The Kangaroo Girl
Paperback, 78 pages
Purchase at SPD Books
Reviewed by Edan Mohr
Judith Baumel’s latest book conveys both a playful nostalgia and a haunting regret. In navigating a course through personal history, the author offers a meditation on worlds and people lost. In “Photo of Author in Kangaroo Pajamas” (the photo also serves as the book’s cover), Baumel opens with a stutter of self-correction:
the Kangaroo girl will not be written,
refuses to be written.
The Kangaroo girl will not be recovered,
refuses to be recovered.
The “Kangaroo girl” is herself, of course, the vanished child the author is no longer, and these lines mirror memory’s hesitations, the uncertain act of reclaiming a lost self:
The Kangaroo girl, crumpled, tearing
at the folds, peeling at the corners
in a wallet forty years.
Here and elsewhere, Baumel examines the past with precision, following each thread and considering patterns that emerge. Her approach, at times, is playful: in “Hem Stitch Hemi Stichs,” the form’s half-lines produce two columns that resemble the very stitch that she describes:
Its primary virtues
are the subtlety that makes
it nearly invisible,
picking the barest piece
of cloth, parting
However, where these threads may lead isn’t always reassuring. “You Take an Onion” unfolds in the pediatric ward of a hospital, reflecting on home remedies shared by many of the women who accompany their children:
You take an onion and chop it fine
add some honey and pepper and mix
it in a sock and wear it all night.
Though these women hope to assist their children through their shared, homeopathic knowledge, there is no guaranteed remedy for conditions that may be beyond cure, as is evident from their:
children’s frightful wheezing out
and grabbing in through ventilators
that keep them alive.
Among Baumel’s most striking poems are those that reflect upon her personal history. One example is “New Hampshire Inventory,” in which she recounts her memories of the era and place where she once did “that sort of thing,” a phrase that functions as a refrain. Among the activities catalogued are eating venison, smoking pot, and joining a boy in:
bedroom in the dark so he could play
guitar and sing, with no irony,
‘Go Away Little Girl.’
Eventually, the poet concludes:
And it was over. Yet year after
year after year my journal pages
proved how little I changed as I grew up.
In such poems, Baumel vividly recreates the girl she once was, while her compelling language and time’s distance show us who she is today, a woman who is a mix of her past and her poetic present.
Throughout the book, Baumel’s subtle art is to pair lightness with gravity, touching on matters of mortality, faith, and history with extraordinary fluency. In considering a past that has become a fragile memory, she is determined to preserve it and discover what it might mean for her. However, this highly personal book transcends the confines of a single life. Ultimately, The Kangaroo Girl is a book of rare power and beauty, a look back what survives in memory and how time itself transforms and sustains us.
Edan Mohr has been awarded honorable mention in the 2011 Academy of American Poet’s competition, as well as the LOFT’s 10-minute play competition. She is currently working on her own poetry, a few plays, and a blog about moving to NYC that you can view at www.edenmoreorless.blogspot.com.