Victoria Redel’s new poetry collection, Paradise (Four Way Books, 2022), lives up to its title: There is a gorgeous abundance of everything in this book, a truly impressive breadth of all that is human, ranging from eros to grief, from Baruch Spinoza to the Cossacks, diaspora to menopause, and so much more. Some of Redel’s poems peak with intensity and catch you by surprise, others burn slowly, and yet all of them feel accessible and quotable. Most importantly, so many of the poems and even individual lines engender an emotional catharsis, a deep release that makes you realize just how much you needed them.
The collection opens with a sequence that reimagines the Edenic experience. On the one hand, these thematically linked poems read like a bold, contemporary midrash that ventures far from the first two chapters of Genesis. On the other, they feel grounded and level-headed, as if Redel is an expert chiropractor who will, with a few firm gestures, tweak the myth to help it walk in the 21st century. In one poem, for instance, she reimagines the expulsion from paradise as a voluntary, natural act: “When we found the gate, / of course, we opened it.” Human nature, the poem seems to imply, isn’t “to fall,” but to find ways around barred exits to freedom. “Temptation,” the first poem we’re featuring today, expresses a similar sentiment: Leaving paradise, here, is a form of evolution, a declaration of a kind of spiritual independence.
The poet’s parents are another major focus of the collection. These are the poems of grief, memory, and ancestral pain. Here, the poet attempts to grapple with what it means to grow up as an American with refugee parents, and I will admit that these poems repeatedly brought me to tears. And I don’t think that is merely because of my own immigrant experience, or the insight into what my own young children, Americans whose father is an immigrant from Eastern Europe, may be feeling and seeing. In one poem Redel writes: “If I’m walking the path hugging the Hudson, / how is it I’m in Romania, birthing my mother in a high bed, / in another home the family abandons just in time?” It is a disturbing, difficult vision, and a poignant assertion that our family history, particularly the parts we have not physically witnessed, are inseparable from the arc of our own life.
The second poem we’re featuring today, “The Immigrant’s Last Act,” with both grief and tenderness, recounts her father’s final moments. Could it have been written about any caring father—immigrant or not? Perhaps so, but it is also possible that for an immigrant father, the safety of his “American daughters” feels just a bit extra fraught. And that bit, that edge—the whole soul is within it, and only poetry can begin to describe it.
we always knew we would leave.
Some days it was all too rampant,
the ground pulpy with fallen fruit—
so we invented hunger.
Bored, we turned away
from each heavy luscious bough.
We’d dreamed of a door—
one cheek pressed to the painted wood.
This was our only appetite.
Just to be alone
even for a few breaths,
on that other side
after the knock.
The Immigrant’s Last Task
—as during all the years he held steady
while his American daughters crossed
a street, fell off a bike, left a party, got out
of the wrong boy’s car, broke a nose, split
a lip, drove cliff roads, got a transfusion,
another surgery, lost a baby, a job,
a marriage, our mother
—he held on while my sister dodged lights,
swerved through traffic, parked, ran, & pushed
till she was next to me by his bedside,
& then, knowing his children were safe,
our father stopped steadying to let go.
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).