Review of Our Age of Anxiety

Henry Israeli’s new collection explores the emotional toll of living in a world burdened with fractured relationships and environmental stress.

REVIEW #39: Our Age of Anxiety by Henry Israeli
White Pine Poetry Prize Winner, 2019

For he loves me, in his way,
the way fire loves a tree.

So ends “Rebirth,” the second poem in Henry Israeli’s new collection Our Age of Anxiety. “Rebirth” introduces major themes developed throughout the book: patriarchy, the environment, and the horror of a world that includes “the gentle kiss / of the atomic bomb and Bikini Atoll” (“Birth of the Machine”), and where “love for the natural world threatens / the corporate dream of annihilation” (“Our Age of Anxiety”).

Fathers lurk in the background, menacing presences who gird the patriarchy. From “The Fathers Show No Mercy:”

They hold the keys to the kingdom
in the black purses
beneath their eyes…

They will never lay down
their hammers for they
have work to do, plans that began
before we were born.

In “Love Letter to Albert Speer,” Israeli applies the language of racism to the process of writing a poem on “a white page // genetically perfect / pigment-free,” a page so blank that “words can only / darken its splendor.”  By the end of the poem, the sensibility that “loves repetition…masculinity / and order,” results in “heads lowered / feet shuffling // that move in unison / into death’s embrace.”

“The Day I Met the Hanged Man” starts out with the line, “He asks me to buy him a drink” and quickly moves through dream-like, increasingly sinister images—“features falling away like rust,” “war torn / borders scratched out with red marker.” By the end of the poem, the speaker’s reality is completely rearranged: “I stare into my drink, / trying to remember just who I was / meant to be.” The voice narrating this surreal experience is eerily calm, as if reporting on a distant emergency.

Three poems titled “Our Age of Anxiety” appear throughout the book. In the first, Israeli enumerates sources of anxiety: “our very existence is endangered by one lonely rat / chewing on a wire,” “there are no ghosts, just pixelated / monsters roaming our homes,” “I’m scared of the government’s fear of me.” The poem aptly evokes the disorienting state of detachment coupled with hyper-focus that defines our current age.

The second “Our Age of Anxiety” describes the physical sensations extreme stress and panic bring to the body:

A hot needle brushed inside the chest.
The feeling of being naked when clothed.

In the third and final “Our Age of Anxiety,” the body rebels: “the bullet that wanders through / my body finally hits its mark /…the window / of a low rent hotel room in / the eastern corner of my abdomen.”

“Summer Solstice” juxtaposes doubts about official assurances of prosperity: “the economy is rebounding, they say, / or perhaps it’s in free-fall” with the undeniable state of environmental degradation: “Fact: there is as much plastic / in the sea as there are fish.” “I Reached Out to Angels” also explores this uneasy balance:

I am prepared, in a clueless, structureless way. In other words,
I am not prepared.

The poem perfectly describes the helpless, unrelieved anticipation that defines anxiety. The Internet fuels this stressful state with its never-ending, soulless connections: “You and me and me and you, and so on and so on, says the Internet / in an unstoppable algorithmic babble…The cathedral of the self has been / thoroughly ransacked.”

Reverence for Nature suffuses the beautiful and elegiac “Phantom in a Flower.” Filled with regret, the speaker is “deeply ashamed,” having been caught “in the act of devotion,” an act that rings hollow in the face of humanity’s savaging of the natural world:

and his flower with a multitude of ghosts
cradled in its tender black petals could never be all I needed
although it could never be less.

Our Age of Anxiety explores an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world where ordinary life turns terrifying in an instant, the absurd is taken for granted, and nothing is ever what it appears to be. Human fallibility, whether intentional or accidental, extracts an enormous price, one it’s uncertain Nature will recover from. These poems bring us to the precipice, where anxiety is the only rational response.

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