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This Body Is Never at Rest: Bart Edelman New and Selected Poems, 1993-2023, a Review

Reviewed by David Garyan

April 28th, 2024

The trajectory of any artistic career—if it’s to reach the most sought-after levels of success—must invariably arrive at a point where the act of looking back at past accomplishments becomes not just a nostalgic whim, but a historical necessity: The musician reaches that mark with a greatest hits album; the artist gets the honor with a retrospective; the poet arrives to this benchmark with a Selected Poems. The mere presence of such a book already bestows upon the writer a certain level of stature and legitimacy that few who ever pick the pen manage to achieve. Though Bart Edelman’s This Body Is Never at Rest: New and Selected Poems, 1993—2023 does catapult him to the apex of his poetic career, the actual book isn’t a mere formality—it’s not 300 pages bound together very randomly just for the sake of ceremony and pomp. These poems are truly selected in a fashion that not only testifies to the best of what Edelman has done, but they were also chosen with cohesion in mind; the former is the easier task—the latter much harder.

The editors at Meadowlark have taken great care to celebrate a career that has spanned thirty years—and not merely three decades of checkered success, but a consistent demonstration of poetic excellence, ever since Edelman released his first book in 1993, Crossing the Hackensack. In light of his latest feat, the choice of that title now seems more prophetic than ever. The act of traversing a river bears countless symbolic implications—from Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon, all the way to the most daring rites of passage. So did the poet begin his journey on one bank, from his native New Jersey, and cross the greatest distances to arrive at this venerated port. And not only did he devote all his efforts to reaching that place himself, he also, along the way, set aside time and energy to make sure he could help those on the same journey.

For over fifteen years, Edelman edited Eclipse, a national literary journal known for its high quality—both in terms of content but also for the production of the book itself. What really set it apart, however, was his commitment to promoting young authors in the magazine: Ten to fifteen percent of the space continued to be devoted to student writing from Glendale College—the place where Edelman taught for over 35 years. In between books, the poet also carried out literary research in India, Egypt, and Nigeria. In this sense, the journey across the river has been at once metaphorical, but also quite real.

Edelman brings all of these experiences to bear upon the latest project, meaning there’s plenty for readers to be excited about here. What’s unique about this Selected Poems is its abundance of new material—forty-six works to be exact. The effort provides further confirmation of the fact that this undertaking represents not just an occasion to celebrate but really an opportunity to perform—and the poet has come prepared very much for the latter. The reader is treated to a full-length collection inside a grand sweep of the author’s best pieces; in this way, all those who pick up the book get both the banquet but also the show.

The new poems are divided into three sections: “Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Evening,” effortlessly complementing the title of the project—This Body Is Never at Rest. The titular piece rightly opens the book and despite the journey it has taken to get here, neither the poet’s physical nor mental essence misses a bit: “Although it yearns for repair,  / Although an avalanche awaits, / Although the Holy Spirit is asleep, /  Although the universe cries, Foul,” nothing stops this writer’s work.

As we go on with the poet, it becomes clear that he is pulling no punches. While novice bards use the craft as a vehicle of description, Edelman uses it as an instrument of truth. Poems like “The System” and “The Man Without a Name” hit hard and never let up. The former comments on the cyclical nature of society, ending with a powerful note highlighting the changes we believe to have made and the changes that happen regardless of what people think they’ve changed: “Nowadays, there’s a befitting silence, / Waiting to greet us each morning. / I guess it comes with the territory— / This end of the cycle, / As we well know it.” And likewise in “The Man Without a Name” we’re directly shown how the eyes of society look upon us—with glances that are blind to the individual; at the same time these very glances perfectly perceive the masses and direct their movements.

See the man who can blend in anywhere, and yet is invisible: “The people who met him in Los Angeles, / Thought he was an Angeleno; / Those who greeted him in Boston, / Took him for a Bostonian. / He seemed at home on either coast— / A fellow for whom location was secondary.” Is this not how all of us move within a contemporary community we think is our own, but in fact is also everyone else’s? And that’s indeed how we’re rendered invisible—invisible to the extent that the less ourselves we are in modern society, the more subject we become to its scrutiny, surveillance, and control: “The day after he disappeared, / He left sorrowful souls behind, / Who told endless stories about his exploits— / None of them real . . . all of them true.” That’s our world in a nutshell: The desire to build truth with many perspectives, combined with the lack of concern for which perspectives are actually real.

In “Afternoon” we face questions at times, but at times we also get answers. “What if what you thought you saw / Had not even occurred? / As though there was a magic act— / Some sleight of hand at work— / To deem you an accomplice, / But you never remotely knew / Why the plan was devised for you?” Though “What If?” doesn’t offer the necessary consolation to the peace-seeking skeptic, there’s nevertheless an answer to the dilemma elsewhere: “If you’re searching for solace, / You won’t find it here. / Try the local liquor store, / The dry cleaners on the corner, / Or the understaffed post office— / Pregnant with dead letters galore, / And holiday greeting cards. / Please, don’t pay me a visit.” In this way, the poet gives us “Solace,” but not the predictable kind.

The poems in “Afternoon” offer plenty of refreshing darkness while also adding a nice touch of paradox to our usual expectations of afternoon: “Tell the sun to take a hike, / Dance on the edge of darkness, / Tempt the devil one last time.” The strength of this section lies in the associations readers can make between poems, adding further credence to the editorial vision. Edelman has always been skilled in creatively linking images and ideas; here, in these pages, we see the skill on full display, along with the more general power that arrangements can bring to bear upon text.

As we move towards “Evening,” we must reconcile our own world with that of the poet’s, and we see that they’re not so different, after all. My personal favorite is “On Finding Someone Who Loved You,” with “The Last Word” being very much a close second. Let’s start with the former, where Edelman writes: “Never measure progress by distance; / This can lead to your undoing. / It took you an entire life / To give all you did so freely. / Now you must heal yourself / Through the sorrow grace dictates, / When the heart’s song, / Longs to sing again.” The poet understands that we make progress by moving towards the thing we desire; at the same time, he’s asking us never to measure that distance to see how far we’ve gotten. At its core, the line seems simple; upon further reading there’s a whole host of meanings to unpack. The best spend all their lives giving, but they too reach a point where life must give them something in return—just so they can continue to live for their purpose. And when the time does come to say the last word, the poet wonders “When it will be written, / How it may possibly sound, / What the meaning shall convey,” and he wonders also whether he’ll be able to “measure its weight, / By the length of a feather / Yesterday’s sparrow left behind, / On the path to my loft, / In the house I call home.” It’s no accident that This Body Is Never at Rest ends on that very poem.

The collection proceeds to Edelman’s previously published books—sensibly arranged in chronological order from most recent to last. A discussion of which books, much less which poems are strongest would be futile and counterproductive. Each achievement represents a unique point in Bart’s creative trajectory, and one title builds upon the other. Readers will likewise applaud the editors’ choice to end the collection with a poem called “Passages,” a wonderfully crafted piece in the form of a letter between a man named Bart and a woman called Kate. Most will immediately make some connection to the author, but the more astute admirer of literature will be more cautious: The I in the poem isn’t always the poet; in these lines, however, we can see him and his mission very clearly: “When I want something to grow, / I plant my foot upon the earth, / Build a boat to sail, / Draw the wind, / Write a poem.” A traveler, a poet, a creative guide—this is the essence of Bart Edelman. Pick up your copy, open it up, and go along on the journey.

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