Before the Drought by Margo Berdeshevsky
Before the Drought
Glass Lyre Press
Margo Berdeshevsky’s third collection of poetry, Before the Drought, came out in September 2017 from Glass Lyre Press. Berdeshevsky’s work has earned her the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, a spot in the & Now Awards: The Best Innovative Writing anthology, and numerous Pushcart Prize nominations. This new collection—praised by Kevin Prufer as “marvelous, deeply humane,” and by Carolyn Forché as “a book to read at the precipice on which we stand”—was a finalist for the National Poetry series in 2015 in its earlier stages. A forceful proclamation, Before the Drought is a mature meditation on the raw mortality of the human experience. The collection is ancestral, sensual, and aware; its fragmented composition resonates in our world’s growing uncertainty. Berdeshevsky delivers a complex patchwork of beliefs, death, courage, and vulnerability.
Born in New York, Berdeshevsky also shares an intimacy with Paris, which is deeply rooted in her poetry. The poems in Before the Drought about Paris are dissonant odes, candid laments in which the writer exposes herself to Paris, and Paris to her. In her poem “Paris, Chérie,” Berdeshevsky has no qualms showing us the unlaundered truth of the city—“sex-legged” denizens on the streets, for example. Yet the narrator also tunes in to the city’s wonder and potential, its “autumn hope.” Paris is something of a lover the narrator must grapple with; it’s given her “filthy poems,” but it’s also given her “cake.” Through the poet’s thoughtful lens, dark experiences are held up to the light.
Reflecting on the Paris attacks in November 2015, Before the Drought revisits the wounds of these horrific events, and recalls the city’s collective grief. Berdeshevsky's personal account of these moments unpacks the heightened bonds among strangers in a time of crisis, the truth that “no one is not connected to someone else who died.” Her poem “No Modifier At All” recounts the moment when a repairman for the narrator’s door explains that his sister had been killed in the attacks:
"My sister. The baby one. She is —, was one of— in the café. She came to the birthday for her lover. Her name was Djamila. I had photographed candles and flowers left for the murdered in front of that café, the day after."
This shared mourning and healing across people of all backgrounds are what keep Before the Drought afloat, urging us to “love harder, in case it is our last chance,” and to act on our capacity to connect with each other.
Many poems in the collection are candidly sensual, unabashedly exploring womanhood and the corporal experience. The opening poem unravels a physical topography: “Clitoris, belly/nape/taste bud.” Yet the pulse of this book—in harmony with its reference to the present day—is rooted in the ancestral. The poems seem to have a folkloric river running through them, reminiscent of the Hang Dynasty poets, in which poems of peacocks, owls, and natural elements showed aspects of ancient folk songs. Many birds are featured in Before the Drought, winged visitors that seem to remind us of the fragile state of our modern world. The heron is one of the poet’s recurring birds. Symbolic since antiquity, the heron in ancient Egypt was known to be the creator of light and strength, purity and longevity. In the poem “Here is my body,” the heron is interpreted as a mother figure, creating a dialogue between humanity and nature:
"Mother, I cry, you promised kinder dreams. You promised sleep. Be kind, you said, before you surrendered . . . I’m the heron, I’m the lake at peace, our vine leads to you, you said. Your body of surrender, waiting, I whisper . . . the blue heron will feed us. Blue dawn will delete us."
More natural allusions appear in shorter poems, sometimes resembling haibuns, sliced thoughts that mirror the collection’s interrogative journey, with questions like “Who, exactly are the great dark birds?” Similarly, the tone of longer poems is reflected in their form, such as the leaf falling form of the poem “It Was The Door of Faith And.”
Berdeshevsky’s new collection is impactful and compelling, yet don’t expect Before the Drought to spoon-feed you. It’s a challenging, dynamic read that requires worthwhile attention, as Berdeshevsky’s voice is urgent and visceral. The poet humbly admits she might not know “what bandages to fold, what wounds to wrap,” but where uncertainty and distress seem prevalent, she has hope that there’s “a river for revolution—the hardest love, coming in.”
About the Author: Stephanie Papa is a poet and translator living Paris, France. She has an MFA degree in poetry from the Pan-European program. She is poetry co-editor of Paris Lit Up magazine. Her work has been published in The Stinging Fly, World Literature Today, Niche, Yasakmeyve, NOON, great weather for MEDIA, Four Chambers Press, Paris/Atlantic, Literary Bohemian, 5×5, Rumpus, Cleaver Magazine, Cerise Press, The Prose Poetry Project and One More Glass. She organizes anglophone writing workshops and readings in Paris.