Susan Jo Russell

Review: In the Shape of a Woman by Lily Greenberg

From the intriguing cover to the final poem of this book, Lily Greenberg explores what it means to find one’s shape, as a woman—shape that is not so much physical as what I might call spiritual, the shape of self. The opening poem offers an image of resolve, “I am a geyser/in the shape of a woman, and the time/has come to never be murky again [p. 3].” But as we move through this collection, we learn how elusive that clarity is. How can a woman’s shape, Greenberg’s poems ask, ultimately be shaped by her own hands?

The book is divided into three parts, with the first section (“Shape”) and the last (“Of a Woman”) referencing the title, a phrase from Adrienne Rich that serves as the epigraph for the first poem. The middle section, “[      ] My Mother,” separates these two with a consideration of that first female shape out of which we all emerge, to which we remain so attached, and which has so much power to shape us. 

The first section lays out the tensions of finding our own shapes in the face of shaping by family and society. It explores the possibilities of breaking away from that shaping and the consequences of doing so. The titles themselves reveal some of the sources of this shaping, “What I Learned as a Girl Scout Was How to Play America,” “It Was Given to Me That a Good Woman Waits.” It offers images of those who try to “fix” us—the dentist who scrapes away the accumulated plaque, the doctor who says “I know what you need.”

The title poem, “In the Shape of a Woman” (p. 4), opens with the essential fear and the essential question of the book:

I starfish the bed, but the word bovine
hovers in my ears. Can we choose our shapes?

What we are told, how we see ourselves through others’ eyes, what is expected of us as women in all our roles—what of this can we change to suit our own visions?

Greenberg’s poems see self not only as a complex interaction with family, and society, but also a relationship with the natural world. In this first section, she develops her own layered iconography of water, tree, and bird that anchors her complex imagery. Water is everywhere in this book—inside us, outside us, being poured, covering us, flowing or dammed. Water is amniotic fluid, water is tears, it can drown or purify, it is clear and reveals, or it is mud-filled and secretive.  Water is plentiful. It shapes and reshapes itself.

In contrast, trees are singular and sturdy, but also constraining, immoveable, often symbols of waiting:

I became a tree and he stayed a lizard.
He snaked up and down me
and I said what trees say
which is nothing—
the nothing that contains
a simmering, a matter of time.     [p. 9]

And birds serve almost as a combination of  water and tree—they have defined shape, like the tree, but are unrooted, like the water:

If the opposite of time is birds—
scattering sideways, upending
the clunk of feet one-two, one-two,
the geometry of traffic,
the calendar! the list! the task at hand!           [p. 12]

“If the opposite of time is birds”—how I love that line! How it opens the imagination! While I sometimes stumble a bit in Greenberg’s associative imagery, she most often weaves abstraction with the everyday image in a way that keeps me reading.

The second section, “[     ] Mother,” focuses on that first shaping, the influence from which we are never completely separate. When do we stop writing about our mothers? That’s my last mother poem, I think, then some months pass, maybe even a year, and another one grabs at my throat. I have to admit I was drawn to this section and read it before I’d read most of the rest of the book.  All the poems in this section are titled by filling in those brackets. As readers, how can we resist filling in that blank space with our own adjectives or assertions?

The mother has already been introduced in the first poem of the book, “Birthday Party”—how, as a child, the speaker struggled to hear her mother—she heard the sounds but “missed the tones so completely [p. 3].” The attempt to understand the mother is the attempt to understand one’s self in relation to her—always separated and separating, always connected and connecting.  The image of water is strong in this section.  Is water the nurturing fluid of life in which we exist or a deceptively comforting trap lulling us into passivity? Referring to mother, father, and self, Greenberg writes in “[Between My Father and]” (pp. 32-33):

That’s the question—I am
half in the water, half out,
floating on my back.
I don’t ask. The three of us

each remember things so
differently …

This passage illustrates what I think Greenberg does so well. Her development of imagery within and across poems is complex, and I sometimes find myself getting a bit lost in abstraction built on abstraction, but she knows how to ground those images in the plain language of everyday acts and thoughts we recognize. Yes—we remember things so differently. Reaching for our right to our own memories sparks pain and recognition. This poem ends with an invocation and a prayer, that we escape from the danger of drowning in “the pool we are in”:

Dear Lord, we say, thank you.
Help us remember the pool we are in.
Make us soft as bodies, fluid as milk.
Teach us to leave, to pull one another
out of the water, through the dirt,
to shake the salt from our faces and walk.

Walking—the action of moving under one’s own power, in one’s own direction—becomes important in this and the final section of the book. As the speaker’s own body takes shape, Greenberg’s poems acknowledge how she must come to terms with the mother who is, inevitably, in her. “[Who’s the You?]” (p. 34)  asserts, “Your/hands dangle from the ends of my arms,” and comes to this arresting conclusion:

If I am to love me, I must walk
to you, open your hands at my
arms’ ends, close them at your back.

If this were the last poem in this section, we might think we’ve reached some resolution.  But no, Greenberg never lets us rest that easy.  Two poems later, the final poem in the section is a cry for separation.  The speaker is on the edge of something, of fostering her own love, of giving birth (perhaps literally, perhaps not), and now there is not only one mother, but two—her own and the mother of a partner: “I want our mothers/to die, or at least live far away, but even then,/they’ll find us [p. 36].”

In the final section, “Of a Woman,” Greenberg backs up to childhood and young womanhood, to the negotiations of being a girl among girls—the jealousies, the friendships, the unstudied cruelty. But there is also a new context, established in the last poem of the second section—the possibility of love with a partner. If I were to give this section a descriptor, it would be “coming to terms with”—coming to terms with death, estrangement from family, the destruction of nature, the company of women, love, language. Some of these poems go closer in—the death of a sister, alluded to in the first section, is elaborated here with a depth of feeling that almost makes one turn away. Some of them widen out into the vulnerabilities and revelations of the natural world.

One of my favorite poems in this section and, for that matter, in the whole collection is “Knee-Deep in the River I Am Writing to You,” (p. 57) a poem of mourning an absence, perhaps of a lover:

When you left, I sat in the mud
and decided to settle, call it home.
The soft warmth formed to my form.
Little bugs visited, a stream trickled. I was not

unhappy. Sinking into a shape
that could have been anybody’s …

Here, as throughout, is the quest for shape, but, for a time at least, also the willingness to rest, to regroup in the shapelessness provided by the mud. As the poem progresses, the speaker is able to leave the mud and follow the river (water again), to regain shape and purpose (walking again) despite the continued search for the mother’s embrace:

Well today, I just
stood up and started downstream,

The water is cold here, but I am not
suffering. The rapids embrace me
like a mother, arms out at the slides end.

This poem ends with an uncharacteristic simplicity, greeting the world, open and uncomplicated by doubt:

Hello moss, hello sun,
hello river rushing.

But we know by now that Greenberg is not going to leave us there to bask in the sun. Even though those moments of finding comfort in one’s own shape are true, they don’t last, do they? The woman’s shape is never finished. Greenberg’s poems are coming to terms with that:

Imagine—to be completely, for one
moment, not changing, still enough
for blackbirds to think my shoulder
a safe place to land. To stand at the edge
of a tree’s shadow, light
cutting me in two—here is God,
here is not God. Impossible.             [p. 59]

I was astonished to read in the first poem of the collection that she names herself as “twenty-six/thousand years old.” I take this as a play on her actual age of 26 at the time of writing (each year, perhaps, experienced as a thousand or reflecting a thousand years of history and ancestry of women finding their shapes), and my sleuthing online appears to confirm that she is, indeed, in her late twenties.  I have decades on her, and yet these poems are strong and fresh for me, unlike some of what I read by the young and bold that seems to have nothing to do with me. Her book makes me ask: despite the appearances of change, has nothing changed? How is the fight going? How is my own fight going? After all this time of shaping my own shape, it’s of course still not what I want it to be, but voices such as Greenberg’s help us reflect on how we go forward through the murk.

Susan Jo Russell

Susan Jo Russell is a mathematics educator from Somerville, MA.  Her poems have appeared in Bellingham Review, Chautauqua, Cider Press Review, Comstock Review, EcoTheo Review, Leon, Passager, and elsewhere, and she has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Her poem, “Tree,” won the Amy Lowell Prize from the New England Poetry Club and “Membrane,” appears in the collection, From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry. She co-directs the Brookline (MA) Poetry Series.