A Review of Rachel Edelman’s Dear Memphis by Cody Stetzel

To compose a discussion on Rachel Edelman’s Dear Memphis feels as though to engage in a multiplicity of histories, to be welcomed into the dialogue of an ancestry. I will not dare hubris by professing expertise in Jewishness or Yiddish heritage; however, to discuss the poetry found within Dear Memphis one must understand how to place oneself within the body at work. Whether this is the as-written bodies who, “make a cemetery first,” as written in the poem “Descent Fragments,” or the relationship of the individual as participant such as in “Dear Memphis,” on pp. 29, “I wanted to live / where no one knew / who I belonged to,” Edelman utilizes an epistolarian-theme of work to address the various bodies in her lives. In a poetic environment where large formal explorations of sonnets (Hoa Nguyen, Terrance Hayes), ghazal (Tarfia Faizullah, Zeina Hashem Beck), and new inventions of form like the duplex (Jericho Brown) are aplenty, Dear Memphis is both generative composition and homage. Edelman spoke during her launch reading for Dear Memphis in Seattle’s Royal Room that letter writing became a habit she began and has continued through this pandemic as a means of connection, and that the letter was a physical intimacy in a time when physical contact is so very threatening. Intentionally, I opened this review with a statement toward multiplicities and follow with several frameworks that one could write thousands of words on individually with Edelman’s work to showcase that the intimacy which Edelman invokes in these pages is a connectivity through the ages, a literary handholding as one endeavors with and against the currents of [mis][re][presentation].

In the poem, “To Belong Less to the Aggressor,” Edelman has written an enriching lyric which provokes the complexity and complicity one has toward the ongoing genocide of Palestinians and the bombardment of Lebanese and Syrians:

“My mother’s rabbi 

says Israel isn’t always right.

I let my father tell me

about the male prophets,

tell me god has

a masculine pronoun, tell me

manna in the desert is feminine.


In the Old City

outside the Arab Gate

I spoke aqui, asi, 

took another tongue

to belong less to the aggressor.” 

It’s a complicated moment for the speaker of the poem: when confronted with the ramifications of a culture’s violence, one might do anything to try and assuage their grief toward it. These two stanzas show a conflicted juxtaposition of belonging; both belonging to a gendered framework that one wishes to rebel against, and belonging to a cultural framework that one wants to distance oneself from the violence of. In the Old City of Jerusalem, such a contested land and city full with beauty and strife, the Arab Gate invokes the long-standing Zionist conflict against Palestinians, largely Muslims, who also claim land there. Zionist ideology is pushed-upon and assumed to be core to Jewishness; however, as Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss said, “Judaism and Zionism are as different from each other as the earth and the sky; they contradict each other. Judaism is about submitting to Almighty God, while Zionism is the name for extreme nationalism that aims to possess everything related to forming a nation.” While Dear Memphis was published during this ongoing genocide, the Nakba has been happening since 1948. Palestinians have been colonized, demolished, and demonized for over 75-years. If this poem begins with the question of how to belong less to the aggressor, the answer it offers is to do what one can to complicate one’s assumed identity and add depth for nonviolent interactions. 

Moreover, there are few things as actively important now to discuss than how one can contribute (e-sims, humanitarian aid, pressuring, pressuring, and pressuring elected officials to call for permanent ceasefire), I begin the discussion of Edelman’s work with this poem to look at it and more specifically what its poetics are accomplishing in the scheme of Dear Memphis. In the 12 lines above, one can see complications with conservative-traditional feminine representations, family lineage, and Jewish-American identity. This lyric envelops many of the trends one may witness in reading Dear Memphis: tellings, re-tellings, and re-re-tellings — My mother’s rabbi says, or I let my father tell me. This style demonstrates the base complexity with Dear Memphis — every poem, moment, and story being shared is both the personally-affective and the historically-placed. In this writing, Edelman’s voice grapples with other loud and large manifestations of personality to have her own space, an evergreen effort for those of dissident identity to a cultural position, and one where many great artists keep company. Edelman continues in “Palinode after Family Movie Night,” “We mark the rinds / in Yiddish, a language // we breathe in, a language / we never abandoned.” An eternal footprint on conversations of identity, belonging, and duty, what I read throughout Dear Memphis is a message of conflict both internal and external, the core question of what peace can be afforded to soothe the most conflict, to save the most life? 

The epistolary element of Dear Memphis cannot be split into purely the series of eponymously-titled poems scattered throughout the 101 pages. In fact, almost every poem in the collection invokes some form of ‘I tell you this,’ or ‘They shared this that I now share with you.’ The “Dear Memphis” poems, though, draw attention in most cases through their reference to the personal-domestic histories. Often the metaphysical invocation as in “Dear Memphis,” pp. 76, “ Behind me, / my own home // bellowed in a blaze / I lit but didn’t build,” or aforementioned “Dear Memphis,” pp. 29, “I wanted to live / where no one knew / who I belonged to. / I wanted to tell you myself,” Edelman’s address seems to be found in that cycle of destruction-for-creation. She continues in “Dear Memphis,” pp. 84, “Try and keep track / of the women / my grandmother drove / to the doctor,” or “Dear Memphis,” pp. 50, “your most volatile fragments inside me.” Draw oneself a quilted epistolary image, wherein the letter is as much about the longing for camaraderie and connection as it is about the desire to retain a history. Another form of conflict, Edelman displays an excellent grasp of the form especially as it reacts to the ever-growing disconnect that seems to pervade friendly and family relationships. One of the answers to the question of what peace can be afforded, a message of be/longing is carried in each of these poems acting as a cradle for the reader. 

Introduced above, Edelman’s poem, “Descent Fragments,” is an evocative incantation exploring the evergreen relationship between erroneous expectation and eminence. The poem functions as a dance between subjects and relationships, like the dance seen below between function of self-as-listener and self-as-orator, 

When we arrive, the rabbi says, we make a cemetery first. Then a butcher, then a synagogue.


No need to tell my husband about the motionless hatchling and bleaching its stain off our balcony.” 

The miracle of this poem is its beginning and ending framework of burial, the way both selfhood and community are formulated between death. Death is a theme that Edelman explores often throughout Dear Memphis, and not in the traditional American sense where death is a finality (‘all that may come after death is grief as a form of stasis,’). Instead, Edelman’s death feels like an inevitability that life spawns within, adjacent to, and from. I think of another poem in the collection, “The South I Know Best,” with the lines, “In the kitchen, a cure of honey / curls over / what rot hasn’t won yet.” The gentle lyric here works to establish the aesthetic of a quiet domesticity in which the transformative element of death wishes to compose new landscapes. This is the only instance in the collection where Edelman invokes the element of rot, yet, rot feels like such a pivotal force throughout the collection in the background of these poems; the rot of American morality, the rot of Zionist destruction, the rot of conformity-to-colonial-ideals. Coming later in the work, the image of rot allowed me to envision the cultural destruction of colonialism like a mold growing over a left-out loaf of bread. To continue with this image, rot, while a potent and threatening force in the world, is not without its own instabilities. It is in the ability to extend rot’s absence that I find hope for evading the violent conquest of colonialism — if a loaf of bread, a jar of honey, is too much for an individual to eat alone before it begins molding, then simply combine the two and feed others. It isn’t enough to say, love your neighbor and imperial-colonial powers will disappear, but in this landscape of over 30,000 dead Palestinians, catastrophic crisis in Syria, Yemen, and more — poems like Edelman’s which evoke senses for hope are vital, necessary elements of resistance in this world. 

Some of the more outstanding poems in Dear Memphis are her more aquatically oriented works. Certainly, Pacific Northwest-inspired (biased as I absolutely am), they stand out for coming at the end of the collection and serve as elemental counterpoints for the desert themes of images and more controlled senses of water in the earlier regionally depicting poems of the American South. For those unfamiliar with the landscape, the Pacific Northwest is, for periods of the year, golden and green, but for the most part, the currency paid to retain this greenness is its vast periods of dampness and forced rest. Whereas in earlier poems, Edelman crafts narratives of dryness, heat, and dams, I think of “Down the River,” in which she writes, 

“Each breach dropped silt that built

the levee anew. In the trough of it we stood

tall enough to resist the current, but still too small

to comprehend how frost pricks through millimeters of buffer.”

In this classification of poems, water serves as another form of inevitability — that there will be breaches, that there will be current — as well as natural forces. We are talking now of rivers and waterbeds, shorelines and depths, no longer stovetops and thermometers. Here, Edelman’s depiction of natural bodies serves as a reminder that just as there are worlds where humankind has marked the land so thoroughly that the cracks in its dirt are shaped as footprints, there are also still lands where these primordial forces continue to make the human secondary-at-best. 

Through Dear Memphis readers are granted perceptive freedom for bodies at different axis of intersection — personal, familial, cultural, environmental — and how each of these intersections converse with each other. The poem “Dungeness” continues in this theme, with a literal embodied depiction, “Think of the depth it sinks to, / fresh from the molt, // to bury itself in the sand.” Speaking of both the Dungeness waters and the Dungeness crabs found within, Edelman asks the reader to investigate the lyric fully — to molt as in to shed a skin that no longer fits the body one has grown into — and follow the movement of the image. The poem asks you to think of the silt and sediment bed the body falls into, think of the new body and how it settles into this sand, and to think of the new experience of the body. This is an image that totalizes the experience of Dear Memphis: to juxtapose the necessity of a living archive with the nature of death with the inevitable force of nature with the personal desire for change and growth. Change with reverence for that which changes alongside you. 

Cody Stetzel is a Seattle resident working within communications and ethical technologies. They are currently a contributing writer for Poetry Northwest, Tupelo Quarterly, and the Colorado Review where they offer reviews and criticism of contemporary poetry. They are a volunteer organizer and event staff for Seattle’s poetry bookstore Open Books: A Poem Emporium. They have worked as the managing editor for Five:2:One Magazine, and a poetry editor for the Rise Up Review. Their writing can be found previously in Poetry Northwest, the Colorado Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, Across the Margins, Boston Accent Literature, Aster(ix) Journal, and Glass Poetry Press. They received their Masters in Creative Writing for Poetry from the University of California at Davis. Find them on twitter @pretzelco or at their website www.codystetzel.com.