Grammars of Hope by Chana Kraus-Friedberg
Review by Cheryl Caesar
As a friend, I encouraged Chana Kraus-Friedberg to enter her chapbook Grammars of Hope (Finishing Line Press, 2021) into the Mark Ritzenhein Emerging Poet contest, and I was not surprised when she won first prize!
“Grammar” has a hard sound: grasping, grinding. Few admit to loving this field of study. We, as members of this select club, see it as the skeleton holding up the flesh of words, the skin of imagery. There is no language without grammar. A modal auxiliary like “may,” in the title poem, indicates a whole universe of possible futures for a friend’s young niece. I am reminded of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and the Chinese servant Lee who works for years to find the best translation of the Hebrew word timshel, spoken by God to Cain. Did God say, “Thou shalt triumph over evil.”? That would be merely a statement of a predetermined future. Did He say, “Do thou triumph”? That is only a command. Lee finally concludes that God told Cain, “Thou mayest triumph over evil,” and that in the word “may” lies all the greatness of the human struggle. Likewise, Chana sees a great field of possibilities before her young heroine:
But I like to imagine
your niece’s grammar
as more hope
as though she’d been
shown two limited paths
and refused them both.
That’s not enough, and it can’t be
all there is,
she might (one day)
May there be…?
There may be better ways.
But Chana is also a lover of words themselves, for their colors, smells, or moods, as in the poem “Authorial Intent”: “sickening” has an adamant, exceptional sound, / with that hard solid K in the center.
Or in “Sometimes You Ask Me,” where she reflects of the common phrase “what the day holds”:
I imagine it
like a pair of cupped hands
waiting to be filled.
This chapbook’s title, then, is important for at least two reasons. Words of Hope would have been merely banal. And the plural form lets us know that the author is the product of no one grammar, language or culture; she lives and finds her hope while moving between them.
In revealing these worlds, Chana shares a history that few of us will find familiar. She begins with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish childhood in Brooklyn, early becoming aware that her response to other girls is not the “normal” one, is not something that people speak of. “Brooklyn Lust” tells the poignant story of her “tender, insistent ache,” while standing behind a classmate, breasts pressed against her back, braiding her hair. Chana takes us through her life nearly to the present, to the years of COVID and Brett Kavanaugh. We hear of romances following her coming out–some with presumably real people, others with historical figures like Emma Goldman that she meets on library shelves. But we also follow her to Twelve Step meetings:
I didn’t know it would
feel like that,
all that pain with
no drugs to put on it –
But I’m grateful
for this chair
I’m sitting on.
I know if I stop being grateful
With each new piece, the identity of the poet continues to take shape before us.
Chana’s writing is highly literate but never affected. It is strong and always searching. There is no lazy or pretty phrase. We feel that the poet is exploring the words, feeling the sounds, finding the meaning along with us. I can see her looking back, bemused, at the lines that have come from her. It’s the same expression that I see on poet Stevie Smith, with her cognomen of “peculiar”– the same wry shaking of the head. In the poem “Authorial Intent,” Chana concludes:
But lately I wonder
how a sentence survives
in the wild.
I could take it outdoors in
my pocket, speak it and see all
the words strung together like small shining orbs:
and I’d know what I meant,
why I’d placed them that way.
I’d know I’d said it.
I can’t guess what you’d hear.
Chana shares the puzzle with us and invites us to join the experiment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.
Chana Kraus-Friedberg is the winner of the 2020 Ritzenhein Emerging Poet Award. She grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Since leaving that community at the age of 20, she has earned a Ph.D in archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania and an MS in Library Science from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She currently lives with three feline companions in Lansing, Michigan, where she is a health sciences librarian at Michigan State University. This is her first chapbook.
Cheryl Caesar lived in Paris, Tuscany and Sligo for 25 years; she earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. She teaches writing at Michigan State University. Some of her COVID-era poems appear in Rejoice Everyone! Reo Town Reading Anthology, and in The Social Gap Experiment, both available from Amazon. Her writing and artwork will appear soon in Words Across the Water, a joint anthology by the Lansing Poetry Club and the Poets’ Club of Chicago. With co-editor Ruelaine Stokes, she is gathering a volume of reminiscences of the Lansing poetry scene in the 70s and 80s.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.