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"Woman Without Umbrella braves the perilous world of the present in allegorical lyrics of unexpected love, wild survival, diasporic estrange-ment. These are poems of gratitude for the still quickening of mature eros, the still ‘bright absolute’ of desire. Redel's luminous ‘postcards to the future’ render our predi-cament radically legible, to be survived with whatever courage we can summon. Delight with her in a city of miraculous luck."
“Reading these new poems by Victoria Redel is like slowing down involuntarily in traffic on a busy street. So possessed are we by her radiant wisdom, that inner splendor gained from the craft of fearless engagement in language with one’s powers as well as one’s missteps, in her glorious journey on earth. There is not a single area of your sight-lines, your imagination or range of sensitivities that will be spared. Pull over and read these poems. You will hear your life in her soul-bearing strides.”
Read Without Interruption: Review of Woman Without Umbrella by Victoria Redel — A. Anupama
Woman Without Umbrella slips out the door barefoot in spite of flash flood warnings. Without interruption is my recommendation when reading this, Victoria Redel’s third collection of poetry.
Redel is also the author of four books of fiction, most recently a collection of stories, Make Me Do Things, from Four Way Books. Her award-winning novel, Loverboy, was adapted to film in 2004. A native New Yorker, Redel earned her MFA at Columbia University and was a student of Gordon Lish: as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Lish published her first book. In an interview with Leah Umansky, Redel reflects “I’m a poet more driven by the sentence than by the line, and I’m a fiction writer driven more by language than plot.”
The first poem in this collection is titled “The Way It Began,” and the second one is “The End.” These two poems are separated by two blank pages and a page with an ampersand, an indication of Redel’s skill in measuring and compressing time and space in the length of the collection, in the space and interaction between poems, and within single stanzas.
From this energetic opening, the collection would seem to explode outward, way beyond structures. In fact, the next poem begins with “The roof collapses.” David Orr, in his most recent article “On Poetry” in the NYTimes Book Review, concludes “poetry, unlike churches and fortresses, has never loved a wall.” Here, poetry loves a wall but for different reasons entirely, as Redel shows in “Woman Without Umbrella, Unseasonable.”
All month her city sweats and sticks,
women and men stripped down to a snarl, it’s too fucking hot.
These are steamy low-key days, south of the border,
burning cement walls built for pressing him up against.
The poem next is “Suddenly,” which begins “A month after turning forty-five, every last egg in her body / is a Rockette doing the can-can. Use me use me use me, they cry.” And it goes on, describing the woman at the crosswalk, warning off any nearby men. The next poem, “Woman Without Umbrella,” begins with “Thus she waited at the corner / for the light to change.” The manipulation of time between month and month is exhilarating, as is the way Redel focuses the space, from the wide-angle view of the city to the particular woman standing on a corner.
The poems “Upgrade” and “Bottom Line,” which are a little before the halfway point in the collection, is a glorious reflection on the nature of the heart and our relationship to it, which seems sometimes strange to say, as though we could remove ourselves from it enough to say “to it.” But in Redel’s hands, this manipulation of the view through time and space is masterful. In “Upgrade,” Redel shows us the “I want,” incessantly asking, clawing-for-something heart, the font of all desire. Apart from the heart, in the wonderment of considering it--
I don’t want a refund to say it didn’t fit, never worked, or worked at first,
then in fits and starts, the switches useless, gears stripped. No, I don’t want
Customer Service, a Claims Department, complaint letters, an exchange
or credit toward the latest model, an upgrade or Lifetime Parts Replacement.
Even now, broken, chipped, in pieces, pieces lost, worn out, the original
gone—there are times, still, it comes back to me whole and I am amazed
by what is beyond fragile, by how elaborately and generously, wrecked
and beyond repair, we made use of our hearts all those years. And then.
The way her lists topple into other lists here is the glory of it. The first stanza’s list repeats the words “fit” and “worked,” and uses the assonance of the short i sound for intense energy from the start. And we don’t know what she’s talking about yet, as the second stanza takes us into Customer Service for this broken or defective thing. Third stanza, and this list parallels the first with the short-i sound in “chipped” and the repetition of “pieces.” Then in the beginning of the third stanza, “even now” starts to shift the poem away from its initial “I don’t want” and into the amazement of “and then.”
“And then” is a force in this collection. I found myself following it, catching it hiding here and there, and finding its inverse flying around in certain dark corners. For example, we move from “And then” at the end of the poem “Upgrade,” to the beginning of “Bottom Line”: “As when my father goes back under / and the doctor comes out to tell us he’s put a window in my father’s heart.” Perhaps this is the most extreme example of the way “and then” propels the reader through this collection. Or maybe it’s in the poem “Later Still, Then,” where Redel begins, “What if I told the husband everything. / How I leaned against a shoulder on the raft. Later, still. Or years earlier. And then.” In the poem on the facing page, two of the lines begin with “then.” The poem titled “And Then” precedes a page with an ampersand, which precedes the three-and-a-half-page “Kissing.” That is followed by another page with an ampersand, followed by “Holy” which begins “Then I went to a party and danced like no tomorrow.” And next comes “And, Finally,” and then “Gorgeous Present.” And this is still nowhere near the end of the book.
So, back to “Kissing.” The poem begins with a potent first line, “The first surprise of your mouth on mine.” Then it steams up quickly with a glorious list of the places where:
On streets, on staircases, in bathrooms, in the backs of cabs, in a field, against that wall and that wall and that wall, down on the floor, my hair caught in it, in hotel beds, in a borrowed bed, and in the same bed night after night after year after night, through an open window, under pines, under water, on a raft, in rain, salty with ocean, a peck at the door, a have a good day.
Our mouths, prepositional.
From this point, the poem delves beautifully into every aspect of that description, “prepositional.” Mouths act as prepositions indicating another place, “like there is another room inside and then another room inside.” Alternatively, kissing mouths are prepositional to each other, introducing the irresistible action of offering and taking: “suddenly you are turning me saying, / ‘Give me your mouth,’ and I am giving you my mouth.” The poem takes the grammar reference further with these lines: “A fluency, accented, each vowel and consonant exactly formed. / Sudden native speakers.” Later in the poem, we consider “A private syntax. / Pun and slang, slip of tongue, intentional.” The reader wonders whether kissing is a metaphor for language or if it’s the other way around.
Redel’s list of mostly prepositional phrases uses alliteration and assonance in tight sequence at the beginning of the run, and then repetition of “wall,” “bed,” “night,” “under,” “on,” and especially “in.” There’s that wall again. And that raft. Within single lines of the poem, the repetition of a word strikes the right notes of sound and insistence. In “Kissing,” this doubling of words within the line occurs with “eyes,” “mouth,” “room,” “taste,” and “drifting,” which is in itself an enticing list.
Paired with this virtuosity of metaphor and pattern is Redel’s exquisite attention to imagery and sensory detail.
Like something windy, like good weather. In winter, our mouths the
warmest place in the city.
Kissing like nobody’s business.
A lower lip flicked by teeth, pulling back just a little to breathe
And, then, all twitch and pull and ache.
If this were a review of a novel, I’d have to stop here to avoid spoilers. In her interview with Leah Umansky, Redel said “I see Woman Without Umbrella as having a kind of narrative arc and so the thread of poems using the same titles is a consideration of time. And though “Woman” in the title is singular I think of this as a book inhabited by many women both contemporary and historical.” A couple of stanzas toward the end of the collection stand out as fine examples of Redel’s repetitions and resulting conversion of these materials into something sublime. In “Smoking Cigarettes with Brodsky,” the last stanza evokes “and then” with the surprise of “and yet.”
I’m just learning desire makes us sometimes lovely,
always idiotes. And yet. And yet. And yet
Joseph smokes another cigarette.
The first half of “Monet’s Umbrella” gives it away, too.
I didn’t have to kneel down by the roadside lilacs
and I didn’t have to go walking this dawn in Riverside
with the dog sniffing wet dirt and the red tail hawks
nesting over the Westside highway on-ramp
to know that without even trying Sweetness returns
without a Monet umbrella or a proper scarf around its neck
and that when I rush to bring Possibility indoors for a hot tea
it gathers me in for a dirty-minded kiss.
Redel’s “and then” has become “and that when” here. And there’s that kiss again, suggesting with its capitalized “Possibility” an Emily Dickinson poem, which begins “I dwell in Possibility — / A fairer house than Prose –”.
Redel leaves us in a cozier place at the end of the collection—in a theater after the show, considering the “riveting” special effects, as you might after reading this book without intermission. The deluge of brilliance in this collection could turn manhole covers into geyser spouts, recycling bins into white-water rafts, and then—who needs an umbrella?
WOMAN WITHOUT UMBRELLA
NTERVIEW WITH LEAH UMANSKY
BUENOS AIRES REVIEW
LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
NUMERO CINQ REVIEW
THE JOURNAL MAG
A Celebration of The Literarian
By: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
A visual poem based upon the poetry collection of the same title, "Woman Without Umbrella", by Victoria Redel. Published by Four Way Books, 2012. The visual poem incorporates various spoken lines gathered from the poet's collection and employs associative thematic imagery inspired by Redel's work.
WOMAN WITHOUT UMBRELLA BY VICTORIA REDELREVIEWED BY BRACHAH GOYKADOSH
April 30th, 2014
Victoria Redel writes breathlessly, with punctuation and crescendo. There is a longingness to her poems and also a continual inquiry. Her subjects ask, engage, look, and proclaim. The subject in many of these poems is the Woman Without Umbrella. Why is she without umbrella? The umbrella would protect her from rain or sunshine. We are left with the image of an exposed woman, unsheltered from the elements. She is vulnerable but only because she chooses to be so. She does not shield her face from the torrential downpour, but embraces and examines it. This is revealing poetry that lays bare its heart. It does not hide behind an umbrella. Throughout the collection, the subject becomes more and more visible.
In “Woman Without Umbrella, Tarot,” the subject is aware of her misfortunes and the quiet blessings that follow but she does not acknowledge the reality that her peers try to convince her of, that she is in love. The poem begins:
It went like this: disaster, disaster, ridiculously bad disaster
Later in another “Woman Without Umbrella” poem the subject is hesitant and still, waiting “at the corner / for the light to change.” Despite the subject’s presence at what is presumably an intersection, she is not looking forward at the streets and traffic before her. Instead she wants to “sneak / back and have another look.” The subject is contemplative and nostalgic, yearning to comprehend what preceded this moment. Redel writes “Therefore and then, indeed, and somewhat and thus.” This simple sentence and Redel’s playful listing of these phrases indicate the subject’s slow parsing together of events, their connections and conjunctions, how one event led to another. She is more scared than bold, turning to the past as if it were a map she could follow. Redel writes “she was afraid” and then “there were accidents/ and other misfortunes.” What is this poem about but the fear of the future: in the face of it, we all stand meek and unprotected, aware of our slips and falls, waiting for the light to change so that we can cross forward.
Redel’s poetry displays vulnerability but also irony, humor, and a willingness to poke fun at itself. She is not a pretentious or self-aggrandizing author who makes broad encompassing, grandiose statements. Instead, she is a poet who quietly focuses on a single instance and its metaphorical implications, utilizing this instance to reveal a different dimension in her subject. In “Woman Without Umbrella, Confession,” the subject proclaims:
I wanted to be the one to tell you there is nothing
too small in this world to love.
Yet here I am, furious housekeeper
stomping ants that come through
The subject then asks, “Can you love the tidy heart of this killer?” Unlike the subject in the prior poem, the one who refused to acknowledge love and the one who stood at an intersection, the subject is active and physically present in this poem, sweeping and stomping. She also more readily confronts her love-object, telling it, “I wanted to be the one to tell you.” While there is violence to this poem, there is also a throbbing desire for acceptance. She cannot love the ants but she herself requires love. She is afraid the love-object will not love her. There is an argument within this poem, an inherent irony because the subject wishes to tell her love-object that even the minutest beings, such as herself, are worthy recipients of love, and yet it is the subject who is obliterating ants, the subject who refuses to extend her love to these small creatures. The question directed towards the love-object indicates that the subject feels that she is unworthy of this love and yet she wants it. This is her covert confession.
What Redel understands is that this is the function of poetry: the covert confession, the woman without the umbrella slowly reveal. Her poems aim to tell without saying and expose without baring. She is an elegant writer who understands the cadences of conversation and the nuances of love.
Toward the end of the collection, Redel writes:
I’m just learning desire makes us sometimes lovely,
always idiotes. And yet. And yet. And yet
The palpable desire and sense of curiosity that runs through these poems create a lovely and compelling collection.
Review of Woman Without Umbrella by Victoria Redel
Victoria Redel. Woman Without Umbrella. New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2012. 84 pp. $15.95, paper.
Victoria Redel’s third book of poetry, Woman Without Umbrella, is an exploration in witness and meditation. So perhaps it is fair to begin with a brief biographical note: Redel is a second generation American of Belgian, Romanian, Egyptian and Russian descent; a younger sister to two other women (one of whom the book is dedicated to); a mother of two boys; and a writer who is as accomplished in prose as she is in poetry.
In some ways, for many years, unlike its European and international counterparts, American modern and post-modern poetry has not shown sustained interest in interpersonal relationships. Redel’s personal history connects her to the older landscape of Europe while her own American life (more European than Puritan) has honed her experiences. Her poetic enterprise of content born in language (along with the likes of Edward Hirsch and Joseph Brodsky) has not abandoned that meditation of risk, balance, and observation. It is a kind of conservatism. Woman Without Umbrella is easy to read. No pyrotechnics. Redel is imaginative and lively—but is no hipster shaking the tree of effects or trendy subject matter. The poems are elegantly cosmopolitan; no references that any well-traveled, reasonably well-read person will not readily know. The poems are civil—liberal and brutal—in their tether between daily life and poetic meditation. What is at stake is always in the interpersonal. If one is looking for the hard edge of irony, pre-processed fear or hate tainted with malice, or the unrefined or savage imagination, a reader should look elsewhere.
The book opens with a pairing of poems that consider the clumsy opening of a relationship between a young man and a young woman and then the quiet closing of a relationship between a mature husband and wife. The poems are the fore and aft of the adventure of a life with another. Redel’s aesthetic revolves around affection: the notion that living beings like lying/living next to other living things. It is a simplicity that can lead to a neurotic silence…or, with skill, a poetic voice of revelry:
At the end of the marriage they lay down on their big, exhausted bed.
It was crowded with all the men and women they had ever loved.
Of course their fathers and mothers were there and a boy in uniform
she’d kissed on a stairwell. His first wife spooned her first husband.
Ridiculous Affair held hands with Stupendous Infatuation.
There was a racket of dreaming and, though both were tired
from the difficult end and in need of sleep, neither could sleep,
so they began telling each other the long, good story of their love.
There is an appearance of Circe, a lesson in how to say “I love you” in Greek, an appearance of the Wolf (erotic counterpart of Little Red Riding Hood), and then…a woman without an umbrella. Umbrellas involve the mechanics of protection and, as such, fall in the category with mirrors, garlic, the hand of Miriam or Fatima, and condom use:
A month after turning forty-five, every last egg in her body
is a Rockette doing the can-can. Use me use me use me, they cry.
I’ll be the easy child, the I-won’t-wake-you-up-in-the-night child.
Now every city block boasts the popular miracle--
Keep away, she says to civilized men who stop at crosswalks.
Do you see this glittered fertility, this fishnet stocking hunger?
Hunger propels the young forward. Redel also weighs in for those in mid-life; no less hungry, but perhaps less prone to careless risk and more attuned to the bases of sustenance and happiness. The word courage takes its origin from “cor”—Latin for “heart”:
Wherever you are, driving
whichever back road
of suburban middle-age,
brings you through
to whomever you love,
there it is again,
the old frontier.
Redel is subtle, adept, and clear. Fragile things may be damaged, broken, or worn beyond repair: the soft bodies of adolescent sons with an eye for sports, mechanisms that turn up at the Customer Service Counter claims department, the cardiologist’s report of a father, the beeping monitor of a friend, the subjects of stories. Ants become “killers.” Shores restrain. Anxious romantic desire is measured by a famous poet in a chain of cigarettes. Beauty shops become the place of assignations. In one poem, someone gently touches the hair of a beloved; in another, someone recalls a mother drawing the famous line, “Over my dead body.”
The poem “Woman Without Umbrella” itself concludes:
The dark came on with orange in the clouds.
Swallows feeding over the lake.
No one had anything left to say.
If she hadn’t said it before, or enough, she was sorry.
The poem “Auspicious Subway” later in the collection concludes: “Just you wait, Sweetheart. Just wait till you hear what in the world’s going on out there.” Redel’s collection shows us much of what is—revealing both the wearying elements and the fantasies, illusions, and beliefs we assemble to protect our vulnerable selves from those elements, even—and perhaps especially—in such close proximity to one another. Like with her title character, however, Redel sees that sometimes we’re left to the weather with no protection at all.