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The Royal Baker's Daughter

by Barbara Goldberg
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008
(winner of the Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry) 72 pgs. 
ISBN – 029922720-0


A Review by Laura Orem

The Royal Baker’s Daughter is a remarkable book of poems. It explores, in familial, historical, and global contexts, the idea of boundaries and conflict, connection and redemption. These poems in a way remind us that all human relationships are negotiations – and that the integrity with which we navigate through them is often the only thing anchoring us to a comprehensible place.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, “Kindness,” deals with the speaker’s relationship with her parents, most strikingly a flawed, terrifying, but complicated and much-loved father:

Carvel

In the summer, when the days were light longer,
we’d pile in the car and drive down Metropolitan
Avenue for soft ice cream at Carvel’s. Those nights
we could have been a regular American family out
for a spin whose father maybe tossed a ball
with his kids, or tousled their hair, or let himself
be tickled. But we knew his moods would return,
when we’d tiptoe around the house, lay low. This
was the fifties, there was Korea, but it was far away
but it wasn’t our war and they weren’t murdering
our people. Later I’d learn, but only much later, after

he was long gone, that he gave our blue Persian carpet
to Frank Smetana, who was broke and could sell it
for cash. He also gave money to his mother’s seven
brothers and sisters, and some got out in time,
dispersing to Israel, Australia, South Africa. Or
the year he paid the bills for the Swiss sanitarium
my uncle stayed at after the war to put on fat. These
kindnesses, these things my father did without thinking
twice, what to say about them, about him? Except
that how a man treats his own children is only one
part of the story. And there are others.

Part two of the book, “Cedar Tree, Starfish, Beautiful Eyes,” moves back and forth between Biblical history and current events in the Middle East. They illustrate that contemporary events are merely the continuation of a terrible narrative that has been unfolding for thousands of years: “How to survive this place where/blood feuds last for eons, where sticks and stones/and absolutes reign and nothing, even sin, is original?” (“From the Book of Judges.”)
The speaker in part three, “Fortune’s Darling,” extends this metaphor to the narrative of the individual. We cannot, she seems to say, escape our own stories and the impact they have on our present and future:

No Small Feat

No small feat for Grief to doff
his mourning cloak, the velvet
heft of it, and its scarlet naught

emblazoned in cross stitches, insignia
for not enough. He might easily
have kept it on, remaining wrapped

in sorry, for surely there is enough
sorry in this world to dwell in. If we
could earn a crown for every soul

we found shrouded in despair, why,
we’d be richer than a dozen kings!
Which explains why moths grow fat,

and tailors are by nature cheerful,
day in, day out, their nimble fingers
stitching habits of our own choosing.

It would be understandable to embrace despair under the weight of all this history, but these poems do not allow us the easy out. Instead, like the tailors in this poem, they tell us that, if we face the past with understanding and a willingness to face the truth, we can find enough light to keep moving along our path. Or, if not movement forward, at least we can draw some redemption out of this kind of clarity:

The Early Childhood of Grief

And from the loins of Reason and Passion
springs Grief, a surly, birdlike boy

who refuses to cry. No gurgling, no babbling,
no scattershot foray into the dense

and dissonant world, choosing instead
to stay mute, to absorb it all

through his eyes, his parents, their singular
deadlock. Passion has no patience

for Grief, nor Reason, the stomach,
so consumed are they by each other.

Grief grows in time as time
grows in him, each nanosecond adding

to his girth. Soon he’s wearing
a polka-dot vest on his way to school

where he loses his marbles, is pelted
with dumplings. He finds refuge lying

flat on his back in an open field
where he studies the sky, the inhabitants

thereof, at ease in that recitative,
consoled by the heavenly undertones.

The Royal Baker’s Daughter is not an easy book. The poems are layered and complex, and like all good poetry, compel second and third and more readings. But they are worth wrestling with – carefully crafted and deeply felt. This is a book that I will keep on my shelf and return to again.


Laura Orem is a writer, artist, and teacher who lives on a small farm in Red Lion, PA. She teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she is a Writing Fellow.

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