The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart: Poems
72 pp., $25.00
Poetry Roundup, 2010
At the end of the year, in closing, I must also make mention of Deborah Digges' The Wind Blows Through the Door of My Heart, the last book by a poet who fell silent too soon. Digges died, at 59, in April 2009, and this volume represents the book she was then preparing for publication, with the efforts of editors and her literary estate to establish its final form. (Some poems were in multiple copies or had marginal notes, others had not yet been added to her in-process table of contents.) This collection of twenty-seven poems, so consumed with other losses, becomes a more deeply sad but brave testament as a posthumous production. Births and deaths recur often: in one poem, a lover suddenly stops the car when he notices a cow groaning and trying to give birth:
I watched him thrust his arms entire
into the yet-to-be, where I imagined holy sparrows scattering
in the hall of souls for his big mortal hands just to make way.
Some lines are dense and enigmatic ("What knows to do so dives deep as it can," concludes "Love Letters Mostly"), and some poems playful ("Dancing with Emerson") although a permeating mourning can modulate the playfulness, as in "One Night in Portland," which begins, "I miss the old poets and their wanton ways, / outrunning, as they did, their mentors, / leaving them ravished sleeping in the temples, / to hunt, to pickax words / till crystals formed inside the wells they dip into." These remembered poets, temperamental and delusional but also cherished, larger than life, become "ruthless death defiers," and this explains why a thick nostalgia hangs from this poem; in this book, death has not been defied. One poem initially seems playful, but quickly displays the mania of grieving:
his closet of clothes where I crouch like a thief
when the house it goes dancing,
a stowaway hiding in big woolen coats,
the scent of his body, the smell of him rising.
The most powerful poems similarly record the death of a spouse and the aftermath of that loss: "Hair days without washing, sap-stuck, hopelessly twisted, and heavy flown."
I should admit a double bias in writing about Digges. I studied with her in a poetry workshop many years ago, and still recall vividly an end-of-term trip with classmates, from Boston to Amherst, for a final meeting in her home. I was struck when encountering a poem here that became my memory's return trip: along Route 2 to Concord and on to Boston. Also, Digges was from Jefferson City (where I hail from), and so her poems here that capture the landscape of the Ozarks—"Bliss of dew before Missouri heat. Dove in the moss-choked pond"—especially resonate for me:
Remember now that place between the dock and boat
That, sometimes, drifting out against its rope,
opened a green and holy place before the boat beat back.
Digges recalls growing up there in Fugitive Spring (1992; quite early for the memoir craze). Here she remembers the summer when she worked for her physician father in his clinic:
The workday began with my father picking me up at the house after his morning surgeries at St. Mary's. If the operations had gone well he was in a good mood and came bursting into the kitchen, though we were already late for the clinic, to have a Coke or a cup of coffee with my mother and me. If things hadn't gone well—maybe the cancer, during the surgery, had proved to be advanced, or maybe his scrub nurse had been rude or slow on the job—he simply lay on the horn of his Chrysler.
I recently had occasion to visit this hospital, St. Mary's, when I was in town again and an old school friend had just had a baby. I remembered, too, Digges' own memories of the place.
These final poems do not require any local favoritism or the uncritical devotion of a former student. They speak for themselves. They speak of great sadness, and see that sadness everywhere: "The few flowers, / summer-ridden, want only to die back, /go home, the earth flat as a grave." Often the plainest lines signal the most painful burdens of the survivors: "A man has died of a fatal illness. / You held the spoon to his lips / until he turned away," with everything implied in that turning. The remarkable "Some Things I Say Are Prayers and Others Poems" treats the funeral with flashes of wit ("too many Scriptures for the Darwinian") and great imagination, as when the casket seems lodged on some bitter reef, "sinking / the prayers that tried to lift you up." Yet at its core it returns to that prior image of Pietà, holding the loved one's head as he lay dying. Digges' heartbreakingly limited description serves equally well to declare the work of poetry: "It is the best that we can do, keep company / with one until the end, human to human."
Brett Foster's writing has lately appeared in Image, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan, and his first poetry collection, The Garbage Eater, will be published by Northwestern University Press early in 2011. He is an associate professor of English at Wheaton College.
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