Foraging for Light: poems by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt, reviewed by Laurence Carr

Foraging for Light: poetry by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

I’ve shared the podium (or sometimes the music stand) with Jan Schmidt for many years, presenting our poems at public readings. It’s always a joy to hear her work “live,” to hear the inflections and rhythms that she brings directly to the listener. Listening to poems creates an energy and a dynamic—sounds that float on breath. But I feel that this is only one half of the depth evident in her poetry. When one reads Jan Zlotnik Schmidt’s poems on the page, a more intimate relationship develops, the relationship that connects poet, poems and reader. I feel that she is speaking directly to me, opening doors that I had walked past but are now opened. I’m invited not to simply look inside but enter the world of each poem.

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Jan Zlotnik Schmidt’s new collection of poetry, Foraging for Light (Finishing Line Press, 2020), is a celebration of women’s voices. The right book at the right time as we celebrate the 100th  anniversary of the 19th amendment in which women in the United States gained the vote. Each poem is a small jewel of narrative that polishes a facet or two about the life and times of its subject. Mini-biographies and auto-biographies? Somewhat, but that doesn’t reveal the book’s overall insight. The volume is divided in four parts (I through IV), and the thirty-three poems, with many of them long-line prose poems, build to present a choral ode of voices. The poems stand singly, each with its own point of view, but when read in sequence, the book is even more satisfying.

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Poems as narratives are set up in the first piece, “Vermeer’s Lady Writing,” which begins:

“She stares straight into our world

Her gaze penetrating centuries

A woman writing and waiting

Stories poised to be told” 

The poems unfold, voicing a wide array characters across time and locale. The first three pieces move us from the land of the painter, Vermeer, to ancient Greece, to Kentucky Hill country, where the author had taught in her early career. This last piece is structured as a prose poem, a poetic form that reappears throughout the book. Each piece tells its own story with its own voice. The author uses both first person “I” and third person “she” to engage us with each poem’s subject matter. Speaking in first person “I” creates an intimacy, a more subjective point of view. These first-person narratives also move us in two directions. Some appear to be the voice of a created character, others of the author, bringing an autobiographical layer to the pieces. To me, this was clearly evident in the poem, “Twenty-five Years After John Lennon’s Death: December 8, 2005.” It begins:

“Twenty-five year ago

In front of a classroom

In Richmond, Kentucky

I read aloud Dylan Thomas’s

Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

The poem deepens when a student enters to announce, “Killed. Gone.” The piece does not describe the feelings surrounding John Lennon’s death, but exposes a deeper layer from the poet’s personal life:

“…my red-haired son

the one with the glowing blue eyes

has gone from me

into hollows of snow

I can’t know.”

I was taken with this poem for several reasons. I, like so many of you, will remember the moment: Where were you when John Lennon was killed? I was on the Upper West in NYC, twenty blocks away, sitting in my living room listening to the radio. An announcement came on, similar to the poet’s terse line, “Killed. Gone.” It was shocking to hear then, and the edge has not dulled when we hear these words too often today. It feels that in many ways the world has not changed. And the poet will be there to remind us.

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Jan Zlotnik Schmidt utilizes the second person pronoun “you” in four of the poems. I was relieved that she didn’t exploit the “you” more than this; it can have diminishing returns for the reader. This pronoun in poems can sound like a command, an in-your-face directive often off-putting, or can manipulate us (the reader or listener) into too narrow a vision of the poem, not leaving us the space to ponder the meaning for ourselves. Luckily, the poet fashions a lighter touch with this direct address pronoun and pulls it off in a poem based on the Edward Hopper painting, “Morning Sun,” the more raw, “Under Siege,” the couplet poem, “Portents,” and the prose poem, “A Mourning Story.”  

Part III is made up solely of prose poems that become micro-fictions with interweaving plots and characters. One of these “Fade Out/Fade In” is in first person and becomes a dramatic monologue. This section, and the other prose poems throughout add a different kind of lyricism to the book. It takes us away from the shorter, broken lines (of which the poet is masterful) and adds a faster pace without losing the deeper insight. 

Part IV again moves us around the globe from Kentucky, which seems to become the hub locale for the book, to Pompeii, and to a bar in Costa Teguise. These shifts always make sense; I never felt out of place, because the poet remains an emotional tour guide never losing us. I had one question as to whether the book should end with a short poem, “A Corot Landscape.” While an interesting piece, I first thought there might be a stronger landing. Then, rethinking, the poet begins with Vermeer and ends with Corot. Good bookends. And the book’s title is echoed in the last line. Perhaps the only way to end the volume.

Strong, images and moments are captured on Jan Zlotnik Schmidt’s pages. The poems continue to provoke; we’re gently nudged by some and by others we’re jostled awake from our daily somnambulance. All have a place in the book, and so many will remain with us after we’ve read them. The lasting worth of Foraging for Light is that we can revisit these poems again and again on the printed page. And with each visit a new facet will emerge.

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Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professorat SUNY New Paltz in the Department of English where she teaches autobiography, creative writing, women’s literature, American and contemporary literature, and Holocaust Literature. She has been published in many journals and was nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize Series. She has had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and two collections of autobiographical essays, “Women/Writing/Teaching” (SUNY Press, 1998) and “Wise Women: Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life” (Routledge, 2000). Her chapbook, The Earth Was Still, was published by Finishing Line Press and another, Hieroglyphs of Father-Daughter Time, was published by Word Temple Press. Most recently she co-edited with Laurence Carr a collection of works by Hudson Valley women writers entitled A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley, which won the 2013 USA Best Book Award for Anthology. Her multicultural and global literature anthology, Legacies: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction, co-authored with Dr. Lynne Crockett and the late Dr. Carley Bogarad is now in its fifth edition and used nationwide.

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