Nomi Stone’s ‘Stranger’s Notebook’

by Amanda Rutstein

Stranger’s Notebook
by Nomi Stone
Triquarterly, 80 pp., $14.95

Published in 2008, Nomi Stone’s first book of poetry Stranger’s Notebook, chronicles the poet’s travels to the ancient Jewish community on the island of Djerba. A brief forward explains that the people of this community are believed to have arrived right after the fall of the first temple of Jerusalem and the small enclave is built on holy land of mysterious origin containing a single rock from the original temple. Stone, resisting the urge to simply spill interesting information on the page, masterfully weaves facts, history and legend into each of the forty-nine poems contained in this volume.

Stranger’s Notebook is separated into six unnamed sections that allow us to follow the travelling poet as she arrives on the island, exists on the periphery of the community, is welcomed into the community, lives in the community, examines the history of the community and finally concludes in Israel where she speaks to Djerban emigrants there. Through the insistent use of the second person pronoun “you,” Stone is able to speak to herself, native Djerbans, as well as the reader, all at once. This clever address deepens the perspective of each poem and gives the reader the notion that they, too, are travelling. It is hard to ignore the feelings of awe, sometimes-shame and disassociation that the poet feels as she attempts to adopt, or rather, be adopted by this utterly foreign culture. The reader’s own culpability becomes inescapable as the poems reiterate “you.”

One of the books prevailing images is that of light. There is great examination of light, particularly as it exists in the cosmos. In the fourth poem of the volume, “La Ghriba (“The Stranger”) Tells How and Why,” Stone introduces us to this image:

…Is it the sun? No, the moon
has caught the sun in its mouth. The moon is nothing but the sun letting
it see itself…

The idea that light, particularly celestial light, is what allows us to view our surroundings, and even, perhaps, peer deeper into our own selves practically permeates this book. In these rather mystical or prophetic statements, the poet seems better able to reckon with the many dichotomies that this community presents. In one poem a Jewish woman questions whether the poet is afraid to be living amongst the Muslims in the surrounding areas, yet in another, girls are asking her if she knows Britney Spears. There is something that is at once deeply hopeful and deeply stagnant about this culture and rather than pass judgment herself, Stone invites the reader to examine it along with her as she presents the information.

Among the most troubling aspects of this community, is its treatment of women. The poet, being both woman and outsider gives a wholly unique perspective to this tradition. In one of the most raw and engaging poems, “From Her Notes,” in the fourth section of the book, Stone gives us a rare glimpse at a scene where some of the Jewish girls are letting lose. After a wedding they get on the tables and dance to imaginary music and sing into empty beer cans. The scene is brimming with love, trust and familiarity until a young boy peers into the tent and Stone writes,

…Look: the boy
has come back, is looking you
hard in the eye, through

the crack of the door.
There, in his had, a neon
plastic BB

gun. He does this for
his grandmother and for his

Again, this stunning disparity of when tradition comes head-to-head with contemporary culture is merely presented and it is up to us, the readers, to glean from it what we will.

Stone’s book is as much a study of a specific culture as it is a quest for self-discovery. Indeed, in and amongst the many artfully and carefully crafted lines of poetry are snippets of dialogue and sentences that seem pulled straight from her traveler’s notebook. In fact, the linearity of the book follows a trajectory very much like a traditional bildungsroman. Through the curiosity of the villagers asking over and over such questions as, “Whose daughter are you?” and “Why aren’t you married yet?” the book crescendos to it’s final more pressing questions that seem to cut to the heart of the poet’s search. In the final poem “In the Songs and in the Homes,” the speaker is home again, reviewing the taped conversations from Israel and she writes:

“What is it you want to learn?” they asked me, “What is it you lack?

Every night, the moon catches the sun in its mouth. You cannot see the moon otherwise.

These questions and the repeated image of the moon consuming the sun are keys to the entire volume and a perfect dénouement. Just as the small Jewish population of Djerba is trying to find its footing in both the past and present simultaneously, so too is the speaker of these poems trying to learn more about herself through the history of these people. It is, therefore, not hard to see the metaphorical link between the moon consuming the sun to better see itself and the town incorporating the poet so that she might also catch a glimpse of herself. Both processes rely on the willingness of “the other” to be absorbed.

Overall, Stranger’s Notebook is marked by a gentle sense of adventure and a quiet passion for history. Through Stone’s insistent repetition and steadily lilting sibilance, she guides the reader on tiptoe through this intrepid, and at times hostile, Djerban community. There is a graceful persistence as the poet, rather than forcing her way into the center of town, waits for the people to trust her and invite her into their fold. This transition from La Ghriba or “the stranger” to poet-in-residence is so organic that the only way to discern the difference is through the poems’ shift from solely observational to the incorporation of dialogue and interaction with the speaker. In the end, there is no evidence that the poet has adopted any of the Djerban customs, but an undeniable tone of confidence in the last few poems of the volume illustrate a greater sense of self that can only come from taking risks and answering questions—questions you would only dare to consider if you were loved and accepted in return. The poet says it best in another poem titled “From Her Notes,” also from the fourth section:

When you are ill, she
knocks. No one else had knocked;
you live above Muslims.

                        You give her your blue
                        necklace because you could
                        love her. Unstrange, this.

AMANDA RUTSTEINis currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at UNC Greensboro. She is a poetry editor for The Greensboro Review.