Book Review: A Yes-or-No ANSWER

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Jane Shore has written another possible award-winning poetry book, A Yes-or-No Answer, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Like Happy Family and Music Minus One, Shore’s A Yes-or-No ANSWER hits home with her readers. Written in a down-to-earth, sometimes ambiguous, colloquial fashion, Shore writes about the Jewish female experience in the United States after World War II.

She draws her reader into the book through enlightening her or him about her life and identity. Not afraid to divulge her Jewish roots and history, Shore deals with subjects like dominance and oppression, feminism, family and friend relationships, and identity.

The average Jewish reader can easily relate to Shore’s experiences, and the non-Jewish reader will probably find A Yes-or No Answer a likeable book as Shore teaches the reader about Jewish culture and religion in a non-obtrusive manner. She doesn’t force her opinions on the reader, but uses an autobiographical, overt persona to ease the reader into her world.

Shore’s poetic influences range from Emily Dickinson to W. H. Auden to Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton to Elizabeth Bishop to more. She learned a lot especially from Elizabeth Bishop , a post-modern poet whose imagery and metaphors are absolutely amazing.

Like Bishop, Shore loads a lot of meaning through descriptive yet economical imagery. Bishop uses a covert speaker while Shore tends to create a direct, defined, often humorous, and often imaginative overt speaker. Unlike Bishop, Shore doesn’t correct herself. She is pretty certain her way is the accurate path to take. Shore gives more direction than Bishop in a very concise manner.

Analysis of Shore’s A Yes-or-No Answer is a complicated task. The reviewer has the opportunity to discover many different techniques and/or themes within her work such as her allusions ; her color imagery; her wit and humor; her syntax and punctuation; her knowledge about Jewish customs, history, and culture; and the influences of Elizabeth Bishop. In this review, we’ll focus on two poems, “A Yes-or-No Answer” (pp. 3-4) and “The Blue Address Book” (pp. 18-19). References will be made to two of Shore’s previous books, Happy Family and Music Minus One , to assist in confirming allusions within these three autobiographical books.

A Yes-or-No Answer is divided into three sections. Upon reading the opening poem, “A Yes-or-No Answer”, in Shore’s A Yes-or-No Answer, the reader wonders why Shore named the book and the introductory poem “A Yes-or-No Answer”. But if you read Shore’s books in sequence, you would find that this poem’s title may be alluding to a previous poem, “Holiday Season”, (p. 24-28), a poem found in her earlier book, Music Minus One, where Shore writes about a Chanukah gift- a Magic 8 Ball – she received and how she asked this psychic toy “a yes-or-no question” about God:

It could predict the future.

You asked it a yes-or-no question,

you turned it over,

and the answer slowly floated up

through the inky liquid

to the round window on top.

I held the black ball

firmly in my hands.

“Is God going to punish me?”

“CONCENTRATE AND ASK AGAIN”

In “Holiday Season”, a definite, concrete answer to “a yes-or-no question” is never obtained. The question lingers throughout the book and into Shore’s newest book, “A Yes-or-No Answer” which seems to be written in response to Shore’s metaphysical question – or “a yes-or-no question” – to the Magic 8 Ball.

Shore’s sense of humor is revealed when the Magic 8 Ball responds to her question, “Is God going to punish me?” with the simple and direct command of “CONCENTRATE AND ASK AGAIN”. The speaker sounds young and naive and is asking a serious, rhetorical question to a plastic toy ball filled with liquid and an ivory-colored dice with standard word phrases engraved on it. The toy is not human; and it’s definitely not the voice of God, though the child persona in this poem wishes the Magic 8 Ball were able to give the answer to her guilt ridden question.

In the first line of “A Yes-or-No Answer”, Shore makes another allusion to a poem written by her in a preceding book. She asks the question, “Have you read The Story of O?” Now, The Story of O is about male dominance and female oppression. Shore first mentioned The Story of O in her poem, “Over Sexteen”, pages 38-39, in its final line, which reads as follows:

….I couldn’t

imagine you two bouncing on your king-size

Beautyrest, engaging in the polysyllabic

acts I’d had to look up in the dictionary,

my vocabulary improving by the week.

“Bookworm!” You teased me, until my body

went away to collage and learned the facts

of life, firsthand. No how-to manual,

Joy of Sex, Story of O , Kama Sutra.

With both “a yes-or-no question” and “Story of O”, Shore has tied her past writing history into the present book. She has made a continuation which would escape readers who have not yet read Music Minus One and Happy Family. These allusions back to earlier books can make understanding “A Yes-or-No Answer” easier to figure out if the reader has read these earlier books by Shore.

But, it is still possible for a reader to understand this poem filled with questions and polite yet demanding statements without having familiarity with Shore’s previous autobiographical works. As in “Holiday Season”, Shore’s speaker in “A Yes-or-No Answer” is asking for simple answers to complex situation but Shore doesn’t work that way. The Magic 8 Ball gives answers, but ones that are so abstract that they aren’t necessarily directly true.

In “A YES-OR-No ANSWER”, the speaker asks questions and doesn’t leave room for concrete answers:

Have you read The Story of O?

Will Buffalo sink under all that snow?

Will you double-dip your Oreo?

Please answer the question yes or no.

“A YES-OR-NO ANSWER”‘s opening line’s tone, “Have you read The Story of O?” is serious, yet curious, as The Story of O about a woman who is oppressed. The second line, “Will Buffalo sink under all that snow?”, sounds more casual and almost ridiculous as the chance of Buffalo disappearing from too much snow is highly unlikely. Shore is less serious to pace the building tension after the first line. The third line, “Will you double-dip your Oreo?”, is pretty nonsensical yet shows how well the speaker, obviously upset about something, knows the person who is being spoken to. The fourth and final line of the first stanza, “Please answer the question yes or no.” doesn’t end in a question mark like the three former lines. The speaker isn’t fooling around anymore. She is being polite yet direct without giving the recipient of the questions, who could be the reader as well as another yet unknown person, any leeway.

In the second stanza, the tone of the poem jumps back and forth from serious questions to gentler, somewhat humorous lines.

The surgery – was it touch-and-go?

Does a corpse’s hair continue to grow?

Remember when we were simpatico?

Again, the speaker’s tone is light though the reader can sense there is a relationship conflict arising as Shore ends the second stanza with the direct statement, “Answer my question: yes or no.” Something serious happened and the speaker wants to know the truth.

But, Shore keeps the pace steady with the tone being strained and personal:

Do you want another cup of joe?

If I touch you, is that apropos?

Are you certain that you’re hetero?

Is your answer yes or no?

In this third stanza, Shore asks four questions very eloquently. After asking a pretty impersonal question and a question that’s polite and acceptable etiquette, the overt

speaker asks a very personal question, “Are you certain that you’re hetero?” She has asked it gently as not to offend the recipient of the question, who could be the reader as well as a person with whom she has or had a sexual relationship.

Suddenly, the tone of the poem gets angry. Shore alludes to the children’s fairy tale character, “Pinocchio” , at the end of the poem to surprise the reader and to build up the tension of the poem. The simple single word “Pinocchio” brings the reader to think that the person being reprimanded may be a liar and the speaker isn’t happy.

Did you lie to me, like Pinocchio?

Was forbidden fruit the cause of woe?

Did you ever sleep with that so-and-so?

Just answer the question: yes or no.

Shore’s use of imagery and punctuation suggests that the reader is angry over a relationship gone sour, that “forbidden fruit [was] the cause of woe”.

Suddenly, the speaker’s voice gets sarcastic, angry, and even rude:

Did you nail her under the mistletoe?

Will you spare me the details, blow by blow?

Did she sing sweeter than a vireo?

I need an answer. Yes or no?

Are we still a dog-and-pony show?

Shall we change partners and do-si-do?

Are you planning on the old heave-ho?

Check an answer: Yes No

In the seventh stanza, the anger seems to subside. As her anger diminishes, the speaker can’t remember the facts to her wedding because she’s so upset:

Was something blue in my trousseau?

Do you take this man, this woman? Oh,

but that was very long ago.

Did we say yes? Did we say no?

For better or for worse? Ergo,

Shall we play it over, in slow mo?

Do you love me? Do you know?

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Through imagery and an unusual manipulation of line flow that’s almost like but technically not enjambment because the question marks at the ends of the lines creates a pause and a continuation of breath and rhythm at the same time, Shore has written a wonderful lead poem. The tension builds up to a point where the speaker seems to be about to yell but then Shore tunes down the tension by having the speaker look back at the past and realize the answer to whether her lover/husband loves her isn’t that clear either.

Shore concludes this poem with an ambiguous statement that is rather profound: “Maybe yes. Maybe no.” Perhaps this italicized voice at the end of the poem is the speaker’s husband, perhaps the voice belongs to the speaker herself.

Regardless of whose voice the poem concludes with, Shore has already suggested there may be no clear-cut answers to her questions in this poem, as seen in “Holiday Season” and the Magic 8 Ball, and throughout the book, A Yes-or-No Answer.

The poem, “A Yes-or-No Answer”, has prepared the reader for a poetry read that’s controversial on the surface and filled with meanings underneath.

Color imagery plays an important role in the works of Shore, especially in A Yes-or-No Answer. Shore has the remarkable ability to convey detailed meaning through the use of few words. Of all the colors available for the eye to see, Shore uses the word “blue” most frequently. Bishop, who had a Baptist background, uses the word “blue” often also, which may be one reason why Shore does too, but there’s a few other possible reasons why Shore chooses to work with this imaginative, multi-faceted word. Shore immediately shows her affinity for the color “blue” in “The Blue Address Book” by putting this color, which is the favorite of many people, in the title of the poem.

Shore explains why she uses the word “blue” so frequently in her poem “Washing The Streets of Holland” (pp. 3-5), found in Music Minus One. In this poem, Shore writes about her childhood experience of listening to family members discuss the World War II Holocaust, specifically how the Dutch hid their Jewish people in their homes. Her relatives also mentioned how clean Holland’s street are “because every morning/the Dutch wash their sidewalks down” (p. 4). So the overt speaker would get down on her hands and knees and “scrub the floor with a washcloth/until my bathwater turned cold./There was a lot of dirt in Holland; but I was doing my part to help.” The word “blue” is used several times in “Washing the Streets of Holland”:

Blue woman on the powder can,

blue willowware plate,

gentle brushstrokes of the pagoda roof,

blades of windmills, glazed waters of the lagoon,

blue tattoo inked in flesh,

blue ink in a diary

blue ocean whose water is really colorless, like tears,

a flood of tears, all seven seas running together –

blurring the words

and washing them away.

From this autobiographical account, Shore has developed a likeness for the color and word “blue”. It seems to be a part of her identity, which may further be enforced by the fact that Israel’s flag is blue and white.

Now, back to “The Blue Address Book”, where Shore writes about coping with her mother’s and father’s deaths. She was close with her mother and father, so close that

Like the other useless

Things I can’t bear

To get rid of – her

nylon nightgowns,

his gold-plated

cufflinks, his wooden

shoes, in a size

no one I know can use –

I’m stuck with their blue

pleather address book,

its’ twenty-six chapters

printed in ballpoint pen,

Shore has referred to the color “blue” probably three times in these three stanzas.

From poems in earlier books, we learned that her mother wore “baby-blue nylon nightgown(s)” (p. 18), though here she leaves out the word “blue” when writing

of “her/nylon nightgowns”.

Because of this allusion to a “baby-blue nylon nightgown” in previous works, we have the image of a blue nightgown in our minds. And Shore writes about her parents’ “blue/pleather address book,/its’ twenty-six chapters/printed in ballpoint pen,” Both the “pleather address book” and the “ballpoint pen” are most likely in blue, too, as Shore states here that the address book is blue and, on page 28, in A Yes-or-No Answer, Shore writes about a “blue ballpoint”. It seems the color “blue” was so common in her family that Shore didn’t need to state what the color ink of the pen was. It’s simply assumed.

In the tenth stanza of “The Blue Address Book”, Shore mentions that

The baby-blue cover

has a patina of grease

the pages steeped

in the cigar smoke.

Here Shore has economized on the number of words used to convey a clear, articulate visual images. The reader can easily visualize “The baby-blue cover” that has some “grease” on it with the pages stained “in the cigar smoke.” The reader can almost see the colors suggested through such vivid, compact imagery.

In “The Blue Address Book”, Shore has the overt speaker recall family members

Great-uncles, aunts

cousins once removed,

whose cheeks I kissed,

whose food I ate,

are in this book still

alive, immortal, each

name accompanied

by a face:

She is remembering her deceased relatives in a special way, after “years spent in my parents’ junk drawer./Though scattered/in different graveyards,//here they’re all/accounted for./Their souls disperse,/dust motes in the air//that I inhale.” Shore has written about the love she has for these deceased people and reveals a bit about Jewish thought and religion.

Through the use of compact imagery, allusions, wit and humor, punctuation, and a thorough background of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Shore has created a work of poetry that continues the path of her other poetry books. A Yes-or-No Answer is a wonderful book to put on your bookshelf and read and re-read when you want to be entertained as well as to reaffirm your love for fine writing.

Bibliography

Bishop, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Bishop Poems, Prose, and Letters. New York: The Library of America, 2008.

Fountain, Gary, and Brazeau, Peter. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kinzie, Mary. A Poet’s Guide To Poetry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Shore, Jane. A Yes-or-No ANSWER. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Shore, Jane. Happy Family. New York: Picador USA, 1999.

Shore, Jane. Music Minus One. New York: Picador USA, 1996.

Timpane, John, Ph.D., and Watts, Maureen. Poetry for Dummies. New York: Wiley Publishing, Inc. pp. 49-51, pp. 85-87.

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Houghton Mifflin