Joyful Poems of Leave-Taking and Transience

Without a Claim
by Grace Schulman
Mariner Books, 2013

Grace Schulman has always been a poet deeply rooted in place and time. Over four decades and six previous collections, her poems have returned to the familiar scenery of New York City and Long Island. She’s written about her childhood and young adulthood in the city, her parents’ time, her grandparents’ time, and the New York City of Henry James and Walt Whitman. Across the decades, the same streets and subway cars, houses and stores, theaters and museums, and beaches and harbors have set the scene. This rootedness has given her work power and depth.

But in Without a Claim, Schulman renounces ownership. It’s a book of leave-taking and transience, filled with poems about loss and decline, poems that look at the world intently but refuse to cling or assert dominion. The book is also filled with poems of joy and praise—but it’s a joy that is fleeting and praise for what passes.

In the title poem, she remembers moving years earlier from city to suburb, and although she clearly loves where she is living, she insists it is not hers to keep:

Raised like a houseplant on a windowsill
looking out on other windowsills
of a treeless block, I couldn’t take it in

when told I owned this land with oaks and maples
scattered like crowds on Sundays, and an underground
strung not with pipes but snaky roots that writhed

when my husband sank a rhododendron,
now flaunting pinks high as an attic window.
This land we call our place was never ours.

Love for the current home is shadowed by memories of the previous one, of the disruption and strangeness of that earlier move. And in spite of the roots she knows lie beneath, and the years of possession (as that rhododendron has grown and flowered abundantly), she also knows it won’t last. She knows about those who came before: the sailors and whalers, the farmers, and before them the Montauk Indians—who left their names and not much else. She identifies with those who came and went, who passed through and left little trace, thinking of her own Polish immigrant ancestors. And it’s not just the place that she knows she can’t hold on to.

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