Ridgewood author Anne-Marie Brumm, like several well-known authors who have sought to tap the spirit of a chosen location, has found self-definition through her prose and poetry set in Israel.
While unarguably lesser known than Edward Abbey or William Wordsworth, Brumm’s works exhibit a similar sense of attachment and demonstrate her acute eye for rendering a vivid landscape.
A poet, and a novelist, Brumm has sought to superimpose an array of realistic characters against a backdrop of authentic scenery. In her poems and novels, she paints the minds of suicide bombers and husband seekers amid the twisting ancient streets and white sand beaches of Israel.
Born and raised in Ridgewood, educated at Columbia University and the University of Michigan, Brumm left New York for Israel in 1980. There she lived and worked, until 1996, as a writer and university instructor in Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheeva and Jerusalem.
In 1997, she returned to Ridgewood to care for her elderly father. Though she is now based in Queens and works full time as a writer, Brumm returns often to Tel Aviv to visit and seek material for her future works.
During her time in Israel, Brumm says, she found the socially-centered focus of her poetry and the casual yet cautionary voice of her first novel, “Come Drink Coffee With Me,” which was published in 1994.
The novel is the candid exploration of the experiences of a Jewish-American protagonist named Debbie Warshawsky, who travels to Israel in search of a husband. The novel—which reads at times like a satire and others, a travel guide—presents with concise, almost journalistic prose a cautionary tale for women seeking to make the same voyage.
The reader watches from high above as Debbie passes through everyday life—on campus, in the marketplace, at the bus stop, on the beach—as she encounters a pantheon of characters, the most vivid of which, ironically, are the men Brumm tries to insulate us from—the philandering men who, in search of money or a green card, prey on unsuspecting female tourists.
Although packaged as fiction, Brumm unabashedly says that the book is firmly rooted in fact.
“My aim was to make the book as realistic as possible,” said Brumm, who drew on 15 years of personal experience and firsthand accounts from Jewish-American women living in Israel to construct the novel.
One “true-fictional” character is the cruel yet refined Algerian doctor Yoram, whom Debbie encounters at a poetry reading.
“A reader once asked me if Yoram was based on a real person, and I asked her if she would like the name of the town where he lives, or the address of his practice,” she said.
Brumm also pointed out that, while those who have shared her experience may find many of the novel’s themes and scenes painfully realistic, the average reader might find many of the accounts humorous, verging on surreal.
Academic highbrows, she insists, should stay away.
“It is anecdotal, a novel of manners that was written for an everyday audience. It’s for anyone looking for a light, humorous read, or women who might be interested in making the same journey. It’s not for intellectuals.”
Although the light prose of “Come Drink Coffee With Me” mostly avoids the political and social divisions of life in Israel, her poetry hits them head on.
Her latest book of poems, “Last Exit to Peace,” is filled with contrasts, but finds its aesthetic and thematic center in the ongoing search for peace in the Middle East.
Many of her poems are quiet, contemplative works, interwoven with free-flowing language, that juxtapose the serenity of the landscape with the violence of political unrest. Others focus on the everyday faces obscured by the violence: bag women, battered wives and pregnant sunbathers.
In the poem “Mersa Matrou,” Brumm presents the reader with a remote, empty stretch of beach in Northern Egypt. “Not many know of it,/this shy, quiet oasis…/where miles of Madonna blue waters/flirt with the sunburned albino sand,” she writes at the poem’s outset and, through hushed language, presents a forceful image of nature’s silent majesty, and reminiscent of Robinson Jeffers’ descriptions of the California coast.
However, by the end of the poem, the voice of quiet reflection has escaped and the Western mind, wary of isolation and open space, reasserts itself:
“The most beautiful place / in the world, you had said… Come, you can go back now / and be mesmerized like a child, god or ghost/by a paradise /too beautiful, too blue, too blanched / to be life.”
In contrast to the natural focus of “Mersa Matrou,” the first poem of the book, titled “The Virgins of Paradise,” delves into the mind of a 19-year-old suicide bomber, Ashraf Mehdi, who attempted unsuccessfully in 1993 to drive a car filled with explosives into an Israeli army post.
Brumm somberly begins the poem by asking Ashraf, now a dweller of Paradise, “Are they very beautiful, Ashraf? / Which one will you wed?” and continues a stylistic examination of the fabric of mythology, religion and nationalism overlying such acts. However, the poem, like the conflict itself, does not end definitively, but leads only to more questions: “Why did you not lead an earthly virgin / into the field flowers / and from afar / watch your car ignite in the sky?”
In response to a question regarding style, she pointed out that accessibility is something that she consistently strives for in both her poetry and her prose.
“I can’t stand objectivism, or the type of poetry that makes you ask, ‘what did I just read?’” said Brumm, who prescribes to a more practical, didactic school of thought. “I believe that poetry is intended for an audience and if you’re going to try to say something, it should be said in an understandable, yet aesthetic way.”
In spite of her prose, Brumm said that she has always considered herself a poet, and that she does not consciously seek a political or social dialogue in her poetry, but instead develops the material that she feels at the moment of creation.
“I construct my poems from many things, not one thing. I base my writings on specific events and little scraps of memory and imagination,” she commented, pointing out her belief that the ability to address political issues is a possible, but not necessary, function of poetry.
“There are many authors in Israel who choose not to write about political issues today, and I believe that that is a perfectly valid stance.”
When asked what advice she would give aspiring authors, she commented that commercial success is difficult in today’s market-driven publishing world.
“The life of a writer today is becoming harder and harder,” she said. “I do know that, regardless of talent, it’s very difficult to get something published if your works don’t fit neatly into a genre or if your name doesn’t happen to be Stephen King or Danielle Steele.”
“However, a writer can’t not be a writer,” added Brumm. “But those who are just starting out can take a more practical approach,” noting a friend who works part time as a plumber when he isn’t writing.
She also encouraged anyone with a penchant for storytelling to get out and experience the setting before setting out to write about it.
“I think the key to writing a believable story is having experience with what you’re writing about,” Brumm said. “I have come across a lot of authors who try to write about Israel, which is a very complex place, but have only visited for a month or so.
“To write about a place convincingly you have to live there, interact with locals, look for a job, go to markets, deal with neighbors, before you can truly know it.”
She is currently working on her second novel, a spy and murder mystery set in Israel and the West Bank and hopes to be finished with the final draft by the end of the year.
Anyone interested in learning more about her past and future work, as well as upcoming readings and events can contact her directly at 366-7907.