Lilith’s Demons by Julie R. Enszer
A Midsummer Night’s Press (December 2015)
64 pages, $14.95 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
For those who don’t know, The Alphabet of Ben Sirach is a medieval rabbinic text famous, amongst other things, for its reference to Lilith. Lilith is the woman that, according to Hebraic lore, God made before he made Eve; she was Adam’s first wife, but refused to submit to him sexually, so she flew off and became mother of demons. Julie R. Enszer builds on this mythos in her book, Lilith’s Demons.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, Lilith herself speaks. Enszer really looks at the way Lilith is forced into certain roles, using this voice to represent women in general. Lilith is called mother of demons, but she insists:
“I am no mother.
I have no family.
I am singular.
She speaks of giving birth to demons, and how they die in twenty-four hours. Enszer provides a lot of loneliness and existential angst to this character, but also a determined independence and strength of will.
In the second section, the demons speak. This is a very dark section because it looks at the world through the eyes of those sent to kill and corrupt. Babies are killed before they are named, women are given deadly illness, other women are given untreatable sicknesses and psychological maladies. Enszer tries to use these demons to personify some of the ills that women suffer in society; in this way, Lilith’s Demons serves as a feminist text. Enszer seeks to draw attention to women who suffer. She also, however, has the reader empathize with the demons that cause the suffering. It is quite horrific when, as a reader, you find yourself hoping the demon finds a newborn to kill before it turns to dust in twenty-four hours. These demons are not simple terrors on the earth. Enszer gives them a vulnerability and even a sense of guilt or dismay, which causes us to sympathize with them.
The last section is titled “Lilith’s Angels.” It postulates that, after the fall, the angels that were sent to condemn and destroy Lilith fell in love with her and her garden, and spent time with her. It is a section in which Lilith is seen as a survivalist. Her garden is not lush and rich, like Eden, but has “nettles/and thistles.” However, Enszer writes, “Lilith knows:/she can live here forever.” There is a sense of conquering endurance, a rugged determination in Lilith that draws angels down for stories, and even romance. It is a really powerful, alternative ending to an affirmative narrative that seeks to challenge traditional narratives.
Lilith’s Demons is a fairly strong collection of poems. There are times when the language falls flat, but the richly layered themes tend to sweep the reader along past these hiccups. I would have liked to see more imagery, personally, but there is something in Enszer’s austere language that is captivating and haunting. Overall, this is a collection of poetry worth pursuing.