Dara Barnat opens with a prayer.
There’s no one here, but me
alone. I close
my eyes and try.
And thus begins “In the Absence,” a collection of short lyrical poems that weave a soft and slow narrative charting the process of working through the early death of a father afflicted by mental illness.
Barnat, a writing teacher at Tel Aviv University, will be reading from her debut poetry collection at the Laurel Book Store in Oakland on Feb. 18. She will be one of four women writers in an event tabbed “Diverse New Voices.”
Raised on the East Coast, Barnat moved to Tel Aviv at 22 for graduate school and wrote her dissertation on the influence of Walt Whitman on Jewish American poets. She traced the ways Whitman’s embrace of American identity encouraged Jewish poets to embrace their Jewish identities.
In her full-length collection of poems, which are in English, Barnat makes frequent reference to Whitman — as both a mentor and a poet she wishes she could read with her father, were he still alive.
According to Barnat, she began writing poetry while living in Tel Aviv as a way of working through her father’s death in 2003.
“Poetry saved me and continues to save me,” she said. “It gave me a place to deal with these very difficult experiences. I try so hard in my teaching to convey this to students and help them discover what poetry can reveal to them in their lives.”
Originally titled “Late Kaddish,” the collection is an extended meditation, or prayer, on how to remember and connect with a parent that has passed.
After writing the book’s title poem “In the Absence,” she said, “I realized that I had been writing about absence and presence in different ways throughout. These poems acknowledge the darkness of grief. That there are places in grief where you can’t make any meaning.
“When I started, I wasn’t sure if I would survive it. But I have — and I’ve reconnected with my father, become a stronger poet.”
The book is organized into three sections that wind the reader through layers of detachment and loss, years of compartmentalized grief, and the blur of illness and consequence.
In the first section, the narrator’s voice is tentative, drifting through memories and recollections and attempting to piece them together. In one poem, she writes: What/ do beginnings/ and ending matter when illness/ occupied our house/ before we knew illness/ could occupy/ a house.
In the second section, Barnat reaches outside her own memory and utilizes appropriated text from the medical records of her father’s various psychiatric hospitalizations. She juxtaposes this with her imaginary descriptions of old family photographs. The contrasting languages pull the reader into the dual tug of memory and ambiguity, care and loss: The chief complaint:/ the patient hit another/ resident very hard in the face. This doctor/ doesn’t know the patient/ sat in a rocking chair/ with his month-old daughter/ on his lap.
Barnat said it took her nearly two years to work up the courage to open the box containing her father’s medical records.
“It was hard for me to read through that, the doctor’s reflections on him,” she said. “But it was an opportunity for me to be present there when I hadn’t been. I wish I had been.”
The anthology’s final section is a selection of poems describing the aftermath of what Barnat calls her “deep dive into grief.”
She writes in one poem: The dam I built against history/ held as long as any/ man-made thing/ long enough to believe/ it couldn’t be torn down.
The collection ends with “No Goodbye Never Said,” a tender free-verse poem that reaches back into the darkness of the initial poem, which includes the line “dark is just dark.” The final poem ends with Barnat’s imagined father saying, “Be sure to get home before dark.”