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July 23, 2004

Voices of the past and future

Poet Isa Milman uses rhythm of everyday speech to make poems sing.

Isa Milman's first book of poetry, Between the Doorposts, is filled with ghosts who are listening for their names. And Milman, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, names them. In her poems, she gives new life to those who died before her. She ends her poem "Stolin" with "People ask where I'm from and I wonder how far back to go, / how to explain that Stolin means all that is forever lost, but remains / in the dark shapes of absent loves that visit me, in dreams," and so she sets the theme of her book. In her poem "Family History," the ghosts slide down the page, and we can hear their graceful voices and the lives they lived before, before they died and were "forbidden to leave a trace."

Milman lives between the doorposts of her life; between the memories of her history as a Jewish woman and the life she lives now: "a good life, desirable, valuable, privileged...." And it is the doorpost that is solid with joy that brings balance to her darker poems. In "Four Songs About Laundry," she writes, "I loved hanging out the wash.... / Folding the sheets, I'd bury my nose in fresh wind / startled by happiness." In "September Harvest," she writes of her husband, "Yesterday you brought in the last figs / swollen with summer's nectar, / and a basket of tomatoes, your treasures."

Milman is a skilled poet, using the rhythm of everyday speech and repetition to make her poems sing. These are poems filled with color and light, filled with music. What makes her poems work is the ease with which she connects her heart and mind.

In these poems Milman puts life in her pocket. She takes it out as she looks at the pain of her history with clear eyes and asks the reader to hold it for awhile and understand; to understand those of her family who died terribly, without reason. It is the Jewish collective history that she writes about when she names these familiar ghosts: Mordechai, Basia, Yitzhak. She marks their deaths in her poems, so that they can live again in our minds. She knows about the yellow stars she never had to wear.

Then she reaches into her pocket and brings out yellow birch leaves, rosehips and peonies and says, look, look, how beautiful. In her poem, "Evidence of the Existence of God in My Kitchen Catch-All Drawer," she brings out " the things that hold the world together/ the hooks and the wires, the tape and the glue." And suddenly, our hands are filled to overflowing.

Wendy Morton is an insurance investigator who enjoys performing random acts of poetry, including writing poems for passengers on WestJet flights and stopping strangers on the street to read to them. She has two books of poetry published by Ekstasis Editions, Private Eye and Undercover.