Judy Kronenfeld’s Groaning and Singing, Reviewed by Shayna Blank

Judy Kronenfeld Groaning and Singing, FUTURECYCLEPRESS, Athens Georgia, 2022,  ISBN 978-1-952593-22-2  87 pages  $15.95

Groaning and Singing begins, suitably, with song, as “all throughout the klezmer concert / all through the wailing, laughing,” Kronenfeld’s family, deceased parents and ancestors, sit down and join her,

……….all of them silently kvetching, kibitzing
……….groaning, singing, all the way

I was drawn to reviewing the collection because of these opening lines, and they speak to the larger themes and shifts within the entirety of the book. Family, legacy, the bonds (or in some cases unwanted severing of them) between generations that potentially carry our stories and hearts into the future — and particularly the shared joys, fears, and heartaches of being a Jewish American — are the blood of Groaning and Singing.

Within Kronenfeld’s poems is a deep symbiosis between sound and the heart. Sound and music have a tangible presence throughout the work — as interruption in the meditative routine of daily life, as connection with ancestors, as mundane irritation, as a tool of memory and recollection. The poet also returns multiple times to subjects of enclosure and freedom: painted portraits of women, a girl framed in silhouette within a distant window, the poet’s own reflection. These become lenses through which she relates to knowing herself and the world, a way to examine what containment and restraint mean. Images of enclosure take on a symbolic nature through her work, emblematic of a worldview that permeates many of the poems.

Notably, the poems in Groaning and Singing possess a cynical quality that is not easily found in poems of today. Kronenfeld’s is not the brand of cynicism in mode, railing against the pressures and injustices of corrupt institutional power; rather, hers is a personal cynicism, more tightly held, one that finds its way into the core of even the most lighthearted poems. It could be called world-weariness instead, perhaps, or even ennui. Regardless, there is lightness, but always coupled with shadow.

Kronenfeld’s poems reflect the anxieties of living and of aging. In “Chronic This and That”, she writes to her body, “cut your strings, / lighten, rise, so I may be (oh bodily comfort) / heedless / of body”; and in “Wish”, a forlorn dream of a poem with that ever-present visceral edge, “the sack of blood I am / quivers like a cut of liver”. Lines that profess a longing for the freedom of physical vigor stand out as painfully as broken ribs from the poems of everyday musing. At times, the reader is taken through sudden, unpredictable shifts: a delicate scene changes as the poet thinks of the disease of a loved one or fears of her own impending physical breakdown. The poems shudder and push the reader out of the poem, abruptly, mercilessly, into the abstract thoughts of the poet. In “4 A.M., Suddenly Awake” and “Even Song”, the poet brilliantly whisks us along through her headspace, whereas in “Charm”, Kronenfeld somewhat ineffectually connects a charismatic serial rapist, along with the murderers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, with her own struggles to maintain poise in our onlooking society. While these shifts can indeed be jarring, there is something to be said for a poet who rejects the romantic impulse to let the small beauties of the world supersede the ugly randomness of life, and who instead allows the beautiful and the ugly to battle it out within each poem — or at the very least to cohabitate within the lines. She permits her readers to see her fears, her wants, her fleeting thoughts; she reveals repeated ruminations and deeply embedded anxieties with equal weight.

Bodily anxieties, not often approached with such candor, come to the forefront, as in “Care”, where she asks: “Who will remember who / I am, or touch me / with an ungloved hand, / or even love me abstractly, / in my own descent?”

As with the experience of loss, she candidly expresses her thoughts on death itself: its loneliness, the questions we ask when close to it, the human desire for legacy within an uncaring universe. But always, the ordinary and the existential bump against each other. For Kronenfeld, loss — both personal and generational, as she does not shy away from the effects of either — cannot be ignored. As a woman, as a daughter, as a Jew, as a parent and grandparent, and as a human being witnessing the suffering of the world, loss is indelible. It is a strand braided into every part of life.

In other poems, the sweetness of living takes the forefront, as in “Gold” — her son’s quick embrace “like a light wool shawl stolen / from my shoulders just as I begin / to appreciate its warmth” — and the remarkably tangible “Brief Drift”. These poems and others deftly capture light and relief within a poet’s world that does not shy away from pain, anxiety, and bitterness.

Kronenfeld’s poems are cerebral, stream-of-consciousness, her internal associations leading the poems and connecting one idea to the next, the reading experience not unlike being taken over the edge of one waterfall and then carried further downstream towards the next one.

The final section in the book is, appropriately, her strongest. With so much of the book turned inward, here Kronenfeld shifts outward. These poems are where she is most connected to the natural world, and despite the subject matter — which like the rest does not shy away from the mixed calm and distress of living — they evoke a comfort with the outer world that is close to absent previously. Containment and constraint are realized as self-impositions from which the poet is now freed, her view expansive, universal, connected. As she allows herself to leave the mire of the more heavily internal world, her poems attain a deeper level of freedom of thought that turns again inward with greater understanding.

Nowhere is this quality more present than the bright star of the book, “Number and Weight”, which opens this final segment by turning to the galaxy itself for answers. In this, the book’s sole prose poem, she invokes the celestial within the personal and universal, the mundane and the inconceivably tragic, with startling perception and brutally insightful detail. Not only is the poem’s content stunning, but its form is paired perfectly with Kronenfeld’s distinct style, making brave and uncompromising use of the prose poem’s best qualities. “Number and Weight” alone is worth the price of the book — although readers will have an astonishing journey before and after, so long as they are willing to let it whisk them along.

© Judy Kronenfeld and Shayna Blank

Judy Kronenfeld has published 4 previous full-length poetry collections including Bird Flying Through the Banquet and Shimmer. In addition to poetry, Judy has published creative non-fiction and short fiction in numerous literary journals.  She is Lecturer Emerita, Dept. of Creative Writing UC Riverside and an associate editor of Poemeleon. Judy and her husband live in Riverside CA.

Shayna Blank is a freelance web designer and editor from Baltimore, Maryland. She has written and edited for the web, authors, and Three Conditions Press, among others. The recipient of the Scholastic Art Award in Poetry, youngARTS Writing Award in Screenwriting and the Bartleby Poetry Award, her writing has appeared in the Susquehanna Review and others.

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