Review by Austin Alexis
When Death is a Red Balloon
by Linda Lerner
Lummox Press, 2019
The world of Linda Lerner’s poetry chapbook When Death is a Red Balloon is a world of paradox. The experience of living through the death of a very close friend and enduring the aftermath of that death is presented as oddly filled with contradictions. The poems often show the dynamics of relationships and the peculiarities of grieving from angles that are the opposite of what readers might expect. In a one-page prose prelude to the collection, the poet explains that she “never once thought of a situation when I’d want a parachute. If my life depended on it, I’m sure I’d never be able to open it before crash landing somewhere.” She then goes on to describe her no-longer-living friend as a parachute in her life, “a person who made me feel that the possibilities of a safe landing existed, a voice at the end of the phone to catch my fears.”
Since irony is a form of paradox, it makes sense that this book is filled with ironic lines and situations. For instance, in the prelude, the poet admits that she now checks her answering machine for the friend’s voice, asking her if she’s alright, though that same question sometimes annoyed her when the friend was alive.
Poems in the early portion of the book chronicle the everyday interactions of the poet with her friend: their trips to the theater, their Sunday morning get-togethers. The friend’s heart “beats strong” in this section. By page seven, the work is foreshadowing death. On that page, a prose poem shows a woman “fling[ing] a handful of something” into the East River, and the act is an allusion to sprinkling the ashes of a deceased person who has been cremated. A pleasant mid-July day has turned into a memento mori.
Some poems in the book function like flashbacks in a novel. The friend is portrayed riding a flashy car in youthful enjoyment. In another poem, he is not well, but not sick enough to accept help “to get up from the couch.” Even these poems exude an energy and drive characteristic of the poet:
a car whizzes by, feels like it is falling
out of the sky toward him, he grabs hold of
a young couple to steady himself…
“I’m ok now” he says, thanking them,
and stands up straight to show them
what he can’t show me
No matter how lively the scene, the poet is usually aware of death’s nearness. As the poet writes, the friend’s voice always leads her “to the/ edge of the precipice.” The book’s kinetic imagery propels the reader through narratives of droll hospital anecdotes that don’t negate the tragedy to follow. In Lerner’s vision, dynamic movement and amusing moments are the best strategies to deal with loss. In the beautiful poem “Gone,” a white dog appears in the hallway of the friend’s apartment building and “seem[s] to be hovering/ between two worlds as for weeks you had,” the poem’s speaker says to the now deceased friend. Of course, the dog—who vanishes like a ghost—is a metaphor for the friend himself, a person who once was, but will never again stand before the speaker’s eyes.
The tradition of the bereavement poem is long and honorable. One example of this convention is a sequence of poems at the end of Sharon Olds’ 2008 poetry collection One Secret Thing. In Olds’ book, grief brought on by the impending death of the speaker’s mother is often expressed by the use of universal nature images. Lerner’s metaphoric language is much more urban and decidedly 20th- and 21st-century. Elevators, sidewalk cracks, Manhattan’s West 40s jewelry stores, wide Flatbush Avenue, the World Trade Center, skateboards, and “white convertible cruis[ing]…burning rubber” are just a few of the references made to the concrete, urban world, and these allusions successfully ground the poems in a reality that feels authentic and poignant.
One of the most moving poems in When Death is a Red Balloon is the title poem. This is one of the few poems in the chapbook that doesn’t employ paradox. The poem’s first two stanzas make it clear that the poet has arrived at the hospital room where and when the friend is exceedingly close to dying. The immediacy of the death is best expressed directly, without the filter of contradictions and irony. Linda Lerner ends this poem powerfully by using simple body language, such as “holding your hand,” and unadorned communication to convey the experience of loss.
AUSTIN ALEXIS is the author of the full-length poetry collection Privacy Issues (Broadside Lotus Press) and two chapbooks from Poets Wear Prada. His fiction, poetry, reviews, and drama have appeared in Barrow Street, The Journal, Paterson Literary Review, Boog City, Home Planet News, the Great Weather for Media Website, and the anthology Suitcase of Chrysanthemums (Great Weather for Media). He has taught at New York City College of Technology (CUNY), Long Island University, and elsewhere. Rachel Aydt photo.
LINDA LERNER is the author of 17 collections, including Takes Guts and Years Sometimes and Yes, the Ducks Were Real from NYQ Books. Death is a Red Balloon is her most recent collection and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poems appear in, and/or were accepted by Maintenant, Paterson Literary Review, Gargoyle, Home Planet News, Cape Rock, Piker Press, Chiron Review, Free State Review, Traylor Park Quarterly, and Rat’s Ass Review, among others.