Roberta Feins’s A Morsel of Bread, a Knife

Review by Susan Shaw Sailer

A Morsel of Bread, A Knife
Roberta Feins
(2018, Center on Contemporary Art)
$28, paper

Roberta Feins’s chapbook Herald won the 2016 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize. Her extraordinary new work explores the theme of maternity from the standpoints of church, family, and art. Through this triple springboard—the frozen sensuality of the medieval church, the mother whose concern with beauty and style barricaded her from her daughter, and women in art as sexualized objects—Feins creates a 21st-century Boschian carnival that explores the body as trash-rack and, simultaneously, home of sensual pleasure.

The ultimate representation of motherhood, one medieval Virgin offers only “tiny nubs” on a “trunk of wood,” the statue originally having been male, a Roman emperor. This Virgin doesn’t support baby Jesus, who sits “on (her) left knee, must hold himself erect,/ or fall.” A mechanical puppet theatre shows Eve’s nakedness “shielded/ by the Tree, as she reaches for a painted,/ ruby drop.” But in the France of 1971, girls kiss “smooth-cheeked boys” behind a spice bush while Jesus “swings from (the) waist on a beaded leash” of a wimpled nun.

The speaker’s mother escapes into art museums, the realm offering “searing beauty.” Though she recognizes that behind powerful art is suffering, she pretends it is clean of life’s muck. While the daughter explores sensuality through first sex and the pleasures of gourmet eating, the mother, dressed in stylish clothes, seems incapable of bodily warmth. Exploring the sensuality inherent in art, Feins takes her readers through several paintings in the Louvre depicting a sexualized woman. In each poem, a female family member counterpoints the experience of victimhood.

If the choice is between victimhood and frozen beauty, the speaker of these poems opts for a conflicted refusal of motherhood:

What would I do

all the days feeding

nights soothing, sapped. “No,” I said, “I won’t.”

But the pain of this choice registers: “Oh, I am a dull match failing to spark,/ a nightingale singing with her tongue cut out.”

An air of rich vitality permeates these poems, as well as a delicious sense of humor. Riding an old ethnic joke, Feins writes,

In Paradise, it takes an infinite
number of light bulbs to change a person.

Driving through southwestern France, the speaker declares,

I want to wear these hills       fabric woven of sun and leaf
granite and burn

my breasts clothed       in forests of teaseled velvet

To restrictions placed on the body by various religious groups and the doubts women have been inculcated to feel about their own bodies, Feins counters that without the senses’ rich input of messy but rich life, having a body would be a miserably thin experience. Yet the body is mortal. The answer is to embrace richness, accept mortality:

My little trash rack, built
from blood and neuron: daily
braving the rush of the great stream –

I want this rubble burden to end,
I want time to ratchet on forever.


Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 3.

Susan Shaw Sailer lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, and is a member of Jan Beatty’s Madwomen in the Attic critique group in Pittsburgh. Sailer has published two books, The God of Roundabouts and Ship of Light, as well as a chapbook, COAL. Her recent work appears in KAKALAK 18 and Conclave (“Justifying the Margins”).

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