Book Reviews · 11/03/2014

Beautiful Soon Enough by Margo Berdeshevsky


FC2, 2009

Beautiful Soon Enough is a slim collection of twenty-three stories, some as short as two pages, others somewhat longer, each a jewel in its own right, set to perfection in relation to the whole, and subtly accompanied by photographs and photo montages done by the author.

As various as Margo Berdeshevsky’s characters are in age, circumstance, and experience, as various as her locations are in space and time, the coherence of the sensibility sings throughout in a poetry at once passionate and cool as it evokes the spiritual and sexual hungers of young girls and virgins, young women and aging beauties—serenely shy and luminous with willful erotic energy, both.

With prose spare and narrative compressed, taking breathtaking liberties with time, Berdeshevsky renders an exquisitely animate universe in which dreams, food, and animals deliver to the characters communications from beyond the self, and material objects and living creatures offer meanings to stand for a whole life—a piece of lingerie, a pair of gloves, a meal of snails, a pair of sunglasses, marble statues, a park bench, a pet-shop monkey, a moth in a cage.

Her characters walk through the cities of the world—when we are not confined at a window, in a room, a church, a university lecture hall, we are walking. Even in Los Angeles, we run on the beach, and when the rare vehicle—car, boat, bus—does appear, it does so as a place of erotic encounter, or an instrument of death.

Environments become presences, characters in their own right—in Cuba, banyan trees and billboards; in a New York pet store, the cages and the smell; at the Sorbonne, murals and marble; in the Luxembourg gardens, the sexuality of the statues; in the Bois de Boulogne, Ophelia’s flowers and a bench; in ancient churches, stones and shadow and dust and light; everywhere, rain.

As economically rendered as these locations are, they arrive with a density, a sense a history, layers of time—a past of war, failed revolution, confinement of the mad, bulldozers and drilling replacing the old with the new. Always hovering, near, not unconsciously, are the shadows of power, money, race, gender, class, against which the intimate moments of sexuality and loneliness, spiritual hunger and homelessness and death, unfold.

Paris and New York dominate the locales, which include also Havana, Los Angeles, Petrograd, Venice Beach, Bakersfield, San Francisco, Dubrovnik, Kilauea, and a tidal-wave-destroyed coast that might be Indonesia—each a living place, encountered intimately and felt in its uniqueness and difference from the other.

It is tempting to see the collection as holographic, each of its parts containing the whole. A few of the stories that I could single out to look at in this way are “Bench,” “Small Craft,” the title story, “Beautiful Soon Enough,” and the last, “Scissors, Paper, Rock,” but each reader is likely to have a different set of favorites, and any of them could illustrate the point.

“Bench,” for example, seems unique initially as the first and almost the only story to be told primarily in a male point of view. On the surface it is simple: An old man takes a woman, a stranger (“An aging man, an aging woman, a random blessing”), to a bench in the Shakespeare garden in the Bois de Boulogne and is assailed there by a memory of such power that the sexual encounter in the present fails and the past continues to haunt him long beyond the moment.

But in the poetry and architecture of the telling, in the temporal distortions and selection, a density greater than the sequence of events is born, and whole lives are—successfully—rendered in just a few strokes. The leisurely first description of the man:

Now, a boy-grin in his middle seventies, and a persona who waves both arms in the air from across a street to say —Hallloooo, I greet you. A disheveled and casual dresser with an old yellow woolen scarf spun around his neck, and the slender neck is circled under the scarf, with a large white gauze from a recent remove-the-sun-spots-which-could-be-dangerous gouging. It’s spring-ish, so he wears the winter coat slung over his shoulders like a nineteenth-century cape, and it keeps slipping off a narrow collarbone. But classy, cool, humorous, distinctly an eye-twinkler. He has a pedant’s slow gait that makes those on narrow sidewalks or park paths wait, as he searches his thoughts for the next verse, as he walks. But a poet. An old poet, going back.

And at the end: “Now he visits the garden without fail. He hates his sheets. His curtains. His quiet.”

In the few pages between, everything has happened for us, as for him—his first love, half a century before, who refuses to marry him because of politics and the Spanish Civil War, his failure with the woman he meets in the metro (“her summer-dressed bare arm, loose flesh,” the game they play “until memory floods him like a summer rainstorm”), the entire remainder of the life of the lost lover (“The girl married a fellow traveler, had three children and died in a fever, young”)—the whole construction haunted by “poor mad, poor dying Ophelia.”

There is an elegiac sadness in these stories, and for all their complexity and beauty and inevitability and truth, they take us into a world of restless unsatisfactoriness, made bearable for its inhabitants only by a serene sensibility that sees and hears the beauty—and the terror—in each moment.

That Berdeshevsky’s girls and women are neither madonnas nor whores doesn’t free them from this antique dualism—rather the loneliness of that borderline is where they exist, in their efforts to navigate the sexual and the spiritual, without showing sign or knowledge of any other solution than sublimation in art—a half-solution at best that yields dead but living statues, “marble-carved passion…locked up for the night,” “statues…having orgasms in the cold,” and images, captured temporarily in a camera: “I loved them with my lens: preciosas. Until I lost the light.”

The sexuality that is a spiritual quest is never satisfied. The spiritual quest that does not find sexual expression dies impoverished. Neither side is able to fulfill itself or its opposite. In her loneliness, each central woman character fails to meet her other, whether friend, mother, daughter, stranger, brother, lover, whether in the past or present or future—she remains separated always, even in the most intimate of erotic encounters, maybe especially there. (“A stranger came among us,” says a monk of a woman who has died. “She came to our door and who among us loved her?”)

I would like to know that this book is read by men as well as women, by the young not just the aging middle aged or old, by Americans who have not traveled in the world, as well as those who have, by readers who do not see themselves as intellectuals or poets. I would like to know that a book of such beauty and intelligence and economy, such precision of image and thought, such quiet longings and solitudes, can be read and loved by visionaries of a future in which such a solitary and self-redeeming sensibility may, once again, perhaps as always, not find a place—no more final a place to be found in a saved world (should we be lucky enough to see it saved) than in this, our fallen and ever falling one—only the wisdom and beauty gathered up in an act of perpetual departure.

The final lines of the final story speak this with the compression of a poem. Even though the details of the image point precisely and uniquely to the individual story (“Scissors, Paper, Rock”), it can be read as closing image for the whole, a poem perfectly expressing all Berdeshevsky’s characters, perfectly expressing the collection itself:

Severed, she walked in the rain. Hindsight and its pruned branch, and the white perfect marble in her chapped hand.

Coda

Following is a composite of lines from the stories in Beautiful Soon Enough —a selection that could easily have been longer. Imagine it a kind of trailer, a tease, an entry into the voice that supports the collection, an invitation to engage the whole.

There’s a dark place, like a womb, where she’s waiting for the holy to rock her senseless…
After the fall, if there is a fall, who truly loves a survivor?
She sees herself in every window, a girl who’s just been had by a great man…
Inevitably, she loves. Inevitably, he won’t. Peace and war and loss.
Tomorrow she will break all her own windows with her hands.
I’m a seeker of, a vagrant of, a woman trying to figure it out—how to be a wild woman. How to be a woman.
He says she is learning empathy. And to know the difference between her sex and her soul.
Chastised, she’s a student of desire.
She nods to her soul, which is licking an éclair and hot, sugared chai from the corner of its mouth. Hungry soul. Lover of flesh.
The guest who pursued experience, who bit the earth like a fruit, who offered optimism as her calling card, she was welcome.
She knows soon, for no reason, she’ll be dead.
Aging is an inconvenience. An embarrassment. In her flat, she undresses alone in the dark.
I’m a woman who asks. I’m the woman who asks how close is death, how near is God.
I play with aloneness like dirt.
The erotic project pushes most of my buttons: prude, feminist, femme fatale, vagrant, voyageuse, so what?
She wanted to belong. Here.
And, she has men, the way a wanderer in a garden tastes fruits.
She enjoys their differences, their thighs, their mouths; she has no plans for her life.

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Margo Berdeshevsky is the author of the poetry collection But a Passage in Wilderness. She lives in Paris.

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Catherine Gammon is the author of the novels Sorrow (2013, Braddock Avenue Books) and Isabel Out of the Rain (1991, Mercury House). She is a Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and is living in Massachusetts. More information at Braddock Avenue Books and http://catherinegammon.wordpress.com/.