Facets of family life

‘The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter: A Poet’s Memoir’ by Elaine Terranova

5 minute read
Poet and memoirist Elaine Terranova. (Photo by Millie L. Berg.)
Poet and memoirist Elaine Terranova. (Photo by Millie L. Berg.)

The father cut raw diamonds into shimmering, multifaceted prisms. The daughter uses pencil to splice her life, to draw our attention to its mirrored surfaces, its sharp and gleaming angles.

The father’s tools were blades and acid, a hand deft enough to cleave the stubborn crystal without shattering it. The daughter’s instruments are memory and observation, a gaze keen enough to show the truth.

In The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter, Elaine Terranova’s memoir of growing up in midcentury Philadelphia as the only daughter in an Orthodox Jewish family, she casts an unsentimental eye on the ways that power, fear, and longing played out among her people—both her immediate relatives and the community around them.

A poet’s indiscretion?

Terranova conjures a world of corner stores and milk delivered to the house, of Yiddish-speaking neighbors, of dead chickens left to kosher on the drain board of the sink.

And she writes about her father, who smelled of leather, felt, and the machine oil that turned his diamond-grinding lathe, a man whose childhood accident left him with a lifetime limp, a man who couldn’t see his daughter whole but who shaped her nonetheless.

The two had more in common than they knew.

“And if I write, if I cut and slash, disinter flaws in my life and my family in a thousand poems, in the words I set down here, am I not being indiscreet?” Terranova asks in a section called “Family Business,” its title both literal and metaphoric. “Yet I use the model of my father… A diamond is carbon, as a pencil is … it is a hall of mirrors, each facet shining into another to reflect back the light that’s trapped inside…”

Poetic memoir

Terranova subtitles her book, “A Poet’s Memoir.” It is, indeed, the story of a girl, timid in spirit and shy of physical activity, who finds strength and clarity in words. But it is also a “poet’s memoir” in its structure, style, and voice: impressionistic, fragmentary, associative, skipping back and forth in time.

In one section, called “Sidney,” she recalls her brother staining a bookcase, showing her a slide rule, and passing along an essay that confused and intrigued her, titled “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig.”

The next piece vaults forward—Sidney, “the brother who teased me as a child is now a gracious paterfamilias with a shock of hippie-length white hair,” living with dementia in a nursing home.

The essay following that is a meditation on red hair—“the color of honey, the color of freckles, the color of maple leaves or coal fires”—along with famous redheads and a horse named Red who communes with the writer not by touch, but smell.

Outside the family unit—Terranova’s parents and her brothers, Sidney and Leo—characters arrive and disappear: the Old Lady from the next block over, the husband, Lee (wait: when did he enter the picture?) who installs a clever mirror on their house so those inside can see who is on the stoop.

The language is lyrical; the sections, some no more than a single page, capture a moment or a feeling rather than the arc of a story with its inception, rise, and end. At times, I felt a bit aswirl, wishing the narrative held clearer posts to anchor me in place and time.

But when I approached the memoir as I would a book of poems—that is, expecting silences and leaps, allowing themes to flush and ebb, letting images accrue—The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter coalesced into a sorrowful and gratifying read.

A space to fill

Terranova writes of feeling, always, like an intruder into her own family. Born 10 years after her parents’ second son—her conception a surprise, her birth an arduous ordeal—she craves consistent, tender love from parents who, instead, deliver an erratic stream of pride and punishment as they transmit the trauma of their own eras and upbringings.

When Terranova, at age four, begs to visit the corner store alone to buy a coveted book of paper dolls, then is accosted by two kids who pin her down and steal the book, she knows her mother will respond with castigation—“See, you were bad! I told you not to go. God punished you!”

A few years later, Terranova comes home from school one day to find her treasured goldfish missing from their bowl. These are fish she has cared for with diligence and love, “the only thing in our house that is my responsibility.” In a panic, Terranova asks her mother what happened to the fish.

“You don’t need them. What good are they?” her mother says, before confiding what we already know she’s done: “I had to get rid of them … I flushed them down the toilet.”

Terranova’s father can be similarly insensitive, praising a “pretty girl” in a class photo, then pointing explicitly to a child who is not his daughter. Yet Terranova also recalls how her father caught her when she stumbled down a staircase from the second floor, cradling her and crooning, “Dolly, are you all right?”

There is a hunger threaded through this memoir, an empty space the poet tries to fill—at first, with food, and then with words. As a young adult, she dreams of flight from the confinements of childhood, family, and home. But when her father dies, she’s drawn inexorably back; she, the diamond cutter’s daughter, is now the one squinting through the magnifying loupe of memory, holding rough gems to the light.

Image description: A photo of author Elaina Terranova, a woman with short gray hair wearing a red jacket. She sits in a coffee shop, smiling.

What, When, Where

The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter: A Poet’s Memoir. By Elaine Terranova. Princeton: Ragged Sky Press, May 7, 2021. 194 pages, paperback; $21.60. Get it on Bookshop.org.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation