Spring 2021, Volume 30

Love's Fingerprints by Bernard Horn

       Review by Jon Riccio

Reading Bernard Horn’s Love’s Fingerprints (Circling Rivers, 2020) with my air conditioner at full blast, I thought about the cacophony that percussed Horn’s Brooklyn childhood of the 1940s and ′50s. Unlike my solution to heat, the Horn family’s respite was Rockaway Beach, the zinc coating of its boardwalk railings “always damp in the salty ocean air and slightly rough” (“My Father, the Swimmer”). Horn’s poetry is new to me, a mentor putting us in touch last fall. The more I revisit Horn—his work is at some remove from the Surrealists who fill my hours of late—I find him a master carpenter of autobiography, Horn’s 129-page collection accounting for decades of familial floorplan. What I admire most about Horn’s poems are his descriptions of domestic architecture. Take “The splintery wooden stairs” in “The Porch,” which guide the reader to a “sprawling Victorian rooming house [that’s] mottled / black and bright from the wrought-iron light fixture / suspended over the center of the octagonal poker table.” These details evoke the sound of shuffled cards older than the Eisenhower administration. We’re given wicker-row seats to a game played by “shopkeepers, garment workers, / butchers and grocers.” The poet then addresses his émigré father, Harry: “let me enter your story as you stand / motionless in the speckled light.” Entering Horn’s book, half the poems’ personnel reside in the past, the collection shifting later to the poet’s children, grandchildren, and friends who, in earlier years, carried “the amazed conviction that all the others / had somehow mastered this parenting business” (“The Dinner”). Horn’s humbleness eschews density, adopting a learned tone akin to a docent. Creative minds such as Rothko and Schubert provide cultural pastiches to themes of persecution and language as a double-sided canvas, permanence and undoing, the latter explored through Harry’s 1977 stroke.

For every taunt etched in Horn’s youth—at age twelve he’s told to “Take your Jew cap off” before bullies accost him—we have a language rebuttal from Harry. This is best illustrated in “My Father, the Swimmer,” a sixteen-page prose poem whose revelatory aspects span more than a quarter century, the Harry of 1952 working “a ten-hour day in your narrow housewares and toy store on Avenue D.” As someone who’s experienced more than a few bullies, I’m drawn to Horn’s experiences, Harry consoling his son, telling him, “those anti-Semite punks will remember they had a fight today, won’t they,” young Bernard fisticuff-adept. We learn that Harry, who had prospects of a soccer career back in Poland, lost family members including his brother Mottek to the Holocaust. This knowledge shapes the collection as one continental trauma is bypassed for the microaggressions that framed Bernard’s stateside upbringing. Father and son know different frequencies of prejudice, but the dial is the same. We gain a sense of tenderness through Harry’s words “my little American, my little Israeli,” spoken before he cries, the second time his son’s seen him do so. This language comes at a time when men were barely conversant in emotional openness, some of the first literary utterances made in WD Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle (1959), a few years after the father-son discussion.

Horn’s depiction of Harry’s un-voicing is connoted by paragraphs giving loss a larger scope. Harry is speechless on a page sentenced to words. Such is the court of prose conveying bodily pathos: “I also remember our hope during those first weeks, and the weight of small gestures. The good left hand touching the right a week after the stroke, the good arm lifting the right arm and massaging it three days later . . . These were the days of small angers, small gestures, your sorrow gentle, resigned, peaceful.” Horn’s had forty-three years to craft this paternal elegy, the minutia of a stroke’s toll captured at nailbed-level. We revisit Harry’s right hand in “Opera,”

            cupped open, relaxed
            his first finger pointing upward, his pale clear eyes
            and the tilt of his head steering us
            toward the record player as he tried once again
            to induce us to hear the beauty of some small inflection
            in Pinza’s rendering of [Là ci darem la mano]

which translates to “there we’ll shake hands.” Proximity holds a different currency in pandemic times where fingerprints are the equivalent of Pandora’s box. I haven’t seen any Riccios without a Zoom link going on fifteen months. The meals, games, and lives that caress Love’s Fingerprints are stand-ins for my disconnection. When I read “but, still, we will manage to maneuver / down the sleet-coated driveway in an hour / to get you to the doctor on time” (“Valentine 2014”), I see my parents’ round of wintertime checkups and the precision that snow-tires them from one parking lot to the next. Horn’s generations are so thoroughly rendered—one daughter is mistaken for Cinderella at a TJ Maxx—I welcome his family in my cloistered routine. His observations of strangers are equally compelling. Aquatic whimsey

            I think I could spend my life
            among the snorkelers, at the edge of
            some reef in the Red Sea; they have only one
            eagerness: to point out the latest specimen of stunning beauty
            that swims into their ken.  (“The Snorkelers”)

gives way to eco-sermon,

            They don’t regret the past or worship the past.
            They don’t drown in the present in plans or worries,
            hopes or dreams. They are not
            respectable, but a few
            old timers, remembering the reef
            entirely free of leprous patches,
            laconically remind us
            this earth
            is all we have. 

“leprous patches” a commentary on bio-, degraded, the old timers SCUBA sagacious.

In Horn, wisdom is sung by solo voice and chorus alike, his aesthetic elevating the type of self-reflection achieved through loved ones’ eyes. The parents I poeticize stretch back to the 1980s, the lines they adorn don’t have the same longevity cachet as Horn’s strongest pieces dated just after last century’s halfway mark. One of Horn’s talents is bridging eras. The final stanza in “Portrait of My Mother Knitting” shows us how it’s done:

            Her knitting was one of the last things
            to leave her, and this autumn
            my wife has taken to wrapping herself in
            the present my mother knitted
            for my sixteenth birthday: a heavy
            two-toned gray sweater with
            a soaring green-headed pheasant
            red and black wings outspread
            on the back and silhouettes of a hunter
            and a dog on the front–
            it still keeps the fall chill off our bones.

“Wrapping herself in / the present” is a homonym de force! I’d love to see this sweater in real life, though Horn’s color spectrum is no less elegant. Again, he writes of a parent’s hands, the mother as meta-silhouette. Horn finesses decades the way an archivist pages through a rare-books gallery. Should Horn offer this technique as a workshop course, I’ll be the first to enroll.        

Love’s Fingerprints asks “Who will remember you?” (“Sunday in the Park”): Harry, Mottek, “the Rockettes [kicking] their way through my Jewish childhood” (“Death, Rothko Said”). Until March 2018, I was the third of four generational rungs, my maternal grandmother smartphoning her great-grandchildren. Similar to Bernard’s mother, “The mayhem she had known / taught her a / simple calculation” (“The Black Corduroy Blazer”). This math served our family past her hundredth year. Each time I attempt an elegy, I stall at her house, its beauty-shop throw rug, laundry chute part-tin, part-waterslide when the towels were Lake Michiganed enough. Horn’s details resonate with me because they foreground those who rhapsodize his work. Whereas my grandma conversed through her last day, Harry’s language was “shattered to atoms” (“My Father, the Swimmer”), yet Horn restores his voice postmortem, something Love’s Fingerprints’ prose imparts when the craft part of our poetry brain least expects it—

  As I lose sight of you, I start playing my nightly game of guessing which sudden splash of white in the distance is you, and it always scares me a little as I try to trace your path, deeper and further, and my imagination always betrays me—I’m always surprised by your location when on moonlit nights I catch clear sight of you emerging from the water. Other nights, it’s so dark by then, I’m still looking out at the Atlantic when I hear you walking through the sand, suddenly just a few strides from the wooden stairs that rise from the beach to the boardwalk. You’re full of joy and drops of water.
          “There’s nothing like it. Nothing in the whole world,” you say, only partly to me.

In curating the deceased, Horn’s reached zenith status.




About Bernard Horn

Bernard Horn's debut poetry collection Our Daily Words was a finalist for the 2011 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry. His poems have appeared in journals including The New York Times, Mississippi Review, and HuffPost, and in Devouring the Green: Anthology of New Writing. His translations of Yehuda Amichai's poetry from Hebrew to English are published in The New Yorker. His book, Facing the Fires: Conversations with A. B. Yehoshua, is the only work in English about Israel's pre-eminent novelist. He is Professor of English emeritus at Framingham State University and lives with his wife, artist Linda Klein, in Framingham, Massachusetts.


Love's Fingerprints by Bernard Horn
published by Circling Rivers (November 3, 2020)
ISBN-10 : 1939530091
ISBN-13 : 978-1939530097


About Jon Riccio

Jon Riccio's chapbook Prodigal Cocktail Umbrella was recently published by Trainwreck Press. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.