The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart: Poems
72 pp., 125.0
Poetry Roundup, 2010
If you are lucky enough to have work, then an average holiday may help you relocate a stillness. It's a time to take a few breaths, blink a little. Good holidays allow for conversation, communions of various sorts—with friends and family missed and neglected, and if it's really good, with voices from books, too. They can sometimes sound almost as keen as you are about your newfound attention, your extra stretch of time spent in just this way. They call out to you from the white winter of their pages.
The poetry world has been a lively place in 2010, although to use that word "lively" is to cause a pain, too, with one author treated below. More on that shortly. A few volumes that lived up to the "lively" billing this year include Terrance Hayes' Lighthead, recent winner of the National Book Award, and Catie Rosemurgy's The Stranger Manual. Many of her poems feature the memorable character Miss Peach, and overall the collection will remind readers of the importance of voice in lyric poetry. (All poems, in the lyrical mode, may be said to be dramatic monologues.) Rosemurgy's voices are by turns sad, dryly funny, threatening, and always captivating in The Stranger Manual, a full review of which will appear in the January/February 2011 issue of Books & Culture.
The new year may also be a good time to read new work by some of poetry's Big Timers: Here, new poems by the Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, translated into English by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak; Edward Hirsch's The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, one of the year's most welcomed retrospective collections, along with Andrew Hudgins' American Rendering: New and Selected Poems; Gjertrud Schnackenberg's demanding new collection, Heavenly Questions; and the latest elegant volume by one of our most enduring men of letters, Richard Wilbur—his Anterooms also features versions of Horace, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Joseph Brodsky.
The Scottish poet Don Paterson is hardly new or unknown in this country, but Rain (FSG) marks his major-press debut. Paterson deserves new readers, even as they will feel rewarded by his poems' striking voices and formal artfulness. Then there's the young poet Nick Lantz, who saw not one but two of his poetry books win prestigious, highly elusive book prizes: The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House received the University of Wisconsin Press's Felix Pollak Prize, while We Don't Know We Don't Know was awarded the Bakeless Prize and appeared this year from Graywolf. Clearly his friends should ask Lantz to buy lottery tickets for them, although no such "luck-jokes" should take away from his lyrical talents, from the level of line to that of envisioning an entire book's intricate structure. We Don't Know We Don't Know takes its title from one of Donald Rumsfeld's memorable press-conference explanations, and Lantz's book-length interweaving of Rumseld's quotations with those from Pliny, the ancient author of Natural History, makes for one of the most inventively conceived poetry collections in recent memory.
Allen Ginsberg is not everyone's cup of tea, but he remains undeniably one of the most important postwar poets, who this year enjoyed a new day in the sun. He wrote his great counter-cultural cry, "Howl," fifty-five years ago, and this year a movie of the same name appeared, starring the young "it" actor and upcoming Oscars host James Franco. The poem is also freshly envisioned in Erick Drooker's Howl: A Graphic Novel. And Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters has just been published as well. Whether or not you enjoy reading the Beats, this breathless, affectionate correspondence features jazzy riffs of literati-talk, and an important cultural and literary record of major changes—in taste, in history, within various friendships.
Also in the category of "worthy prose by poets" is Natasha Trethewey's important new book, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A native of Gulfport and Pulitzer-winning poet, Trethewey enacts here both a physical homecoming, witnessing the gulf's slow recovery and stubborn signs of destruction, and an intellectual brooding—on memory (and loss of memories), dislocation, hope and justice. Trethwey's study joins Dave Eggers' Zeitounand Martha Serpas' The Dirty Side of the Storm (consisting of poems written almost entirely before Katrina, but meditating on erosion, dilapidation, and resilient cultures along the Gulf Coast) as important literary evocations of the region lately battered by storm and oil. See as well Josh Neufeld's A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which presents a fresh, clear-eyed vision of Katrina and its aftermath in the form of graphic-novel reportage.
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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