All Odd and Splendid
by Hilda Raz
Wesleyan University Press 2008
Reviewed by Daniel Story
“A lot of what I thought was magic / is habit,” says the speaker’s son Aaron in the early poem “He Graduates from Clown School.” He gives away both the secret to performance and the secret to this luminous new collection, in which Hilda Raz (Trans, Divine Honors) creates moments of complex beauty from simple, methodical sentences and images.
The book opens with birth, considered from many angles. “Nothing odd about it” says a delivery room nurse in the title poem. But in “Son,”
The problem is birth.
What an opera,
the lights, the dais,
the cast of characters wearing
the same gown.
Here, commonalities in childbirth cause concern instead of reassurance. Raz grapples with her concerns when the discussion of reproduction includes her transgendered son, Aaron Raz Link (co-author of the memoir What Becomes You). Later, Aaron serves as catalyst for meditations and a quiet return to daily life, as in “Suite,” in which he reminds the speaker, “Mom, plants heal.”
Birth gives way to death. Aaron changes from infant to grown daughter and then grown son; suitcases and birdbaths fill and empty. Raz’s verse, reminiscent of Charles Simic’s, “retains” simplicity of language and image as she moves through these moments. In another section of “Suite,” subtitled “Her Dying,” the speaker reflects on a friend:
You will die soon. We all die.
We all go out from our houses.
My house, for example, is Willow Grove.
Your house—you still have one—is Garland Place.
The roofs are yellow, a tile called Cyon Picaresque.
The monosyllabic declarations of the first line lead the reader into the unassuming metaphor of the “house” of the body; then, that figurative house suddenly emerges as real. This shift locates the mystery of death and tragedy of loss in two named, usually comforting places. Thus, the “houses” themselves stand as places we must leave and the attachments to which we cling.
Raz primarily writes in free verse, but finds appropriate places for form. She makes use of the pantoum (“Diaspora” and “Love This”) and villanelle (“Flight”), as well as hexameter quatrains (“Childhood”) and a sestina-like nonce form (“Dante’s Words”). These sometimes-complicated forms succeed with her deceptively uncomplicated language. “Diaspora,” for example, begins and ends with “The gates were closing and the time was late”. The first appearance invokes impending departure, the second impending closure. These instances of form punctuate the collection at intervals and showcase, once more, Raz’s ability to transform something seen before into something new.
All Odd and Splendid offers accessible poems on subjects as domestic as the Fourth of July and as mystical as Norse Gods. Raz, like an illusionist, makes shapely, mysterious spectacles from unassuming objects—objects that, just a moment ago, drew no attention to themselves. She performs these transformations with smooth, almost casual grace, rising out of the realm of tricks into real magic.