The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild
Winner 2014 League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best First Book of Poetry
The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild reclaims a childhood haunted not only by the Holocaust—in which the poet’s father’s entire family perished—but by his father’s subsequent, desolate silence and shame for having survived.
A “second-hand survivor,” his father’s “distance from the chimneys didn’t spare him; / his distance from those smokestacks was his disease.”
Elliptical and allusive, veined with dark humour, often surreal, proceeding by fits and starts, feints and misdirections, these poems illumine some of history’s darkest shadows with a searching, redemptive light that shows the fearful price paid when history’s traumas are passed down from one generation to the next in secrecy and silence.
2014 Gerald Lampert Award Jury Citation:
A powerful, moving book with poems that are poignant, accurate, written in deep ancestral memory, and in figurative language that is sometimes delicate and always accomplished. By focusing on the story of his relationship with his father, Reiss suggests how personal experience is inextricably connected to various contexts that form and transform our lives. A reader’s emotional engagement and the poet’s craft is sustained throughout, and no matter how passionate, the poems never collapse into mere emotion.
I’m stunned with the magnificence of the poetry in The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild by Murray Reiss. He has found a way to look at an age-old subject in a startling new way. His images, his images! Reiss’s control of the form including a craftsmen-like skill with the line structure, his lack of sentimentality, the depth of feeling, I could go on and on. “My Grandmother’s Hair”—what Reiss accomplishes in such a few lines. This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book of poems.
In this astonishing book, Murray Reiss casts off the terrible weight of history and finds the necessary truths crushed beneath. In the masterful title poem he interweaves the harrowing connections between the scarce survival rates of butterflies to that of Jewish children in Poland during the war. Each poem’s frank accuracy reveals the marrow of that ghostly century and all its madness dreamed in blood.
His family’s story in Poland during World War Two exposes hate’s cruel accuracy. Whether he confronts how bones and ash from death camps nourished bumper crops or how a grandmother’s sewing machine allowed her to be spared, or how a mother and father manage, against all odds, to survive every brutal storm thrust upon them, he never flinches in his mission.
This is a shocking but compassionate book that finds the good in it all too. His poems do not spare the truth but force us closer to its exposing light. To look away would be to forsake all those who fought to get us safely here.
These poems take the reader deep down into the psyche of a man struggling to understand the purpose of his burdensome, yet essential inheritance. Like the wild butterflies of the title, wisdom and heartbreak flutter through these pages contained in delicate language both fragile and beautiful. A collection that heals as it transforms and soars into the light.”