Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
In Nuns, Nam & Henna: A Memoir in Poetry and Prose, the two-page prologue is one of the most powerful openings I’ve ever read. The author is six years old. His three sisters and mother are at the kitchen table when the father comes in and starts striking the mother in the face with a hammer! Shock and bedlam ensue, his mother screams to her son to get help, but he is paralyzed, and his sister instead runs for help. This moment haunts him, perhaps for his whole life. His mother could not forget it, as she brought it up whenever they got drunk together. “Why didn’t you go get help?” “The unanswerable question finally stopped about the time my mom and I … quit drinking for good. Thank God.”
“Part I: Nuns” describes the following six years in St. Peter’s orphanage in New Hampshire where he and his siblings were sent. His childhood poems dwell on screaming nightmares and aloneness. The nuns’ parables are cruel enough to give any impressionable boy nightmares. In “Parable #1” there’s a man who did not believe that the Holy Communion host was really the body and blood of Jesus Christ, so he stabs it and blood runs out of the host. “Parable #3” evokes “Scary noises/ of wind and rain/ wracking windows,/ and racking nerves.” The nuns tell them that they are the “cries of cold and hungry/ little girls and boys/ who are screaming to get into/ the orphange, but they can’t/ because the nun says,/ ‘there’s no more room.’ ”
In spite of his grim life at the orphanage, Berube does not appear to be lost or in need or want; neither does he seem to be engaged. I had the impression that he psychically floated above it all. Having said that, there are one-liners that reveal a deep, painful sorrow as in “A Photo at the Grotto” about his godmother taking a snapshot. “In six years time/our only orphanage picture.” “Waxing the Floors” finds boys and girls skating around with rags on their shoes until the wax fumes do them in. “With a swooning head I’d watch/ my comrades carry on/ until the vapors claimed another boy.”
Though the nuns seem cruel and the conditions arduous, the author “writes with humor and . . . with an absence of victimhood” noticeable through all phases of his life.
There are many photographs in the book that depict Berube from childhood to Peace Corps, always handsome, somehow naive as when he poses with enormous ammo in Vietnam, or is absurdly soused on beers.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1965 three months after he graduated from high school. He writes, “I wasn’t overly sensitive, but at the swearing-in ceremony when I pledged allegiance to the flag, “ . . . a warm feeling crept into my chest, and I remember thinking — where did that come from?”
In “Part II: Nam” Berube graduates to whorehouses and guns. In a prose piece, “Vice and Advice,” he confesses to catching a dose of the clap. “A painful shot of penicillin cures the infection, but offers little redemption for a fallen Catholic boy.” In “Close Combat” a “. . . silver-barred/Act of Congress/gentleman” holds a gun to Berube’s head, but he “ . . . had no cares, thanks to too many beers.”
Berube earned an Associate Degree in Architecture right after his service in the army, made affordable by the G.I. Bill. According to an interview with John Coyne, Larry Berube “accidentally” joined Peace Corps when he went to interview for a land surveying job in his town and found that it was “Peace Corps Calling.” He filled out the application and was pleasantly surprised to be accepted.
“Part III: Henna” takes us to Morocco. A mysterious little poem, “Arab Street” sets the scene.
He jabbed the ass
of the ass
with an olive branch
and made a blood-trail
on the trail
while flies swarmed
over the back
and the mark
of the cross of Jesus.
He does surveying in a small village in the Middle Atlas Mountains for a water project. A photo of him at work shows a serious young man who may finally be growing up. He is struck by the use of henna and writes three poems, “Henna Hands,” “Henna Feet,” and “Henna Hair,” all of which invoke his wonder at this tradition that gifts women “ . . . with luck and happiness, as well as protection against the darker forces of life.”
Then there is the enigma of Sally, to whom the author dedicates his book: “To Sally/ “Who I loved too late.” There is one poem about her and a photo with “the water man in Marrakesh.”
You never saw the crack behind my smile
while you poured your love into the colander
that was my heart.
This made me wonder about the repercussions of Berube’s painful childhood. He writes a haunting poem, “Daddy Dreams,” about his father as a homeless wreck. He and his mother resorted to alcohol, haunted by the brutal day that she was so violently attacked. But I would never think of him as a victim, because he refuses to do so.
He went back to college in his mid-fifties “. . . just for the heck of it. They only had a writing class in poetry available, and I thought poetry — give me a break. But as it turned out, I thrived in that class. Between the poetry and personal non-fiction class, I realized I had plenty of material from my lifetime experiences, which up until then I had pretty much kept to myself.”
As he began to accumulate poems, Berube put them together in a chapbook form. “The grammar corrections from the professors were also helpful because at the time my basic grammar was pretty bad.” As a reviewer of books for Peace Corps Worldwide and others, I was very happy to read this, as poorly edited books seem to be the norm these days. I always appreciate good editors. Marian Haley Bell helped too, as she steered him through publication with a Peace Corps Writers Imprint.
Larry Berube is too large and strong a man to ever feel sorry for, though I wonder if writing poetry took more courage than any other triumphs he has had. Because this, his first chapbook, is a triumph.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs. (amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).