Judy Halebsky, Sky=Empty
Publisher: New Issues, Western Michigan University
2009, 83 pages, paperback, $15

AT FIRST GLANCE, the title of Judy Halebsky’s first book, Sky=Empty, might strike one as casually flippant. But, indeed, there is nothing flippant about this book. Its weight is grounded in a reality that encompasses cultural shifts, as well as poetic shifts in form, tone, and subject. In an age when books of poetry have become so monotonously “themed,” Halebsky’s main themes seem only to be freshness, originality, and an honest allegiance to diversity.

One of the most engaging things about the book is the poet’s wide array of linguistic turns and usages. Halebsky, a Canadian who has studied noh theatre, works to bridge a gap between Japanese and Western culture that is often overlooked. These poems are definitely not translations; they’re realizations of a person whose life has spanned the Pacific Ocean. The hardships of such a life are highlighted in poems like “My Father Remembers Blue Zebras.” After inserting a Japanese character in the text of the poem, Halebsky translates the symbol as “oboeru,” meaning “to remember / also means to learn [. . .].” The poem formulates the difficulty of returning home from afar and questions the validity of memory as a gauge of familial bond:

I try to keep track of what he put where
the small green car we called Cricket
the second time he got drafted
and Aunt Nina’s husband, he’s a nice guy but he’s a fascist

he’s asking me again
where do you live [. . .]

These dramatic shifts from stark realization to bald reality generate a palpable turbulence across the cultural divide. Halebsky navigates this space with insightful, tragically beautiful turns that catalog her understanding of the distinctly dissimilar ideologies while demonstrating a poignant aptitude for joining them together. “Read Me Where I Lie” showcases this ability, as the poet attempts to find a way to faithfully translate for her teacher. The poem begins, “Sensei doesn’t like me changing the words [. . .] he wants me to tell you / love song actually means / the voices of working girls [. . .].” Such struggles arise often in Sky=Empty, but Halebsky responds with an integrity that defines the delightful risk and ambition of the collection:

before and after
gathering darkness
under the shadow of clouds

the words come underwater
breathed in like air
seeded to spruce, to elm, to fir

he wants me to tell you
a different kind of love song

—Colin Pope