Once, This For­est Belonged to a Storm

  • Review
By – June 5, 2023

In her rich and com­pelling poet­ry col­lec­tion, Once, This For­est Belonged to a Storm, Austen Leah Rose writes about being in reli­gious school, attend­ing syn­a­gogue, and study­ing Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. She belongs to the third gen­er­a­tion: her grand­moth­er immi­grat­ed to the US from Hitler’s Europe.

The poems in this col­lec­tion often pri­or­i­tize uncer­tain­ty – about good will, inten­tion, God. Rose shows humil­i­ty as she con­sid­ers her rel­a­tive pow­er­less­ness in the face of his­to­ry. Her lan­guage is sur­pris­ing — some­times unnerv­ing, some­times comforting. 

In the poem Ein Sof,” Rose writes that she is try­ing to teach her­self for­give­ness, and then she makes an inter­est­ing jump:

I am try­ing to remem­ber that God is cru­el because God is lone­ly, and aren’t we all?

Out­side, the day is a con­fu­sion of clouds

and peo­ple are say­ing things they don’t real­ly mean.

I did not know there was anoth­er sky

behind this sky, big­ger than I could ever have imag­ined, and full of stars.

Ein Sof is the kab­bal­is­tic notion of a tran­scen­dent God, which may be trans­lat­ed as with­out end.” Here, the poet finds redemp­tion in her knowl­edge of the mys­ti­cal realm — one that tran­scends the cru­el­ties and decep­tions we expe­ri­ence in our lives.

Poems by Jew­ish writ­ers often dis­play an inti­mate under­stand­ing of tragedy. Their lan­guage can be spare, with line breaks to sug­gest silences, because some­times there is sim­ply noth­ing that can be said.

The writer’s tool­box — like any artist’s tool­box — comes with its lim­i­ta­tions. Lan­guage is laden with so much cul­tur­al con­text and innu­en­do that it becomes dif­fi­cult to use it with any pre­ci­sion. A good writer has the abil­i­ty to take ordi­nary words and trans­form them into modes of expres­sion that stun the read­er. At her best, Austen Leah Rose does just that.

Stew­art Flor­sheim’s poet­ry has been wide­ly pub­lished in mag­a­zines and antholo­gies. He was the edi­tor of Ghosts of the Holo­caust, an anthol­o­gy of poet­ry by chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1989). He wrote the poet­ry chap­book, The Girl Eat­ing Oys­ters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stew­art won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His col­lec­tion, A Split Sec­ond of Light, was pub­lished by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the San Fran­cis­co Book Fes­ti­val, hon­or­ing the best books pub­lished in the Spring of 2011. Stew­art’s new col­lec­tion, Amus­ing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.

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