‘Affairs Run in the Family’ by Lee Varon

On January 24, 2018, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Review by Julia Carlson

Lee Varon’s book, Affairs Run in the Family, is an exploration of and testament to the fragile feelings of the author’s memories of her Southern upbringing and relationship with her grandmother. When the husband of the grandfather’s mistress attempted to murder him, her grandmother’s life was forever changed. And then, there were also the events of the civil rights era, which played out during the author’s childhood and left a deep impression on her. Those complex feelings are explored as the author attempts to reconcile these events and their consequences to her grandparents, family, and herself. In Court, Varon describes her grandmother at the trial of her husband’s aggressor:

Affairs Run in the Family
by Lee Varon
(Finishing Line Press, 2017)

“You wear your grey tweed

threaded with lavender

smoky silk stockings,

sensible shoes.

Nothing too flashy….

 

Let Mrs. Harlot paint herself

wear her flared skirt

her pink cloche skirt

in discrete perfume….”

 

“You have been with him

teaching him slowly

to hold a cup

sip water…”

 

And her grandfather in After the Affair:

 

“After the affair, he cursed the bullet embedded in his brain

After the affair, he never saw her green eyes

After the affair, all they had were fireflies-

small lanterns of longing scattered between them.“

 

Varon is on point describing her childhood confusion about the mixed messages she received from her grandmother, a Southern woman who carries on despite the shame of her husband’s indiscretion. We meet the steely will and fight for respectability of this woman done wrong, in both her judgement of her husband’s mistress, and other aspects of her Southern life. Varon’s desire for her grandmother’s love are especially poignant in the poem Blister:

 

“Every summer

I entered the cage

of her love

dreaming in a circle of fire…

 

I wanted her to love me forever

but what will I do

for her love?

Skate out

over the black ice.”

 

all the while acknowledging that her grandmother’s character did not sit quite right with her.

 

In 1959 With My Grandmother, waiting in the bus station with Grandmother, they are sitting across from a black woman:

 

“You don’t know the black woman

across from us.

 

You lean over, loudly whisper,

“Honey, everyday I thank God

 

I wasn’t born a colored person.”

I try to fold my ticket

 

into a schoolyard fortune teller,

to lean against the blonde oak bench

 

become invisible.”

 

Varon’s poems deal with her experience of the negative aspects of the South during her childhood. In her poem We Sat Every Night, Varon describes how her 11-year-old mind tries to make sense of this:

 

“The government says colored people can vote, Nana.

Why are whites against it?

 

People up North are always criticizing us southerners

but the colored are still treated

with more respect here

than most anywhere else….

 

“Where is that anywhere else?”

 

When I argued with you

you chalked it up to my tainted Jewish blood

something I couldn’t help…”

 

Varon’s descriptive, lyrical language evokes many flavors of the South: pecan pie, crab cakes, burnt sugar cake, lavender, cedar, cinnamon, honeysuckle scent on a hot night, the sound of birdsong In her poem After, written about her mother’s death, Varon writes:

 

“…..I watch birds fall

from the sky and shake

 

their wings in the dying sun.

Vireo, Thrush, Cedar Waxwing.

The magnolias have just begun

to spread pink gauze over deepening

 

green, as your face returns

in the luster of dark wood…”

 

There are many more excellent poems in this fine collection and it’s well-worth reading more than once. I was taken back to that time when church bombings and Freedom Riders dominated the evening news, and recalled the same question I had: Why do grownups do these awful things? A longer compilation of these poems was awarded the Sunshot Poetry Prize and will be published in 2018, and I look forward to reading it.

 

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