Amus­ing the Angels

  • Review
By – August 7, 2023

In Amus­ing the Angels, poet Stew­art Flor­sheim recalls his family’s his­to­ry to reflect on ordi­nary moments in con­tem­po­rary life. The book begins with a series of poems about the Holo­caust that draw on footage from the doc­u­men­tary Three Min­utes: A Length­en­ing as well as the jour­nal entries his great-uncle wrote while aboard the infa­mous S.S. St. Louis ship. Both of these poems — Jew­ish Quar­ter, Nasiel­sk, Poland, 1938” and Jour­ney Back” — relate the immi­nent dan­gers faced by the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty at the start of the Holo­caust. While lat­er poems med­i­tate on top­ics such as par­ent­hood, the pan­dem­ic, and sen­su­al­i­ty, the tone of these ear­ly Holo­caust poems lingers as the book goes on. 

In Drop­ping Off My Two-Year-Old at Day­care,” Mak­ing Pesto with My Daugh­ter,” and My Eight-Year-Old Is Learn­ing Cur­sive,” Flor­sheim recounts mem­o­rable moments with his daugh­ters dur­ing his ear­ly years of par­ent­ing. He con­sid­ers small occa­sions that become sig­nif­i­cant with­out his antic­i­pat­ing them, like when he drops his daugh­ter off at day­care. I speed off to catch the 7:25 train,” he writes. I can almost imag­ine I may nev­er see her again / so I begin to count her freck­les … / I keep fight­ing the urge I have to fall asleep.” 

Many of Florsheim’s poems are ekphras­tic, inspired by painters such as Amedeo Modigliani, Anders Zorn, Camille Pis­sar­ro, and Hen­ri Matisse. In these poems, Flor­sheim imag­ines the lives of the peo­ple in the paint­ings, ren­der­ing their thoughts before, dur­ing, and after the work’s com­ple­tion. Some of the moments in these paint­ings revolve around sex­u­al ten­sion and lust­ful imagery, while oth­ers are set dur­ing times of war. In his poem Caesura,” which takes after the 1919 paint­ing Tea by Hen­ri Matisse, Flor­sheim writes:

The Treaty of Ver­sailles just signed, the two women

sit under a chest­nut tree in Issy-les-Moulineaux.

Mar­guerite talks about the repair work

that needs to be done on the house—

… She and Matisse plan to open a bot­tle of Bordeaux

they’ve been sav­ing until the war ends.

There are also poems based on still-life paint­ings — includ­ing Defin­ing the Light” and Still Life with Cat and Fish” — that dif­fer from Florsheim’s oth­er ekphras­tic poems, in that they are very brief. Rather than pre­sent­ing a nar­ra­tive about char­ac­ters in the paint­ing, Florsheim’s still-life poems are more lyri­cal and imag­is­tic. They use the five sens­es to describe moments of still­ness, the peace and inac­tion before some­one will enter the scene. 

In between ekphras­tic poems, Flor­sheim describes trav­el­ing as a Jew in Ger­many and Israel. He won­ders at the ways in which the world has moved on from the Holo­caust while not nec­es­sar­i­ly inter­nal­iz­ing its vic­tims’ pain. In Per­spec­tives: Ger­many,” he writes about see­ing a recent edi­tion of Anne Frank’s diary on one shelf, / a new book about Hitler on the shelf below” and not being able to focus on any­thing in the store beyond the eerie smile of Anne sit­u­at­ed above the scowl of Hitler. 

Flor­sheim also delib­er­ates on how the pan­dem­ic gave him oppor­tu­ni­ties to slow down and spend time in nature (which per­haps explains his attrac­tion to cen­turies-old still-life paint­ings and por­traits). In Pan­dem­ic,” he writes, 

I was tak­ing a walk

through the neighborhood

and stopped when

I noticed

a hum­ming­bird hovering

over a Bird-of-Paradise,

and for a moment

the earth fluttered.

The poems in Amus­ing the Angels are acces­si­ble, nar­ra­tive, and image-dri­ven. They touch on top­ics of the human con­di­tion and embrace the rela­tion­ship between humans, nature, and art. 

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

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