter interrogates her mother, trying to fill in the blanks of a childhood lived with an assumed name, under house arrest, and, eventually, in a physically abusive environment. The mother’s struggle to evade the past is matched only by her daughter’s desire to construct it, and the resulting tension evokes powerful questions of identity formation and the ethics of storytelling.
While the work is not without some thematic clunkiness (each section is laden with epigraphs), the very nature of the story Garfinkel dares to tell reminds us that poetry is an ideal medium for breaching the unspeakable.