Reviews/Comments on:

Reviews for BARE BRANCHES:

BARE BRANCHES, published by Red Berry Editions, is a work of art; from the way the poems are placed on the page, to the font by John Baskerville, whose letter “J” levitates above and anchors below, the lower cased letters. And to the art of Art Riggs whose peaceful and monochromatic photograph of branches along a river wraps around the entire book.

The first section, “Listen,” opens with the title poem, “Bare Branches.” Its tone is prayer-like. The last stanza, a couplet, ends with these words of inspiration and contemplation, “Soon, I hope snow will come. Like a poem, / a miracle each time it arrives.”  What follows are poems of loss and loneliness. The poems rise up from experience, from remembrance of a lived and shared life with her husband John. The impressions build from poem to poem, from place to place: Pittsburgh, and the imaginary “…town of Lionel,” to a child’s tale and a childhood’s end, to the 1960s World Series baseball game. This is not confessionalism, this is the day to day happenings that we recognize in ourselves, because Stephanie Mendel writes about the universal, she writes to and for the reader. We become a part of her joys, her hopes, her love, and, yes, the tragedies of her life.

These poems feed the heart as surely as blood in the veins feeds the body. Why do these poems of loss and sorrow bring us not toward hopelessness, but rather toward the truth? They do so because, as the poet writes, "…I couldn't tell this to anyone / only interested in logic." p.33) Perhaps there’s an analogy here, that one must experience hunger to fully appreciate fulfillment. The opposites of satisfaction and deprivation strengthen both the body and the spirit. There are in BARE BRANCHES poems that are meaningful but playful, such as "Secrets," and "When Bill Mazeroski Hit His Home Run." And in "Visitor to Vinalhaven," and "Ode to Living Alone," poems of pleasure. The unhappy and joyous parts of all our lives are celebrated in these songs and poems. The poet raises her voice, and says that each day will become smaller, a reminder of the ones we have loved and lost; that each day there will be minutes that no one else can find. We become a choir. The breath inside the body itself. There are shadows in Mendel's poems, they exist and they are not left unexpressed, they are not floating in the nebulous. They are discernible and solid.

In the second section, "The Beginning," Mendel takes us through the horrible day, Tuesday, September 11, 2001. She relives, relates, and tries to comprehend the terrible acts committed on this day and how it affected all of us; not just in America but throughout the whole world. She recalls the conversations between relatives and friends. The phone calls. The ringing and ringing. How we all struggled to return to some kind of normalcy. I’m reminded of the poet T. Carmi who wrote about an equally difficult time in Israel and Lebanon that took place forty years earlier. I quote here a few lines from his poem, “Diary Entry:”  “I keep to my schedule. / First stop: the accountant. / What can be accounted for on such a day? / The pocket calculator lights, turns off, / adds up; it stores, remembers, / predicts what is to come.”

The final section in BARE BRANCHES is "Every Moment a Threshold." That title alone makes me hold my breath. I know what will transpire; I know her beloved husband John is going to die. I say to myself, I will read these last poems slowly. I will hold each page between my fingers and let what must come to pass, settle in, slow down time; even back away from the threshold; let hours pass before going on to the next poem, maybe let a day or few days go by. I think while you're reading this you know what I'm going to write next. I read all the poems straight through, almost in a rush. Line breaks and stanzas blurred. And at the end I stopped. I said out loud in a soft voice, No! Then as I promised myself, I re-read each poem with care; let the weight of what they held coalesce.

I find it interesting that BARE BRANCHES comes after her first collection, MARCH, BEFORE SPRING, seamlessly, and can only believe that there is yet another book to come that will complete a trilogy. From reawakening to dormancy, where the life cycle is temporarily stopped, to the predictive; before the onset of an adverse condition occurs, to the consequential, to understanding. And to ask of oneself, is it the changing of the seasons that accounts for the absence of the leaves on the branches or the surcease of the life force ― the untimely death of her husband John? It is, I think, both. It is the constant reminder of time passing.

I end this review, this tribute to a fine poet, with a short poem by her entitled, “Entering.” (p.62)

Like the infant’s outstretched arms
that eventually must push away,
you had to listen to death,
and I had to prepare to live.

-- Joseph Zaccardi

I continue to be haunted by these elegant and tender poems. Stephanie Mendel skillfully weaves together loss and promise, past and present, sadness and joy. Within each of her poems is a receptivity that leads to transformation: "a bird could come any moment, or snow, or a poem." BARE BRANCHES is about human connection, and it is about all that is
truly important. And, the physical book itself is a work of art, lovely to look at and comforting to hold.
-- Rose Black

I was quite moved by “Sha’arei Shalom” by Stephanie Mendel. Here, a woman visits the cemetery where her husband is buried. She imagines him talking with the other people buried there -- “Who knows what dead people talk about” and tells him about her life:
No need to tell him Arnold Schwarzenegger
is now our governor. It’s not his concern.
I tell him I saw twelve deer near the mausoleum . . .
-- Francie Noyes Review

BARE BRANCHES is a treasure in so many ways to a reader. It's something fresh and unknown. I love this book.
-- Anthony Wolk, English Professor, Portland State University

With the title poem the reader is instantly led in and held. The poems, at once warm and wise, are all beautiful self-portraits of a poet who has lived and loved deeply. Subtle, crafted, and all with a balance of humor and sadness. Each poem lifts off the page and the reader is happy to be lifted with them. The book itself feels good in the hand with a gorgeous cover & creamy, deckle-edged paper. Reminds one why it is a pleasure to read.
-- Kate Peper

Seldom has a book of poems so moved me. I am in awe of the clarity, directness, delicacy, light touch, sense of humor and wisdom. Even a stranger reading the poems will get the sense of a woman rising above pitfalls which might destroy someone without her nature laced with love and an expansive humanity.
-- Phyllis Teplitz

© 2011 Stephanie Mendel. All rights reserved.