Reviewed by Marguerite Sargent
Ruth L. Schwartz
Autumn House Press
In Miraculum, her stunning and vital fifth collection, Ruth L. Schwartz writes with thoughtful precision and praise of the wounded. These poems have a way of reaching into a moment and pulling it inside out, of illuminating the body and its hungers. Schwartz obsesses over issues such as what is this body? Does it contain us? Is there a part of us living outside of ourselves? In poems both lyrical and miraculous, she grapples with her central question: “Can this grief love itself / into something else?”
Miraculum is pieced together by quotes from the great minds of poets and philosophers, including Pablo Neruda, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Robert Bly. The quotes are interlaced with the poems that come before and after them, manifesting a body of work that is constantly in conversation.
The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense,
a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.
The words above, written by Friedrich Nietzsche, fuse together the title poem “Miraculum” with the poem “In the Garden.” “Miraculum” portrays how “we shuffle along in our various bodies” completing ordinary tasks with an extraordinary vehicle. “In the Garden” awakens the pain we inflict on our bodies and how our bodies continue to thrive. Nietzsche’s words explain this love/hate, this war and peace, our bodies endure with the spirit that inhabits them. The quotes, both evocative and poignant, serve to bring the collection together rather than to separate it.
Schwartz, a therapist and shamanic practitioner, creates a shift in her poems from ordinary consciousness to a deeper level of knowing—the part of the self that some deem the soul. In the poems, this “soul retrieval” or shamanic healing process takes the form of waking dreams or inward journeys in which the speaker is guided by something not of the literal or ordinary consciousness, guided by something higher than the self, but part of the self.
His mother told him over and over that she expected great things
from him, and he got hooked on speed to try to do them.
The dragon scooped her up in its huge claws, and bathed her tenderly.
The tiger ate the bleeding boy so he could finally rest inside its belly.
These lines, alive in Section 11 of the poem “All the Bodies,” offer access into the realm of mystery and ambiguity, not evoking confusion, but rather a deeper level of the mind and the self. Schwartz is successful in rendering this kind of consciousness by first grounding the reader in the real and the tangible and then introducing him or her to the miraculous. The reader is never reintroduced to the real, but is left to linger in the mystical until the next section. This shift allows for a more profound view of the mind and the body and the place both can travel when moving together. Schwartz reflects on this writing process: “A mysterious alchemy occurs when we put our pain and confusion into words, then usher those words out of our bodies and onto the page. In this way, writing can facilitate the kind of healing shamans call ‘soul retrieval,’ restoring us to wholeness.”
Another moment this “soul retrieval” or shamanic journey occurs is in Section 18 of the poem “All the Bodies.” The speaker is urged to jump by some inward force or higher self.
On a cliff like this, but in another world,
my soul taught me to jump.
The point, I learned, was to be everywhere:
whole in my body on the cliff,
fully contained in that body, solid, alive
in that embodied knowing
These moments of “guidance” are subtle and brilliant beams of light throughout the collection that offer an introspective view of the world and the bodies that carry us through it.
Poet Audre Lorde confesses, “I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.” Miraculum is endlessly questioning and building off itself to get at the core of what it means to be human and to live in a body. There is a movement in the poems from the very small to the very large and back again.
Not just physical wings, but feathers of soul.
Not just soul but star-charged fingers, splayed to stroke
the sky into our hands.
Not just sky, but earth and all its rivers.
Not just rivers, but their shine,
how it holds everything—
In the poem above, “Why I Love Your Body,” the lines build on each other like a waterfall, using the natural world as a catalyst to knowing what it means to have a body, to be separate from that body, and to listen to that body. This metaphysical movement from the minuscule to the grand forges gentle, rhythmic lines that propel the poem forward and into an overarching discovery of faith in the living world.
Poet Bruce Weigel finishes his poem, “The Impossible,” with the line, “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.” As a collection that praises the wounded, Schwartz finds beauty in the horrific by facing it directly. In the poem “In the Garden,” the speaker fixates on the scars that run down her sister’s thighs until the poem calls for the speaker to turn away.
There are rows of ancient scars,
white and raised, lining your thighs,
striping the tender inside skin.
I look at them, then look away.
I don’t ask; you don’t say.
The speaker in the poem “All the Bodies” calls again to these scars, saying “No to the lines of red my sister cuts again and again / on her arms and legs.” Schwartz, a poet of witness, does not look away, crafting poems both haunting and beautiful. She manifests hopeful poems through recording the complications of life, without glossing over the brutality that is inevitable.
A subtle, ghostly music lingers throughout the collection, mimicking the natural sounds of the world and the body. In poems such as “Moveable Feast,” Schwartz merges prose and lyricism to create pacing and movement from the truth of reality to the natural space where reality lives.
It was Easter Sunday and I was telling my grandmother that her only
son, my father, was an addict. That was why he’d shown up at her
door so broke she had to pay the cabbie. That was why he’d gotten so
sick on her sofabed.
I felt that hardness in me as I told her. Like roots hitting granite they
The shift from the prosaic style to the lyrical style generates a movement from the real to the metaphorical. The splendor of the natural world becomes Schwartz’s vehicle to explore the pain of reality. The reader is given room to breathe in the space that waits between the brutal and the beautiful.
Miraculum is not a collection to simply read, but a work to live by. The poems have been molded into one body that questions its place in a world full of both the dark and the light. Schwartz declares, “Maybe we have to have bodies so damage / and beauty can meet,” and with that I believe she has found her answer.