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.