The Pugilist’s Daughter

  • Review
By – June 14, 2023

One high­light of Judith Lyn Antelman’s The Pugilist’s Daugh­ter is its span. The poems trav­el effort­less­ly from New Jer­sey to Auschwitz to Las Vegas, from recall­ing a child­hood mem­o­ry of a father help­ing nuns fix their car in the Hol­land Tun­nel to car­ing for an aging moth­er expe­ri­enc­ing cog­ni­tive decline. While the the­mat­ic, geo­graph­ic, and for­mal ter­ri­to­ries these poems cov­er are vast, they ulti­mate­ly unite around language’s abil­i­ty to close dis­tances. These are poems in which a series of cross-coun­ty phone calls dur­ing the pan­dem­ic pre­serve a bond, and oth­ers in which a Jew­ish Holo­caust sur­vivor sits on a Catholic tomb­stone at Birke­nau, where his ass beside a cross/​seething, he lights up/​/​and sucks on a joint — ” These wide-rang­ing poems fight for hard-earned con­nec­tions that tri­umph over the divi­sions con­stant­ly threat­en­ing to sep­a­rate us. 

The col­lec­tion, which com­bines prose poems, pan­toums, and caesura-laden lyric verse, is divid­ed into five sec­tions. Leav­ing Home” is a nuanced exam­i­na­tion of the speaker’s father, an idio­syn­crat­ic, abu­sive engi­neer who 

loved to break things

or take them apart and then fix


every­thing, espe­cial­ly cars,

ten­nis rac­quets, family — ”

The sec­tion With. Aban­don” con­sid­ers the speaker’s adult rela­tion­ships, while Odyssey, Lost” moves to Cen­tral Europe to explore the lega­cies of the Holo­caust and the Bosn­ian War. Tombs: While A City Sleeps” is set in pan­dem­ic-era New York, and What Is Home” traces the speaker’s lin­eage across time — from eat­ing cake in Brook­lyn cafes with mahjong-play­ing, Yid­dish- and Russ­ian-speak­ing grand­moth­ers, to vis­it­ing her aging moth­er in the rocky ter­rain of the West. 

Each sec­tion of the book con­tains a poem derived from a dai­ly phone call that the speak­er in New Jer­sey shares with her moth­er in Las Vegas. Because of the pan­dem­ic, they can­not trav­el to see each oth­er, and the moth­er is los­ing her mem­o­ry. The phone calls are writ­ten as frac­tured prose frag­ments that reflect both the dis­con­nect and solid­i­ty of their bond. The anchor of these poems is the mother’s voice — its pac­ing, sar­casm, relent­less­ness. Phone Call — March 11, 2020,” which dis­cuss­es the Las Vegas weath­er and the mother’s cog­ni­tive decline, doc­u­ments this voice:

i just went for a long walk on the Strip Mama says

i tell her it’s freez­ing in Vegas today dress warm

she answers freezing not in Vegas what’s wrong

with you [ … ]

I told you about it yes­ter­day of course i lie again

are you ready for the pre­sen­ta­tion i ask she asks

ready for what hmmm what dogs time for a walk

do i sound okay do i sound off how do i sound


you sound great Mama my words larg­er lies daily

In these phone call poems, the mother’s per­son­al­i­ty over­pow­ers her ill­ness. Even after details like the date of her daughter’s birth­day fade from her mem­o­ry, the force of her voice holds. 

Through­out the col­lec­tion, peo­ple talk their way to a rough sur­vival. In Assump­tions,” set in a New Jer­sey din­er, the speak­er over­hears a thir­ty-year-old woman threat­en­ing to jump off the Bay­onne Bridge. At a cer­tain point, even her meal is trig­ger­ing: Bay­onne told her girlfriend/​her wings and eggs tast­ed so crappy/​she want­ed to die.” Trau­ma mix­es with absur­di­ty in this state­ment, until lan­guage emerges as a force as per­sis­tent as the pain it is describ­ing. Just as the speaker’s father shoves/​tomorrow like a scalpel in his heart” in the box­ing ring, these poems aren’t afraid to take punch­es and then stun­ning­ly recon­fig­ure them into some­thing mer­ci­ful and humane. 

Alli­son Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a final­ist for the Berru Poet­ry Award and the Ohioana Book Award. 

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