Review: Tell Me Something Good by Tamara Zbrizher

Tell Me Something Good by Tamara Zbrizher, (Get Fresh Books 2019)

What anchors you in your daily life? Is it your spouse or your child? Your creative work? A meditation practice? For the speaker of Tamara Zbrizher’s debut collection Tell Me Something Good, the title becomes a daily prayer. Indeed, there are six poems by this title in the book and each version of the poem reaches for a different source of comfort.

In the first iteration of “Tell me something good,” Zbrizher’s speaker sets the terms. The only real rule: this is important, so treat it that way. As the title bleeds into the poem, it continues “and don’t make it all/I dunno because I don’t know is nevermind/and this whole place is made up of them[.]” You cannot discount the necessity of that something more when our human response to uncertainty is to fill the empty spaces with stuff:

Humans like things
that fill us up
things that say this is me
as if this cat figurine
this paisley blanket could say
I am so afraid
or maybe they’re here
so that I don’t have to

We live in a time when, for so many of us, fear is an everyday experience. To say that the whole place, the speaker’s home, is made of ‘I don’t knows’ and ‘neverminds’ is to pinpoint how we try to discount our anxiety, as well as our joys. But when we’re willing to be vulnerable, the good quickly comes to the fore.

When life feels overwhelming or out of control, when your family history has been destroyed as, the Zbrizher recounts in “When The Holocaust Burns Your History, You Grow Myth,” narrative is the most important tether. This poem, which draws inspiration from Marc Chagall’s “Red Jew,” transmogrifies loss into a beautiful fiction. Zbrizher writes of a man faced with death:

he finally sat on the stoop built
on the bones of his loves for the flesh
of his loves by his orphan hands until
his bones grew into the house
and the house grew into green

Even death can offer up something good, something beautiful like a house overflowing with vibrant green. So, when Zbrizher says ‘tell me something good,’ she is open to all the options. Whether the good comes from memory or imagination or is a simple projection of hope, the good is meant to fill the spaces otherwise occupied by fear and insufficiency, a deeply relatable desire when set against Chagall’s landscape, as well as within the context of our own. 

In what is perhaps Zbrizher’s most captivating poem, “When I Show My Class a Picture of Frida, a Student Yells Oh Shit,” which originally appeared in the journal Tinderbox, the speaker, in this case evidently Zbrizher herself, describes a moment of sheer wonder. 

In a kind of ode to Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows and her lust for survival, the poem describes a moment of tension instigated by its title and further stoked by the way Zbrizher uses Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows to comment on the demands of femininity. Given such woes as a husband who pulls away from leg stubble, the poem prepares us for revulsion, only to turn dramatically: 

When I show my class a picture of Frida
a student yells Oh shit
then takes a photo with his phone
She’s gonna be my background

There is no mocking or criticism, no dissection of this iconic woman. There is just awe, a young man struck by a different kind of beauty. This transformed way of looking at the world threads through Tell Me Something Good, demanding we look again. Zbrizher demands we look around and return with wonder. If we can choose what we see, we should make it something good.

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