Book Review: Eve and All the Wrong Men by Aviya Kushner
Aviya Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York. She is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau / Penguin Random House), which was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, a Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalist, and one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Religion Stories of 2015. She is The Forward's language columnist and a former poetry columnist for BarnesandNoble.com; she has received a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an Illinois Arts Council grant, and a Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture Fellowship, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry.
A Review of Aviya Kushner's Eve and All the Wrong Men
Aviya Kushner’s ardently feminist Eve and All the Wrong Men is a thematically linked series of poems that examine the insides of femininity, urging us to “crawl into a refrigerator” with modern Eve—unafraid of the darkness or chill—to digest the bounty it houses: “bloody desire, pain, rebellion,” and to feel the containment it represents. Kushner’s poems are an invitation to “the story of how Eve became Eve” in biblical tradition; they are offered like “jazz tickets” and impossible to refuse, because who can imagine “a world where jazz tickets / go unsold, or worse, unclaimed.”
Kushner creates a space where one goes to meet the self to learn about desire and loneliness on a serpentine path of relationships “walking in, / and also, walking out.” In the first of poems titled “Men,” the poet offers us hope that goes beyond Postmodern, Stevensian vision of never-ending torment of desire. Kushner allows the possibility that the path of wanting and “becoming” might eventually turn into “being”–lucent and free–at the end of desire, where one can say:
…, I can just be, here I am,
As the poems weave on, one begins to appreciate Kushner’s uncanny ability to capture the complexity of woman-man relationship in one small rectangle of a chapbook. The poet begins with the portrait of Eve that is imaginative yet frank, at once free and shaft-sharp in its clarity. As the reader follows a woman through the series of failed and painful relationships with “all the wrong men:” God, Adams, Davids, ex-boyfriends, “men in my life / but not in my life,” men sleeping in beds of other women, men talking to other women, men writing about women, in the Bible and in poetry—Kushner fulfills her initial emphatic message:
This creature is scarred from birth; the first of her kind and, yet, always the second; a model to all who are “born woman”—the heirs of her “path.” Created only to be a companion but so often abandoned and unwanted, she finds herself in conflict with the God-given purpose .
Loneliness is the binding ingredient of the poems formed with the elegance of Michelangelo’s David—stripped of adornment, focused on the perfection of each line and each tercet, each structural gesture a masterful representation of the author’s passion for her craft. The passion is so contagious that I keep repeating after her the first of the “Realisations:”
If it were possible to eat a poem,
It is with such passion that Kushner offers the second realization, even more compelling, as it turns the previous desolation to something manageable:
How I love little breakfasts
Loneliness becomes domesticated, and—paradoxically—shareable. In her capacity to give rather than take, Kushner admits that loneliness is not a uniquely feminine problem. In “The Nameless Neighbor,” the female speaker “observe[s] how alone / he is” and empathizes with him, “the traveler” like herself, looking for a way back to Eden.
Kushner’s work does not attempt to define woman or place her before all creation, but joins the conversation on femininity that dates back to Genesis. On the one hand, her poems acknowledge “her wails [that] are wordless” yet echo throughout centuries. On the other hand, she celebrates her capacity to be happy. Although the story of Eve permeates the poems, at the center of the book, literally and figuratively, there is Venus, a goddess—implicit and explicit—iridescent in the lines of two side by side poems. Whether in the body of “the lovely eighty-something woman with vintage glasses” or in the ideal of Italian Renaissance, Venus embraces the winter chill and the waves rushing on her: “I am who I am, like the sea is the sea.” Whether the journey is a trudge to the supermarket in a blizzard or a voyage to Florence, Italy, the poems ask us “to stop and listen” and “to hear what you know. Again.” Kushner dazzles with skillful weaving of artistic, architectural, literary, and pop cultural threads that come together as a warm shawl against the chill of a lonely day, encouraging us to “go out. Again.” Because a woman is at once Eve, and Venus, and Layla, a river and a bridge, and so much more; fearless, beautiful, and resilient—she has what it takes--
and when Marie comes to borrow a cup of milk I’ll say
Against Western tradition that sees feminine as fallen, whether she be a mother or childfree, a wife or a “toothless hooker,” a girl or a “lovely older woman” in a “fur-trimmed hat,” a woman stands up lifted by Kushner’s unapologetic but infinitely compassionate poems. The content of this chapbook is well worth rereading—truly an aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual treat.
Kasia Wolny is a senior at Lewis University majoring in English Literature with creative writing minor. She is the fiction, creative nonfiction, and copy editor at the Jet Fuel Review. She recently received the Lincoln Academy Award and will serve as a Student Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois. She also serves as a Vice-President of Sigma Tau Delta. International English Honor Society, Rho Lambda Chapter. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, two children, and a golden doodle pup. She and her family recently established the Wolny Writing Residency for Lewis faculty, students and alums.