A Morsel of Bread, A Knife
by Roberta P. Feins
82 pages 39 poems
Publisher: Center on Contemporary Art
To Order: http://cocaseattle.org or Amazon
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
Poet Kahlil Gibran has written, The most beautiful word on the lips of mankind is the
word “Mother.” In Roberta P. Feins’ new collection we hear a muted “not so fast” to
Gibran’s widely accepted declaration. It isn’t that the poet doesn’t love her mother, to
whom she dedicates this work, rather she eschews shallow sentimentality in favor of life-
realism. In A Morsel of Bread, A Knife, Feins shepherds her readers on a journey
beginning with childhood memories, flashbacks into life-shaping experiences of young
adulthood, culminating in a mature tenacity of spirit.
A Morsel of Bread, A Knife is organized in four parts. They are, “The Mother Country”,
“Paysage”, “The Bitters”, and “Winter’s Bargain”. Each section features a full-color
artwork which informs the poems found therein. These collages in order of appearance
are: Gabrielle d’ Estrées/Gestures, by David Francis; Waterfall/Nude, The Bitters, and
Winter’s Bargain, all by Feins. These works are visually stimulating as well as emotion-
ally compelling. Feins excels in writing ekphrastic poetry. Ekphrasis in poetics refers
not only to describing the art, but at its finest, includes in-depth application to life.
Throughout the collection Feins establishes a strong sense of place. The “place” in view
is France where the poet lived during her youth and formative years. The poems placed
me in Parisian cafes, on farms in the south of France, in the refined precincts of the
Louvre viewing masterpieces by da Vinci and in the homes of Feins’ youth.
From Part I, “The Mother Country”, I especially enjoyed, St. Jean de Luz, France, 1971,
where I experienced Sunday morning joys of cocoa and croissants and walks into town
along beaches of salt-wind and sand. In the next poem, the poet describes the contents of
a closet “Under the Eaves.” This poem reveals the tensions of family life which Feins
depicts with consummate skill. If you have ever rummaged about in your parents or
grandparents’ secret shelves this poem is for you.
Jonesin’, which opens Part II, “Paysage”, (French for countryside), is about her mother’s
art. The art is a “sweet fire” which causes the impressionable youth to stand in awe. One
senses not only admiration but a certain distance between the two. Throughout the
collection the poet hints at this universal truth in familial relationships. I found myself
thinking, “Right, I’ve been there too; I’ve lived the same thing. Continuing with familiar
things, you won’t want to skip over, Aunt Sylvia’s Advice, which poignantly describes the
heartache after her diary is found by the poet’s mother. The Medicine Cabinet is an apt
metaphor that compares the stark differences between Feins’ parents. The poet has a
remarkable aptitude for remembering small things that take on profound significance
when amplified within her poems.
The title poem appears in this section. A Morsel of Bread, A Knife is a heart-felt remem-
brance of love experiences shared while talking with a friend at a café in Paris. In but a
few lines you will know what the poet means when she writes,
Others go around talking big about love
but we had a morsel of bread
and a knife.
I hasten to add that David Francis writes a “must read” elaboration of the title poem in
the Notes section at the end.
Part III, “The Bitters” continues Feins’ metaphorical use of the French countryside. Three
Troubadour Love Songs, makes gorgeous use of farm life to highlight aspects of love from
youth into advancing years,
I could not look at you without
blood rising to my cheeks.
. . . Too soon, we will remain
only as a pair of doves
you reach for my rough hand, bring it
to your cracked lips, your stubbled,
grizzled cheek, and I am smitten again
my hand shaking, not with disease
but with desire
We are greeted in Part IV, “Winter’s Bargain” with Feins’ collage Moissac Cloister &
Sword. this renowned place of worship is located at Tarn-et-Garonne in south-western
France. Famous for its colonnades, exquisite sculptures and mindfulness setting, Feins
uses her painting as a catalyst for her developed thought about the role of faith in life.
We note the presence of a sword. The sword is almost invisible, which is part of the
artist’s genius. It intersects the bottom of the colonnade extending into the head of a
woman. Further reflection on this image in relation to the poems in this section was
emotionally powerful for me.
I felt sadness when I read Mother Muses at the Louvre, viewing de Vinci’s The
Annunciation. Her mother’s loss of faith, separation of siblings and mundane things
such as the theft of “Papa’s pipe,” pervade the poem. In The Alpage, we smell cheese
being made and rub against sheep. We join the poet running downhill beside a “cocoa-
brown stream” in With One Bird You Will Take Another. In Aunt Sylvia’s Advice, 1994,
we hear a terse critique of culture’s attitude toward women. Feins’ sword has two edges,
believe me, her powerful use of both edges in “Winter’s Bargain” is worth the price of
In this seminal collection Roberta Feins serves more than a mere morsel of bread, as
lucky readers, we get the whole banquet.