Margo Berdeshevsky, Before the Drought, Glass Lyre Press, 2017


[Review Guidelines]

In Before the Drought, Margo Berdeshevsky collects forty-some averted apocalypses. Moving through phantasmagoric architectures with studied sensuality, she discovers, again and again, the paradoxical alien that is self. Many of these poems are bright with flames, and its speaker is equally comfortable playing the role of firestarter, -fighter, and -witness. It's not that Berdeshevsky is a pyromaniac so much as her poetry is intensely flammable. In the excellently titled, "Almost Untitled/But Never Without Flames:", for example, the speaker makes this humble request: "May our flames be lovely. / Now. Always. And again." This aesthetic prayer follows one of my favorite non-apocalypses in the book. It punctuates this ritual of romantic relief:

again, we are on either shore,
you and I, both
of the channel again, after eves of
the year the world did not end again,
waving our long feathers and howling
love again     

It is an ecstatic moment—to not only survive, but to have love to show for it. It calls to mind Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011), a film about two sisters, one of whom is preparing to marry, as a rogue planet is about to collide with earth (or so says the flimsy Wikipedia intro). If (only) Berdeshevsky were to have directed the film, that rogue planet would have probably been earth itself­, its axial tilt aimed toward a suicidal mirror.
     In order to confront or evade, the speaker must be nimble, embodied. From the first words of the book, "Blason Pour le Corps" (roughly, "shield body"), she is inventorying her body, really getting to know it:   

Clitoris, belly,
nape, taste bud,
how surprisingly you strut

     Over the course of one poem, though, the body transforms from blessing to deceiver to taunt (n.)—also a strutter, an ogre, a mirror-bitch brayer. The potential frivolity that might occur on "kiss-humping bridges" is ruptured by the reality that the body is at odds with those who would try to possess it.
     Berdeshevsky's poems are populated with those who would claim ownership of womanhood, most miraculously (in a world so uncannily drawn, it would take a miracle): the speaker herself. In the prose poem, "For Sisters Everywhere, Even On St. Valentine's Day," the speaker, dreaming, remembers a pact of four virgins who "all [insert] their forefingers into their vaginas in a repressive country, under a dictatorial sky" so that they can "be the ones to own it": womanhood. This hymen-annihilating gesture is a form of protest not just of the dystopic here-and-now, but to the historical transaction of female bodies. In the second prose block, fathers give daughters to neighbor men so that they may have "a virgin to plummet… A skin to open wider than any sky."
     Appearing 19 times in this collection, "skin" is more than membrane; it is a wondering, gendered organ. In "Whisper," a conspiratorial speaker imagines her skin rejecting her. "Why does my skin want me in her / does she know she's holding a woman in?" The speaker gradually becomes persona non grata, interrogating silent flesh to the point of climactic self-harm:

Am I nailed insider her, cell by cell
pale veil sewn womb to sky

—is she mine or am I her


Why have a woman in you—skin

Why not a bone mountain
Why not a better prayer than this one

If you won't answer, skin of my skin
skin of my woman-ing—

There are knives that might.

    This spirit of examination is apparent in the modes in which Berdeshevsky writes as well. From allegory to ekphrasis to ars poetica, there is a dynamic sense of inquiry. Just ask (as she does) Apollinaire, Benjamin, Levi, Verlaine, Kuan Hsiu, Monet, Merwin, Jarrell, Colette, and Waldrop, all of whom quietly ensemble in the epigraphs. In "What Was I Waiting For?", Berdeshevsky writes her "lost poems" are mixed as if paints on a palette. And then: "Un-paint my own riddles." It is an instance of synesthesia—ancient, as if eked out of the same dye as Dordogne's Grotte De Lascaux. Indeed, the epigraph for this poem paraphrases Picasso's mortification when he realized "we have invented nothing… we have learned nothing in twelve thousand years." For Berdeshevsky, this is no problem at all. She seems enthusiastic to participate—and reinvigorate—these conversations, endowing universal subjects with new vision (see the abundance of images bloody and silken), new language (viz. a glossary of hyphenated compounds), and newfound prescience: Before the Drought is an act of prophecy as much as it is poetry. Whether or not you set out to find it, it will find you. [LL]