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  • Family, Tradition, and the Individual
  • Robert Kramer (bio)
A Cleft in the Rock
Marc Kaminsky
Dos Madres Press
130 Pages; Print, $18.00

Disturbing, distressing, painful, and yet engrossing and inescapable—such the experience of reading Marc Kaminsky's new collection. The book is divided into four main narratives: the first tells of the life and death of Kivi, the narrator's younger brother; the second deals with the decline and death of their domineering father, and the older son's emergence as an independent person. The third section describes the terrible illness of the narrator's wife and his devoted care for her; in the final section, the focus is almost exclusively on the narrator, the remaining son, and his attempts at a new vision and a new life.

This is not modernist poetry, nor is it post-modern. It lies more in the tradition of memoirs: almost every piece is written in the first person, and there is only one single point of view throughout. The writing is clear, direct, personal, reflective, and yet vividly emotional. It is enriched by the constant looming presence of Jewish tradition, as well as the acuity of a psychotherapist's training and experiences.

At first, the reader knows only that Kivi, the brilliant and gifted younger brother, has not been seen in six months. Only later do we learn that Kivi has succumbed to the '60s drug culture, the lure of the counterculture. We are led through harrowing childhood memories of the brothers and their intimate life together in a crowded New York apartment.

In a grotesque family tragedy, the grandmother has persuaded the mother to conceal the birth of her second son from his older sibling. The grandmother would care for Kivi for two years so that the mother and father could give complete attention to Marc, the older son, and Marc would not be aware of any competition for the affection of his mother. In a shocking revelation, Marc tells us, as if addressing Kivi: "Two brothers living inside our parents' story that made room for only one to thrive / you were the dirty secret in their bedroom. I wasn't allowed to see Mama caring for you."

Again, the narrator emphasizes the role of scripture and tradition in the lives of these people, as he refers to the "myth that made our scapegoat-messiah out of the first-born son and a scapegrace-rival out of the second one / I believed my place was to shine always to shine and to hell with everything else."

When Marc tells his father of Kivi's accusations that Marc was the cause of his craziness, the father replies: "Well, weren't you." To his surprise, Marc answers: "No. I wasn't his parents." His father is shocked, he turns white, and his mouth falls open. The spell has been broken, they have broken out of the family lie, but Kivi and Marc are also broken. Now each must find his own identity in a new but separate diaspora. However, Kivi dies of a heart attack at the age of 41. Thus, the next section, "My Own Private Diaspora" contains only moments from the life of the surviving older brother.

The father that appears here is a shadowy and disturbing figure, a poet of God and death and darkness: "He sang of going under in the black / fires of Warsaw and / the crematoria." The son is both horrified and fascinated. He has now become a psychotherapist dealing with children of Holocaust survivors, whose dreams he shares. Always a listener to his overwhelming father throughout his life, ironically, he now becomes a professional listener. Like him, his patients seek their lost parents as well as their own vanished identity.

"The Siege in the Room" presents a painful scene in the hospital room of the father, now suffering from dementia, near mad, bound to the bars of the hospital bed, and struggling to tear off his diapers. Marc's younger sister tries to alleviate the situation by acting as an exegete. Looking at her father, she whispers, "Noah." As often throughout the book, a member of the family confronts a...


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pp. 21-22
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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