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A poet who shows us how to redefine what we claim is topical and relevant

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Dear All Book Cover Dear All
Maggie Anderson
Poetry
Four Way Books
September 5, 2017
Paperback
88
978-1-935536-97-0

 

Fatal overconfidence pervades the American sensibility when it comes to defining topicality and relevance. We assume we know because tastemakers and gatekeepers tell us what we know. Maggie Anderson’s fifth book of poetry, Dear All, challenges that, as the inclusive title promises.

Our overconfidence is rooted in the confounding of market with merit. We think what sells, what promises to sell, what talks overtly about what’s in the news, as our media define the news, is topical and relevant. But poetry and art and music—witness Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” as a popular example—redefine news under our noses. That’s the particular power of country music, its relevance.

So, when Maggie Anderson writes:

Silence is one effect of catastrophe,
         we hear nothing, no brisance, no roar,
we move the way a deer risks a meadow—

that’s telling us more than the Sunday talk shows, the evening news, tomorrow’s headlines. It’s more immediate than breaking news, with all its graphics and trash music, but we’re not attuned to it because a money-maddened media establishment has convinced us of its entitlement to define immediacy and meaning.

The poem in which those three lines appear is called “A Drone Poem, Notes For.” It begins with another tercet—

It’s what-the-hell-is-that? in the sky
         on the highway to Tucson
just the Border Patrol watching us cross the desert

—a tercet that tells us more about being watched than any cyber-security newsletter or New York Times op-ed piece, more tersely, more tellingly, more convincingly. That’s news. News of our sensibility. News of the Zeitgeist. But Anderson wouldn’t be called by the tastemakers and gatekeepers one of those relevant poets who confronts the issues of our time, perhaps precisely because she confronts them with such metaphysical precision.

Anderson is all about place, the American place, and about what is to be observed—not from those who yammer at us about what’s important but about what we see with our own eyes. For example, the media tell us the economy is improving, but we see the worn-out cars for sale on front lawns, we see the peeling houses, the sagging gutters, and so does Anderson. And that’s not what the so-called relevant, with-it, hip poets see. They see what the press yammers about and they address it. They play The Game. Anderson doesn’t.

Let’s see why. First, perhaps foremost, is her austerity. Many of the “relevant” poets are talky, and the way the press that hails them is talky. But Anderson wastes few words, like  tabloid headline writers, who are often poets in a special way. Look at that second tercet. The break between the last two lines would seem to need a connection, but they don’t and Anderson doesn’t make one, because she has the poet’s unerring instinct for knowing how the subconscious works. It doesn’t work like the Chicago Style Book. It leaps and dives and flies. Dear All is one of those important books that isn’t about to try to convince critics why it happens to be important because that would be crass and opportunistic in the way of The Satanic Verses, whatever else that novel is.

All the news of our civilization is to no avail if our sensibilities are dulled. The delivery of what we call news being a national crisis, our sensibilities are inevitably dulled by it. Dear All is about honing them, hailing them back from the brink of monetization. Take the poet’s “The Sleep Writer,” a short poem in which Anderson dispenses with verbs when they’re clearly in the way of a perfect observation:

Lovely afternoon. The firing squad.
Bottles lined up in the sun.
Dahlias. Men in uniform. Daffodils.
Children with satchels coming home from school.

 The poem has six more lines. But we already see its memorable intent to say facts don’t always line up in a row, and the inappropriateness of things is sometimes as deadly as bullets. This is news, more important news than President Twitter’s last tweet, more important than Jeff Sessions’ humiliation. But we have been trained in the vocational press to consider such observations as peripheral, poetic in a pejorative sense. In this way we’re coarsened, and Dear All calls us back from this coarsening to the true calling of our intuition and our vestigial gifts. For that reason I argue that it’s an important undertaking, and not only because of its affect, but because its prosodic variations and exquisiteness should draw comparisons with Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s celebrated Heavenly Questions or Sylvia Townsend Warner’s much neglected oeuvre.

Four Way Books chose a black-and-white photo by Richard Sandler of Boston: pedestrian shadows that seem to reach out to one another, perfectly reflecting both the title and Anderson’s project to show us the Jungian shadow informing us, making us whole even while disquieting us. This is the antithesis of the kind of black-and-white, either-or sensibility a polarizing press inflicts on us. It is the interplay of light and shadow, fact and object, place and nuance that ennobles us, that makes us capable of transmuting baser elements in our lives and cultures to noble elements. That is the alchemy the popular press works against, the alchemy Dear All affirms and instates.

The marketers’ fixation on thematic volumes of poetry routinely deprives us of many a first-rate collection and is once again governed by manic overconfidence about what is relevant or, for that matter, what is thematic. We live in a society drunk on the insistence on being right, a society that acts like a drunk in his manic high. We don’t know what we think we know. And for every empirical dictum there’s a countervailing set of facts and interpretations.

In Anderson’s poem, “My Father and Ezra Pound,” we might assume we’re seeing and hearing a poet encounter The Cantos when she was 23 in her father’s not-too-grand house. Ostensibly we are seeing and hearing just that. And a marketer might say, Oh, here’s a theme, tell the poet we want more of this stuff. But this is only the bare beginning of Anderson’s adventure. This is the context and historicity that what we call news lacks. Anderson is saying, Here I am in my sixties, illuminating what I couldn’t illuminate then. The poem is not unlike the archaeologists who, after heroic labors, now tell us that Viking women fought alongside men. It’s more important to know that than the fact that Vladimir Putin has ordered military exercises with Belarus, and yet the popular press, and even the academic press, finds no way to convince us, unable to overcome its own assumption that the Vikings are arcane and the Russians are not.

I listened to The Doors and Joplin.
This was the seventies.
I was 23 years old, turning
         the thin pages of The Cantos.

What doo we have here? Recollection? Nostalgia? Or light shed on how our time arrived here in our laps? Pound was silent in Saint Elizabeth’s. The young poet had been studying Swinburne and the Four Quartets, like so many poets at that age. How to think of Swinburne’s intoxicating rhyming and Eliot’s dry musicality, two different prosodies from two different centuries. Could they be apposite? And what does it all mean to us now? Is it relevant? The marketer says no, armed as he is with his received ideas, and this poet, Maggie Anderson, says, But you see, all these received ideas, they must be revisited, reconsidered, or we can’t budge from where we’re mired in today’s premises.

If you want to know what’s relevant today, what’s topical, you can’t overlook Dear All, a book not unlike a new and  heretofore impossible microscope that insists conclusively that only in heroic recollection can we find the wherewithal to live tomorrow; only in re-examination of detail we once took for granted when we were so preoccupied with other matters, like growing up and marrying and making careers, can we hand over to the universe what we have learned and why we have lived.

Djelloul Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He is the editor-in-chief of the Arabesques Review. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

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