The Vast Unknowing
by Nancy Shiffrin


Worldwide Association of Writers, 2008. ISBN B001G8OJ4I.
Reviewed by Susan M. Andrus
Posted on 11/29/2008

Poetry; Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

Reading poetry requires a different approach than reading literature. I am a fast reader, and the absence of punctuation in Nancy Shiffrin's poems troubled me at first, until I realized that the extra spaces suggested that I slow down, read each word, and savor each image. Then the beauty, ugliness, drama, and force of the poems swept me to heights of "Yes!" and depths of "Oh no!" as I read each poem, identifying with the images expressed.

Divided into twelve chapters, each around a particular theme, this collection of poetry expresses a wide range of human experiences emerging through word pictures showing strong feelings, ambivalence, racism, torture, cruelty, love, yearning, grief, and wry humor. Crafted using few words, showing rather than lecturing, the poems invite the reader to digest the ideas and respond accordingly.

In the chapter "Green Realities," Shiffrin uses themes about nature and ecology. The title poem presents images of Los Angeles through original comparisons:

...sweet old-fashioned frame houses
FOR SALE no longer
cheap as babies
marketed in movie lots...

"My Jewish Education" explores fond memories of family rituals and angry memories of growing up Jewish, when Shiffrin experienced anti-Semitism. In "Cousin Murray's Bris," about her cousin's circumcision, she refuses to accept its result:

...if anyone tried to cut me there
I'd kick and scream
a whole lot more than cousin Murray
I'd kill them...

In her poem, "Tan," after she witnessed her friend, Jonathan, "skin like coffee with lots of cream," being hurt by a racial slur, her father explains genetics, history of the Civil War, and "how Eileen's probably getting a spanking right now." She says,

...no one talks about
Jonathan's red cheeks
his clenched fists
his glistening eyes...

In "Fairy Tales," Shiffrin fractures conventional fairy tales by inventing modern scenarios for characters like Rapunzel, Snow White and Cinderella. In "Cindy's Twig," Cinderella daydreams about her prince and the ball after her father

...ramrod steel hard splitting Cindy's tight place
lead thumb on her throat pulse warning
never tell never tell...

Each poem in this collection reflects the powerful force of words in the hands of the right person. Nancy Shiffrin has that power in her pen.


Award winning poet, critic, teacher, Nancy Shiffrin earned her MA studying with Anaïs Nin and her Ph.D. studying Jewish American literature at The Union Institute. She is the author of two previous collections of poetry, and My Jewish Name, essays. Visit her website.

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