Walking the Labyrinth by Pamela Wax: A Review by Cheryl Passanisi

Her brother’s step off a bridge is Pamela Wax’s first step (and ours) onto the Labyrinth, the sacred journey of pilgrims and penitents turning on a circuit of sharp curves toward a redemptive core.  My own study and experience of labyrinth theology, sacred geometry, and the process of walking the cycles of concentric paths looped and connected by an inward turning drew me with fascination to the title and material.

Wax’s walk also turns back and forth in time going between childhood experiences, recent encounters and missed connections with her brother.  Through the lens of a sibling but also her training and vocation as Rabbi, she explores the path her brother took, her sense of responsibility and her need to make sense of death and suicide within the context of family and the larger families of religion and community.  

In the first poem “Howard” Wax deconstructs her brother’s name to give voice to the shock and horror of losing a loved one in such a manner.  “It asks, In what way or manner,/By what means. How did he do it?” Or, “...How is it possible a city,/ a person, can sit so deserted?/like a kid in solitary,/whitecoats glimpsed through/the shatterproof pane” hints at a possible history of mental illness.In the second section she discusses “-ward, a suffix, denoting direction/in space or time...all in relationship/to something in place...”  The name takes on characteristics of the person by the questions provoked and the sense of direction and movement.

The first line of “The Day After He Called” is: “The When can we talk? message”.  This hints at her guilt that she didn’t call him back, that she did not recognize the intentions in his voice, that he had covered his distress casually and she did not intuit the underlying motivations.  Later in the same poem she says “I want to be/grounded by ritual...”  In “Ethical Will”, about the loss of her mother and her need for a “roadmap” for life now that her mother was gone “there was no checklist/or recipe, no yellow brick road/on which to put one foot,//then the other, like paint-by-numbers, like the labyrinths...”  The suggestion is that ritual (Kaddish, yeshiva, labyrinth) help us to process and cope with the loss of loved ones and, also, the sense of guilt, the survivors’ guilt of – I could have done more, I could have saved them.

In “A broken sestina” Wax further explores the missed phone call: “...he’d jumped after his last call/to you, please explain why the red leaves//above his grave sing Brother! Brother!”  The regret she has about not picking up his call cuts deep: “...The message he left/(you saved it, though you haven’t listened/since says, I’m on the bridge to nowhere./I love you. You don’t have to pray”.  Such a haunting and poignant farewell to tell a Rabbi not to pray, not to say the prayers for the dead, the Kaddish.  Her brother seems to reach over from the place of death and say: no ritual will suffice; there is no playbook for this, for any death.  There is a tension created as the writer admits to craving ritual which seems to soothe and contain the disorder of our lives.

The next poem, the title poem, “Walking the Labyrinth” examines the ritual and anthropology of the labyrinth. She opens the poem by saying: “I am a connoisseur of labyrinths...What we do here stirs//heaven to act.”  She explains that a labyrinth does not confound like a maze but: “uncovers/the self, meditation in motion.  It resembles/a womb, a brain, a fingerprint, the revolving//planets...I weave/and spiral like Ariadne across the length /of a football field contained...”  She draws from the wisdom of Solomon who: “honed on his daily//constitutional through a whirling solar system/on his palace grounds, seven orbits/of stepping holy, holy, holy...//while he composed/love songs and proverbs.”  She sees the labyrinth as essential to the healing process, the creative process and spiritual practice. 

The poems throughout the book have a tidal nature: a surge of regret and emotion that abate and as the water recedes memories of childhood and remnants of a family legacy are revealed.  Her mourning encompasses her mother and father as well as her brother, her family unit of origin, and experiences that form her identity.  Throughout the book she is wrestling with loss and legacy.

In “The Wizard” Wax recalls an annual ritual which I also remember from my childhood which is quaint and probably incomprehensible to a younger generation.  In the 1960’s and ‘70’s we did not have streaming services or even video or DVD.  We simply had broadcast TV and, every year, in late summer or early fall “The Wizard of Oz” was shown on network TV.  It was a thrilling and a much-anticipated event.  Wax remembers her mother “a Judy Garland wannabe, singing all the songs//with religious gusto, our father relishing our can’t-bear-to-/watch-it dread of tornadoes, of flying houses and monkeys”.  There is nostalgia and longing: “If I could tap my heels/and go back there, all of us alive, singing”.  In several other poems she refers to the “yellow brick road” as a sort of variation of labyrinth, a place to put one foot in front of the other and walk toward wholeness. 

Midway through the book is the bombshell, “All the Torah”, which fills in some information of her own state of mind when her brother died: “praying at home, nursing/a private grief for a friend /who went down in a plane/the week before. She is thinking/about the stump that is left/when a giant is felled...”  So she does not answer initially until: “phone keeps pinging,/until she listens to the urgent/messages.  I know it’s Shabbat,/but call when you get this./Brother. Missing.”  Two great “giants” in her life felled within a week of each other.

“Aunt Helen Chats with the Dead” is a poem wherein she recalls going to galleries, gardens and “Nutcracker Suite” at the Met with her aunt who snaps pictures and gives a running commentary out loud to her dead husband: “Sidney, my love, I’m here with Pammy./Just look at this periwinkle bearded/dwarf.  Lovely. She aimed, shot,/continued, That was a good one, Sid.”

Wax was 12 years old at the time and amazed her aunt talked with her dead uncle as if he were there: “Does he hear you? I asked. Of course./He talks to me, too.”  Throughout the book are scattered poems of lighter musings and iconic familial moments.

Wax often inserts Hebrew dates in the text, title, or epitaph of the poems: “Canary in the Kitchen with the Spatula, December 1, 1991-Kislev 25, 5752”.  The references to an alternate calendar give a sense of time as a labyrinth, parallel paths across time, and a stepping onto time, mortality and our brief time on earth as being a circuit of the sacred path.

“Three Cherries” refers the 3 siblings, Wax, her sister and brother, who shared a womb, not at the same time but sequentially.  She reflects on this mystery of siblings, what it means to share the space in the mother, a family dynamic and how deep this connection is and remains throughout life.  The generation of the image came from their Grandfather who called them: “cherries—Perfect ones,/he said of us, and we believed him.” The cherries became a mascot, motto or emblem of their shared life: “we gifted/each other cherry tchotchkes:/hand towels and potholders, eyeglass cases/and stationery”.  The final lines of the poem unravel a mystery of her brother’s actions just prior to jumping off the bridge: “in his abandoned car before he jumped,/a commissioned painting for each of us–/three cherries still attached by their stems.”

Cheryl A. Passanisi is a nurse practitioner, poet, singer, and has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly, the American Journal of Poetry and the upcoming issue of Alaska Quarterly Review.  Her book of poetry was published by Finishing Line Press in June 2020 entitled:  Geraniums from the Little Sophias of Unruly Wisdom.  She lives on the San Francisco peninsula.