Tonight, I finished reading Shaindel Beers’ second full-length poetry collection, The Children’s War and Other Poems (Salt Publishing, 2013). It’s a book in two parts about a difficult subject — the effects of war and violence on children and society at large — but it’s also a book about the healing power of poetry and art.
The first part of the book contains poems based on the artwork of child survivors of war. In one, “After a drawing by Mercedes Comellas Ricart,” Beers writes from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old survivor of the Spanish Civil War, imagining the reasons behind the artistic choices her speaker made in this piece:
The plane drops a single black tear of a bomb
that tears a hole in the mountains. The station
bell is mute next to the air raid sirens, and we run.
… [The train] is a ghost train, light gray
and see-through because we never got on. I didn’t finish
the tracks because I never learned where they would go.
Another poem, “Little Amira Honors Her Cat, Pepa,” is based on a drawing of a “family of fourteen hiding in a basement” with the speaker’s cat Pepa, who Little Amira claims “himself was love.” This is why when she draws him, Beers has the girl explain, “his face is an orange heart. He is smiling / with his mouth and his eyes and his whiskers.” Yes, a grenade “blew open the shelter.” Yes, after the explosion, “the world/ became only Lejla and me…” But Amira “draw[s] Pepa over and over” to honor him, and looks to the future with hope, however heartbreaking that hope is: “When I grow up, I will own a pet store./ I will have ten cats named Pepa./ I will do a better job because/ I will be bigger.” Though Beers stares unflinchingly into the inhumanity and violence of war, over and over, she finds humanity and beauty in the artwork it inspires.
The second part of the collection plumbs the same psychic depths in the world at large, beginning with “Me Llamo,” a poem dedicated to Esteban Guerra, a little boy who believes he carries the guilt of the world’s wars because his name means war itself:
At Confession, he recited figures from every
war he could find in the encyclopedias his abuela kept
in the front room. Padre, I killed 500,000 in Spain
In the 1930s. And 750,000 in the American Civil War alone.
From Esteban, Beers moves to victims of domestic violence in the Midwest, a nameless sister who takes the blame for her brother’s death, a girl near Boston who is waiting for a kidney transplant. Scattered throughout these poems about contemporary American people are mythic poems exploring the violent depths of our collective consciousness: there is a poem from the point of view of a raped naiad, a narrative from Daphne of her transformation into a tree. There are poems inspired by art here, too, for example “After Doctor’s Orders,” a poem inspired by a fused glass sculpture by Tom Dimond, which takes as its subject a man-become-bird who “has felt the southern pull on him in fall,/the northern tug in spring…”
By the end of the collection, when Beers describes her son, Liam, staring up from “the orange hammock of his stroller” at the “bright blue field” of the sky, throwing his fists up, his small hands “opening and closing,” we understand exactly what she means when she says he is “trying to grab // the vastness.” Her poems do something similar: they reach into the dark with small hands to capture the vastness of the human spirit.