Strolling the Museum of Death: Hadara Bar-Nadav’s The New Nudity
review by Paul David Adkins
Kelli Russell Agodon, in her collection Hourglass Museum, writes, “In the middle of my museum— / and by that I mean, my life— / there is loss.” Similarly, in Hadara Bar-Nadav’s sixth collection of poetry The New Nudity, the author explores her own history of loss and death via the perusal of a vast collection of common objects, guiding her readers through an eclectic, twisted gallery of horrors. The 47 almost entirely single-word-titled pieces (“Night,” “Wind,” “Page,” etc.) are scrutinized and examined with the eye of a curator searching for clues confirming authenticity or fraudulence. And it is with Bar-Nadav’s unique vision that viewers accompany her to study the subjects of these poems in the scrupulous light of someone who does not know the answers, yet provides unsparing assessments and meticulous interpretations of the objects on display.
Bar-Nadav employs very short lines throughout the collection, averaging 3.75 words. Additionally, with the exception of “Watch” and “Table, Bed, Violin,” the writer utilizes couplets and single lines almost exclusively. This terseness is in keeping with text describing items on exhibit; it is the thing which must be observed, dissected, magnified 100 times to get the full effect of its composition and significance.
The poet opens the collection with “Thumb,” containing the unmistakably Plathian image of the digit’s stump-like appearance (“Useless while typing. Useless / tool who only worships space. / / A stump. A blackened stamp.”). Additionally, “Heart” touches upon Plath’s poem “Daddy” in the lines “You touch every dead part, / even the toes, farthest / from God.” The exactitude of Bar-Nadav’s work however, and her use of microscopic examination, is more in keeping with Maggie Anderson’s “Dream Vegetables” sequence from that author’s 1986 collection Cold Comfort. Anderson’s descriptions and imagery sparkle: “The corn is the enormous yellow dirigible / of the Autumn fields . . .” and “The radishes pace in their red plaid bathrobes / and wish for sleep.” The 12-poem series bears down on its subject with sharp detail and splendid, imaginative power.
But where Cold Comfort observed, The New Nudity obsesses. The museum that the volume constitutes, in fact, contains an unmistakable undercurrent of Shoah references. In “Soap,” for instance, Bar-Nadav’s speaker, like an insane tour escort, blurts “Rumors of blubber / and human fat.” “Order the orders, / the hours, the next, / / like my family marched / to their shoeless deaths,” she writes in “Pill.” In “Oven,” the speaker confesses, “I live with an oven— / a heavy weight.” In the poem “Piano,” she takes Nazi-centric depravity to gruesome depths:
Death on the wires.
The hands always hanging there—
An angular throat,
throat like a wing.
Right in the middle of the exhibit, Hitler’s 1944 assassination conspirators are strangling on makeshift nooses.
The gallery which is The New Nudity holds all its objects within cases of shattered glass. Even the collection’s title contains a kind of sonic refraction in its repeated “New Nu-” combination. Other examples include “This heaving / heavy empty” in “Chest,” “a fuse of refusals” in “Dress (Aurora Borealis),” and “A dark sea, a season” in “Shadow.” Not only does the speaker explore these oddly harmonious soundscapes, but she also uses the couplings to create a sense of trembling and stuttering in her readers, as though they, too, are overtaken by what they witness through the cracked glass imprisoning each poem.
The New Nudity possesses a sharply focused narrative arc. From the beginning, violence stitches the collection. Section I contains rape imagery in “Ladder” and PTSD descriptions in “Spoon.” As the collection advances, the speaker catalogs obsessions with death in Section II’s “Pill” (“You die by drowning / and worship the sea.”) and “Gypsy,” where Bar-Nadav discretely recognizes this minority group’s suffering within the Buchenwald concentration camp. Section III focuses primarily on loss, in “Table, Bed, Violin,” with lines such as “In the flooding world we wave / / goodbye to the table that let us rest / our dinner plates and our heads . . . .” It also hones on the idea, and elusiveness, of escape in poems like “Leg” and “Jar” (“We sealed ourselves / in, afraid of vanishing.”). In the volume’s closing section, however, the speaker chooses to examine the residual effects of trauma, referring both to substance abuse, as discussed in “Shadow” (“Take two Percocet / and dissolve.”), and depression, examined through “Feather” (“A part abandoned / by its purpose.”). By the volume’s close, the speaker issues a prescient warning, relevant to today’s political climate, in the poem “Zombie.” She presages current events in the United States and Britain:
must be sated.
Mottled men who will
As visitors to The New Nudity end their tour and stumble into the night, Bar-Nadav’s speaker cannot help but remind them of what lies ahead as they depart. And while the museum intensely displays past events leading to trauma and destruction, the collection leaves its readers with no illusion. The poet, however, despite our impending demise, offers defiant advice to combat a common fate. In the collection’s penultimate couplet, Hadara Bar-Nadav announces her encouragement regarding the future: “Love to the very open- / mouthed end.” And though it seems the world is darkness, she exhorts us with the powerful, closing admission, “We are made of / so much hunger.”
Paul David Adkins lives in NY. In 2018, Lit Riot will publish his collection Dispatches from the FOB. Journal publications include Pleiades, River Styx, Rattle, Diode, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek, and Whiskey Island. He has received five Pushcart nominations and two finalist nominations from the Central NY Book Awards.