Tamara Zbrizher’s striking debut, Tell Me Something Good, opens with a refreshing confession of ignorance: “I don’t know what it’s called/one of those hanging house plants.” The conversational tone welcomes the reader in and invites humor. This poet is no wiser than the rest of us and the plant could be the one hanging in our own hallway. As Zbrizher’s many identities as immigrant, mother, teacher, wife, daughter, poet, lover, and survivor unfold and overlap throughout her work, the poems reveal themselves to be about the shared human experience of transformation. We are in constant flux, grappling with expectations, our contradictions, uncertainties, and instability.
Transformation, a process that is neither linear nor definite, is an apt term for this collection. Zbrizher uses punctuation as one tool to make this point. Only one poem in the entire book ends with a period. Two others end with a question. The majority contain no punctuation at all. The poems are left open, bleeding into each other, a cycle of identities and possibilities for future selves. The poems are always morphing, never constant, and without clearly defined boundaries.
When Zbrizher writes about her own death, the self continues to shift. In her poem, “Even Tragedy Is a Comfort Sometimes,” the poet melodramatically and humorously imagines her own demise, in which she is compared to Joan of Arc. She references a “cacophonous chorus” and “There is a Kickstarter to erect a monument in [her] name.”
I read this in stolen moments while nursing my infant daughter. In that quiet space that can be deafeningly lonely, I connected with the poems exploring the complicated and messy way we identify as mothers. In “There are entryways that don’t get a second glance,” the poet explores washing her son’s clothes and examines the mundanity of a repetitive and relatable task. Also up for interrogation is how we enter by choice, again and again, into the small spaces that connect our multitudes, bridging the gaps between our identities:
There are entryways that don’t get a second glance
like this lock on the door to the laundry which I turn
too often washing my son’s sweet-potato-stained shirts
knowing this load is far from last and wishing for more
than a tiny space between the house and garage
though it is a blessing
even this narrow corridor where a spider
spins his webs in every corner
even the keyhole
offering his tapestry of insides
to feed future empires of tiny spinners
I reload the drier close the door and turn the lock over
its mechanism an empire of entries and exits
that allow this home to carry on
Folding my son’s tiny clothes I think of my tiny empire
this house this tiny boy who knows nothing of this lock’s workings
Its inventor’s late nights the perfect cylinder raw fingers
the perfect bolt cold dinners the carrying on turning over of self
Zbrizher continues to wrestle with the identities we choose, those we do not, and how these lines also blur. The mother chooses to enter through that hallway day after day. Zbrizher leaves the choice of walking away unsaid, but it is there, reverberating along the lines. This choice, to leave or stay, will again appear in the poem “20 Words,” which portrays the desire to regain something lost prior to the revelation of how “domesticity turns a girl into something else, something ancient, something silent.” This is also the poem referenced earlier that contains an ending period. Identities, chosen or not, leave a mark that cannot be erased. There is no going back.
Other identities are thrust upon us as in “An Education,” in which “A girl is taught this is how she grows” by letting a boy define her with both his words and his touch, neither of which are asked for and both passively received. The powerful poem “Even the sun is a dog sometimes-” also captures one of the many assaults that appear in the collection:
spread her fifteen year old legs
oiled hinges ripping the slit
of her skirt scorching pawprints
onto thighs And she
kicking him in between
his legs blasting out
into the street blazing
all the way home in heels
And still, the speaker blames herself, “maybe it was the skirt too tight/or her ass too wide or lips/too red.” Many of these poems contain heartbreaking moments of honesty in which the poet wrestles with feelings of responsibility, blame, and failure.
In her poem “Skin Hooks” Zbrizher imagines both an idyllic and gruesome life of husband and wife, their skins hanging on “his” and “her” hooks as they live in domestic bliss…almost:
I make a sandwich and maybe one for you A lung falls out
onto salami, sweating outside its wrapper If I notice
I return it to its place or leave it
for you to bite into, spit it out, pick arteries
from the gap in your front teeth, curse me
for always leaving my parts around
With a combination of humor and honesty, grit and tenderness, Zbrizher removes her skin and unravels her many parts on the page. Like the opening houseplant she nurtures back to life, the poet knows she needs to make bold and necessary sacrifices to fully claim her identity and shape her own life. And she does so, but not without the acknowledgment of the scabs and scars left behind. As she writes in the poem, “I’m thinking about my next tattoo”:
the repetitious stabbing
the itch, the healing
and what remains
these self-inflicted talismans
that even years later beg the questions
Does this ink belong?
Does this body?
Jesse Burns is the Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, a nonpartisan political nonprofit. Her poems have appeared in Terra Preta Review, Bird’s Thumb, Mead: The Magazine of Literature & Libations, This Broken Shore, and Naugatuck River Review.