Fleeting glances


THE COLOR OF THE HEART: WRITING FROM STRUGGLE AND CHANGE, 1950-1990. By Susan Sherman. Curbstone Press. 224 pages. $10.95. POET, feminist, activist: Susan Sherman is all three, and she has woven her various selves into one colorful and peripatetic existence. In "The Color of the Heart" she gives the reader glimpses of a life lived in turbulent times and turbulent places. Unfortunately, they are just that -- glimpses.

Born in 1939, the child of Russian immigrants, Sherman's early life was colored by World War II and by her Jewishness. "Don't stand out. Don't draw attention to yourself." Those are the messages she writes -- sparingly -- of receiving from her parents. She goes on to mention -- in one brief sentence -- that they were divorced and that she was split between two mothers, two fathers and two religions; it is perhaps this split, she writes, that spawned her desire and motivation to be a poet. Sherman obviously has spent much introspective time examining that early life, but she shies from sharing too much with the reader.

Jumping quickly to 1959, Sherman writes of entering the University of California at Berkeley, a Berkeley known then less for its student radicals than for its artistic Bohemians.

From Berkeley, Sherman hopscotches to New York, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua, becoming active in feminist, political and literary issues, at the same time editing Ikon magazine, reviewing poetry, editing poetry for the Village Voice and producing three books of her own verse.

"The Color of the Heart" is Sherman's account of these years, written in the form of essays, short fiction and poems. Some of the sections are quite poignant. Her account of her arrival at Berkeley, where she felt she was at last really born, where she embarked on the youthful experiments that would ultimately define who she was, are recognizable to anyone who remembers the heady feeling of being on one's own for the first time. She wonders, as we all do when looking back at our youth, whether the child she was had any idea of the woman she would become -- and whether that woman could recognize the girl she once had been.

In other essays and poems, Sherman covers her trips to Cuba, Nicaragua and Chile, the struggles and dissension in the women's movement, her lesbian identity and the creative process.

It is a fragmented book, jumping from topic to topic, from one literary form to another, from one place and time to another. That Sherman is talented and politically committed is apparent. In "The Color of the Heart," she had the opportunity to go deeper, to offer fresh perspectives on these decades of change, to document a life well-lived. What we get, however, is just a smattering of her talent, a fleeting look.

Even with that disappointment, however, the book gives us something -- a look back at a time in our recent history when all looked new and seemed possible. For those who came of age in quieter times, the intensity of Sherman's life may be difficult to understand. But for those who came of age in the '60s and '70s, as Sherman did, it is a nostalgic look at the passion of youth, the passion of another time. It should have been more.

Carol Sorgen is a Baltimore writer.

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