Poetry review: Deborah Fruchey on Elaine Starkman’s Hearing Beyond Sound

Hearing Beyond Sound

New & collected poems by Elaine Starkman

(dvs publishing, October 2012)

This is not a book that shouts at you. Rather, it starts as a pleasant low hum, almost in the background, as the poet puts down her pen to savor a quiet moment. Gradually, as one strolls through the poems, it becomes a soft song: a song of leaving with no regret, gratitude for the present moment, wistful curiosity about what still lies ahead.

Starkman is an older poet, and this is not a book easily accessible for the young; it speaks of the careful appreciation of the latter half of life as one meanders toward its finish. There are moments of dread: in “Traveling Toward Dawn” Starkman writes that she must pick up my broken pencil/and ride a dark omnibus/until dawn. There are moments of wry acceptance, the author saying, Go right ahead–/Pain makes/the poem (“Outside, August 2006”). I am especially enamored of “A Cousin Called Simone,” in which the author encounters a seamstress with the same last name and fantasizes hopefully on how they might be related. This is especially poignant since the effects of the Holocaust have apparently left Starkman with not as much family as she would like.

But most of the poems reflect a growing understanding of life and one’s place in it. As she says in “Apricots for Isaac,” Only now do I know/what I’ve mistaken for wisdom. She speaks of weeping not for Mother Death/whom I agreed to meet/but for Sister Life/whose face I’d/forgotten (“Spirit Rock, 1999”).

Ms. Starkman has taught writing for 30 years at Diablo Valley College, UC Berkeley Extension, St. Mary’s College, and currently for Osher Life Long Learning Institute. She was the recipient of a Pen West award in 1999. Previous poetry books include a collection with 5 other poets, My Dreaming Waking Life (2009). Her short stories are represented in two Seal Press offerings: Things That Divide Us and Family: Views from the Interior, the Use of Personal Narratives in the Helping Professions. Her prose also appears in Learning to Sit in Silence: A Journal of Caretaking (1993).

If you believe in supporting poetry and indie publishing, Hearing Beyond Sound (available at Amazon) is a good book for quiet, contemplative moments.