Monday, April 8, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 8 with Deborah Ager

The first week of National Poetry Month at The Steiny Road to Operadom blog has seen seven journeys into the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 that included a preview of the book review section and close reads of seven poems such as the featured poet Claudia Emerson. With these daily posts in the month of April, the Steiny Road Poet is celebrating a print journal that exclusively publishes poetry in the hope that more audience will accrue for literary magazines and journals and most importantly for poetry.

Thus far, the Steiny Poet has been following thematic threads that look at death in various aspects, such as grieving (Jane Satterfield’s “Resurrection Spell,” Carrie Jerrell’s “Before Being Euthanized, Barbaro Speaks to His Trainer,” Erica Dawson’s “Chinquapin Leaves on the Riverbank”), celebration of a life lost (Ed Hirsch’s “Cemetery Gates”), the living dead (Claudia Emerson’s “Third”), and what spoofs death (Caitlin Doyle’s “Madame Tussaud” and Chad Davidson’s “The Death Poem You Asked For”).

With “A Treatise on Leaving” by Deborah Ager, the Steiny Poet will transition to poems focused on love. Probably death or end of life will intrude as it does in Ager’s poem but everyone knows how it goes—death calls the shots and turns out the lights at unexpected moments.

What is exhilarating about “A Treatise on Leaving” are the leaps Ager makes in this poem that encompasses birth, loss, environmental concerns and appreciation, the housing bust, survivors of Nazi and other political terror—things we live with but cannot stop from causing our world to change.

The poem begins with this line, “I have two hearts, and one is five years old and wearing a life preserver.” It is a big line, not only for length across the page, a length that violates the margins established for most of the other poems in BPR 40, but also in scope. Heart is a metaphor for love and heart can be a stand in for someone loved. One instantly assumes the I of this poem loves some five-year-old child who is wearing a life preserver. By line two, the reader knows the child is the narrator’s daughter and they had been on the child’s class trip together where they crossed a river in a pontoon.

The poem is comprised of one-line stanzas, which seems by anecdotal accounts to be a format rather than a form. The Steiny Poet has read other work organized this way, such as Mike White’s “There Was a Line She Had Crossed,” “Berryman,” and “Incarnate” which are in his Washington Prize winning book How to Make a Bird with Two Hands, a book reviewed in in BPR 40. The Steiny Poet spoke with Deborah Ager, Mike White, and others who all said the purpose of this format was to put air around each line so that each line achieved more weight.  In the Steiny Poet’s thinking, poems constructed in this fashion seem to succeed best if the lines have legs and can stand alone either adding heft to the meaning of the poem or broadcasting an aphoristic message.

The first seven lines of Ager’s “Treatise” describe details about the boat trip such as encountering waterfowl and fisherman, the concern from the child that her smile does not elicit smiles in return from the three men with fishing poles, the facts that everyone accepted a life preserver but only two people on the trip know the names of birds like herons which they see and are like the birds the narrator saw in Florida when she lived there.

Keying off the word Florida, the poem in line eight transitions to a newspaper article that reports that twenty percent of homes in Florida are empty and by line nine, the poem shifts to the narrator’s grandmother whose house is also empty. The narrator does not say what happened to the grandmother who has left her lipstick and checkbook out in this empty house. The scene comes at the time of a super moon and “a fire burns the palm trees and palmettos” causing ashes to float over the highway, making the Steiny Poet assume Grandmother has died.  Whether Grandmother has died or been moved to some kind of end-of-life facility, the narrator is deeply upset making Grandmother’s neighbors ask if the narrator is ok. In this set of lines the phrase it’s Florida is repeated like a mantra three times.

It’s Florida, and the evening of a super moon. It’s Florida,

and a fire burns the palm trees and palmettos. Ashes float

over the highway. It’s Florida, and I am outside bent into my knees.

My grandmother’s neighbor asks if I am okay.

I say I am okay, yet I’m not. I am not for lying..

I am against forgetting. The time I visited the Spy Museum

At line 18, the poem shifts again and this time to a world the narrator does not want to forget where people have managed to escape some kind of horrible fate like one exhibited at the Spy Museum (presumably in Washington, DC) where “people wrapped their bodies/ around a car engine to escape a country.”

At line 21, the poem moves back to the grandmother’s Florida neighborhood where one of those neighbors had escaped the Nazis (and presumably their extermination plan) in one of the last boats the Nazis allowed to leave from Marseille. While the poem lingers on the flight of this neighbor with the following poignant lines, the mention of  last boats jumps the poem back to its beginning where mother and daughter, as well as those on that class trip, are all wearing life preservers.

No one knows the name for the light resting on the tip of a wave.

The passengers must have waved until those on shore became small.

The poem ends in lines 26 and 27 back in Grandmother’s house where the narrator is staying, where someone (though not Grandmother) has moved Grandmother’s lipstick from the table where it sat earlier in this treatise on leaving. While the narrator grooms herself for day, she observes, “the world was changing. I could not stop it.”

While Ager could have closed the poem on the image of those leaving France by escaping the Nazis by boat, the poem in returning to the open-ended question of Grandmother’s whereabouts circles the poem back to the theme of familial love. The Steiny Poet is left thinking about how a mother can truthfully say she has two hearts because in her pregnancy, the child and its heart were inside the mother’s womb. The child at the moment of this poem is also the narrator’s life preserver against the loss of the beloved grandmother.

If one were to take scissors to this poem, separating the one-line stanzas into individual strips of paper, shake them in a bag, and randomly construct a new poem, the Steiny Poet believes all the lines would retain their poignancy and reinforce the rightness of the title. Deborah Ager with her chosen format has achieved a moving treatise on leaving.

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