PORTRAIT OF A READING WOMAN. By Helen Gorenstein. SGS Press, New York. 2009.

The poems in Portrait of a Reading Woman convey the tapestry of a life richly lived and richly told. Originally a Bostonian, Helen Gorenstein has spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard for over 40 years. Drawing on memories from her childhood in the 1930s, her marriage, and her “long summers” on the Island, she retraces her steps from childhood into her seventh decade. 

Because of their precision and candor, the poems elicit a shock of recognition as if we were experiencing what happens in the poem ourselves. They resonate because the memories are captured in ways that reflect the poet’s wisdom without losing the spontaneity and sense of wonder in the events she writes about. Throughout, she is aware of the elusive quality of memory and its influence on truth, as reflected in a poem about her mother knotting her scarf every morning “as though giving me a hug — each morning the sign of her affection, or then again, whether it is my memory playing tricks . . . .”  

Ms. Gorenstein takes us from such accounts of childhood, to the joy and recklessness of adolescence (“How we let those males show off, the hem of our skirts swirling in the summer breeze”) to “the ache of loss” when she loses her husband. In poems about Martha’s Vineyard, she chronicles trips to the Island through changes in her life. In Magical Thinking, she recalls the first summer she returns after her husbanddied. “I sense you have found your way back, and lie stretched flat on the wooden bench that was good for your back.”

In several poems, weread of objects such as radishes or a Kodak snapshot taken in 1928 that trigger the poet’s memory and ground us in the concrete and quotidian. From there, the poet beautifully evokes nostalgia for earlier times, places and people throughout herlife. In coming across the word “jujubes,” she is reminded of her mother: “Abruptly I am transported to a Saturday afternoon with the heroine falling over the side of a cliff while into the darkness my mother thrusts the white waxy box of purple and cherry gummy Jujubes.” In another poem, hot cocoa is associated with the daily ritual of making her husband breakfast in the “childhood” of their marriage. Through the use of poignant detail, she succinctly and powerfully depicts life during wartime, “Our bare legs tinted with suntan lotion and a seam drawn with a jet eyebrow pencil, all the silk gone for parachutes.”  Similarly, she tells about the evolution of style in women’s slips to convey larger societal changes that occurred after the war.

When it comes to the people in her life, Ms. Gorenstein has an uncanny ability to capture their essence with remarkable depth and brevity: “I’ve had other lovers with that mouth . . . puckered, mildly disappointed, prudish when I say something roguish.” A poem about her mathematician husband reveals as much by what she doesn’t say as what she does: “Your aesthetics were comprised of beauties incomprehensible to me; we were two poles, visible in family photos with the children bunched between us.”

Throughout her book Portrait of a Reading Woman, Ms. Gorenstein allows herself to bear witness to truth as it appears, without judgment, and with an acceptance of illusion as part of that truth. Their power lies in the authenticity that shines through as aresult. As such, her poems are like found objects — a notion that is strikingly conveyed in her poem Objets Trouves in which she compares the act of writing poetry to the actions of a squirrel gathering material for a nest: “Call it found art, my neighbor’s nest and my stanzas made from blown leaves of trees and pear blossoms, and twigs of the azaleas.” 


Helen Gorenstein will be reading from her book Poetry of a Reading Woman at the West Tisbury Public Library on Thursday, August 6, at 5 p.m. The book is available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore and Edgartown Books.

Elizabeth Harrington is a poet whose work has appeared in The Hudson Review, Field, the Connecticut Review, Nimrod and in her award-winning chap book Earth’s Milk. She is also a contributing writer on poetry for Suite101.com.