A Woman in Pieces Crossed a Sea by Denise Bergman, winner of the West End Press
2013 Patricia Clark Smith Poetry Prize, West End Press, 2014, 72pp/, $14.95
The subtle, fierce poems in Denise Bergman’s new collection, A Woman in Pieces Crossed a Sea, offer a biography of the Statue of Liberty, beginning with the titanic Statue’s birth in France in the mind of sculptor Batholdi, her dismemberment into 350 “pieces” packed in 214 crates, her journey “in pieces” across the sea to Bedloe’s Island, her unpacking and re-assembling by “workers [who] break their lives into distinctions,” and her resurrection and presence as symbol and sign of all that America has long promised to its citizens and the world.
Bergman’s story of the giant copper and steel “woman…born with broken/shackles on her feet” begins with a demand from the heart: “Hey Lady!/…Give us/what you promised, or give us/an honest truth.” The poet holds the hugeness of the symbolic content the Statue was endowed against past and ongoing injustices of her adopted country. Her request for “an honest truth,” rather than “the honest truth” establishes the quiet irony that seeps through the meticulously crafted book. “An honest truth” measures all too precisely what we can ask for in a land where poverty of truth is a daily condition.
Was the “woman in pieces” a more accurate symbol of what our nation really offers than the re-assembled colossus? This “woman,” created from a man’s “colossal notion,”
like so many women bears too much. She was “born dragging her symbol self up the pedestal stair…born from concept, pregnant possibility.” Her passport from France was “stamped change/and be the same,” a deadly paradox written as stone. The Statue carries the burden of overblown concept, where “Concept is that child/clinging, begging to be lifted and held” but comes up empty as the air the Statue is filled with.
All is not well in the land at the time of the “woman’s” coming:
Eight months before she opens her copper blind eyes
Dragged from his cell…
The mob lynched “the wrong Negro”
(“The Diadem Spikes Point to the Horizon”)
The ten year old is out there working….
(“The Diadem Spikes Point to Labor”)
Five hundred Chiricahuas torn from their land…
…Prisoners of war for twenty-seven years
(“The Diadem Spikes Point to Permissions Granted”)
The final poem of the book, “What if She Wants to Change,” imagines the “woman,” desiring to escape her frozen life in the harbor:
What if she wants to disobey…
…and lug her half-shackled feet
off the pedestal,
…kick the illusion apart.
In a far hemisphere…
…Sever her feet if she has to—
With the determination of an animal caught in a trap, the Lady could free herself, stage a rebirth of the real, a “first step” that might lead us forward to a future that offers more than a show of Liberty.
A few days after I read A Woman in Pieces Crossed a Sea, I drove to Manhattan from Brooklyn, spied the Lady lifting her torch to the sky, and got a visceral hit of how a symbol can confuse and thereby oppress with meanings that do not manifest as concrete benefit in our lives and in the lives of others. These graceful, articulate poems recalibrated the way I see the Statue of Liberty. I will not forget them.