August 25, 2010

Review of Deborah Digges' The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart

I hadn’t read much of the poetry of Deborah Digges prior to my encounter with her last collection, The Wind Blows Through the Doors of my Heart, published posthumously this year following her apparent suicide on April 10, 2009, but I had heard her name, since she grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, just thirty miles away from my own hometown of Linn—and, let’s face it, central Missouri isn’t exactly known as a literary mecca (however much I might want it to be). Nothing could have prepared me, however, for the intensity of the voice one finds in the pages of this collection. Even putting aside—if such a thing were possible or desirable—the tragic circumstances surrounding the poet’s passing (alluded to quite discreetly in an editor’s note), circumstances that will inevitably shape the reception of these poems, it’s clear that this is work written at a lyric pitch uncharacteristic of much contemporary poetry—and one that is therefore bracing, refreshing, if difficult to sustain. Reading this collection, one is reminded (perhaps too easily?) of the famous comment by George Steiner on Sylvia Plath’s final book, Ariel, that her last poems were written at such a white heat or from such a perspective “she could not return from them.” Such a statement implies that to write such poetry is, like Orpheus, to descend to the realm of the dead in an effort to retrieve something that cannot be brought back alive (and which, by association, may ensnare the poet, leading him or her to their own death). But what Digges’ last poems reveal (like Plath’s before her) is a sensibility fiercely engaged with life, if also one struggling to reconcile that feeling of vitality with the losses of a life—of a spouse, of a beloved brother—that can diminish or threaten to overwhelm it.

The title poem that opens the collection, “the wind blows through the doors of my heart,” (presented somewhat self-effacingly, as are all the titles, without capitalization) is representative of the swirling vortex of syntax found in many of the poems and testifying to the force of feeling that, like lava in subterranean chambers, underlies them. The poem begins with a sweeping image of a wind that is gradually undoing all of the materiality and detritus of a life:

The wind blows
through the doors of my heart.
It scatters my sheet music
that climbs like waves from the piano, free of the keys.
Now the notes stripped, black butterflies,
Flattened against the screens.
The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out.
In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy.

The rhythm established here by the anaphoric repetition-with-slight-variation of the titular phrase “The wind blows through the doors of my heart” catches the reader up in its haunting refrain, enacting a process of erasure so swift that, by the ninth line, even the syntax itself has begun to erode. For how are we to read the final line quoted above: “In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy?” Is there an omitted “it” there, as in the sentence, “It is dark and windy in my heart and its rooms?” Or have we arrived at some other place of “darkness” and “windy-ness?” After continuing in this vein of gradual erosion and erasure for another sixteen or so lines, we come to the end of the poem and a tense shift that indicates we have arrived at a very different place indeed:

It is not for me to say what is this wind
or how it came to blow through the rooms of my heart.
Wing after wing, through the rooms of the dead
the wind does not blow. Nor the basement, no wheezing,
no wind choking the cobwebs in our hair.
It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.
But we will never lie down again.

Is it possible that these final lines are written from the perspective of one already dead, looking back from the afterlife? The “cobwebs” in the hair, the “coolness” of this place—“a quilt spread on soil”—would seem to indicate the realm of the dead (though we’re told “the wind does not [normally?] blow through the rooms of the dead"). Nevertheless, the lyric voice in this poem is otherworldly.

“now we are nine”—which in its title may be giving a nod toward Wordsworth’s great elegy, “We Are Seven”—is an elegy for the poet’s oldest brother (who is also elegized in a number of other poems in the collection). As the title implies, Digges came from a large Missouri family of ten children. The poem laments the rending that has occurred in the once-perfect circle of ten children by the elder brother’s apparently violent death (“Head first onto a marble floor, / six hours he lay alone, now we are nine”). Unlike the little girl in Wordsworth’s poems who blithely insists the she and her siblings “are seven” despite the fact that two of them “lie in the churchyard,” Digges refuses all consolation for the loss of her brother:

Now we are nine, the circle of our privileged lives torn open.
True north is where our brother broke the waters
of our womb. Head first onto a marble floor,
six hours he lay alone, now we are nine.
We are nine now. Say what you like—

The poem moves from rage over the brother’s death and an apparent desire to follow the brother toward that “True north” to an earlier memory of timeless summers and autumns of apple-picking led by the brother, when the children still existed as a complete unit:

We’d board the wagon, evenings. He pulled us home,
yes pulled us, his younger brothers, sisters,
and the weight of the bushel baskets full of apples,
Henry Clay, Golden Delicious. Oh what a wedding train
of vagabonds we were who fell asleep just where we lay,
smelling all night the apple rot between our toes.
Mornings, wild-haired, we followed him out into the orchard.
Bliss of dew before Missouri heat.

The exuberance and “vagabond” quality of these lines with their sharply-drawn particularity stand in luminous contrast to the “tearing open” of the Edenic womb of the poet’s childhood, though we know this exuberance cannot last. The final image of the poem is that of the brother continuing on ahead with his wagonload of apples without his nine brothers and sisters, who are “too tired…to jump the tractor, catch the store.”

Reading poems such as “now we are nine” and others like it in this collection, one would say that the speaker is experiencing what, with almost perverse irony, has been recently designated by the DSM-IV “complicated grief disorder” (as if, maddeningly, all grief isn’t complicated), a kind of excessive grief that persists well after the death of the loved one and can lead to feelings of wanting to follow the beloved all the way to the “undiscovered country” of death itself. As a counterweight to this downward pull toward death is the specificity of detail that preserves the world in its aching (because finite) beauty.

Perhaps the finest poem in the collection, also deeply rooted in the landscape and labor of central Missouri, is the poem “haying” (though I may be biased, having some nostalgia, if one can believe it, for this difficult-but-worth-it type of labor). As with the title poem, the poem opens with great lyrical intensity and a subtle musicality:

Scythe to root cut, rolled backwards into time,
the hut-round ricks lashed down four-square with linen
like bonneted and faceless women.

The combination here of alliteration (“root,” “rolled” “-round ricks”), assonance (“scythe” and “time,” “-round” and “down”), mutes (“root,” “cut”), and marvelous near-rhyme (“linen” and “women”) in such a short space creates an incantatory feeling that, like “now we are nine,” carries us “backwards” into this space of timeless memory and Edenic innocence. Inevitably, this feeling gives way to the present reality of loss:

Heartbreaking now such symmetry,
which kept our earthly house
that you or I would ever cross the windrows
of a field ripe for the haying, one or the other lost,
head high until, at last, the field raked clean
showed nothing but the seeds, crows circling,
stumps and stones, such strident fog the ghost crowds
hauling willow baskets—

The particularity of the description here conjures the whole field before our eyes, even while the language itself undoes the very image it has created, leaving us in the presence of ghosts. It is at this point in the poem we come to the speaker’s startling declaration of a desire, once again, to follow the dead beloved to the brink of death itself: “I’d try on death to find you, gown made of grasses / harvest time, early, the loose hay drying in the mow”; and later, these lovely and haunting lines:

I have lain down across such orchard grasses on your grave
smelling the deep that keeps you, tasting snow,
something gone out of me forbidden, beyond birdsong
or vision, mantle trivial worn by the living,

The sheer musicality of the phrase “mantle trivial worn by the living” convinces us of its rightness—and its profundity. In this poem, Digges has, like Persephone, slipped off the “trivial mantle of the living” to walk for a time among the dead and return with this bitter wisdom.

The one question or possible criticism that lingers with this collection, a “trivial” criticism indeed, regards its “completeness”: is this the book Digges herself would have wanted us to have? The editor’s note mentioned earlier suggests that some guesswork was involved in assembling the collection in the exact order Digges would have intended and indicates that some of the poems still existed in multiple versions (though most are said to be “entirely finished and clean copies…prepared by her”). But the uncertainty surrounding the final form of the book does nothing to diminish the ultimate impact of The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart—it feels more finished, weightier, than many books that were no doubt shepherded lovingly from beginning to end through the editorial process. Though these poems may not, finally, have been able to console or provide hope for Digges—and perhaps this is not, in the end, the purpose of poetry for the poet—they give me hope for American poetry: if more poets wrote with the razor’s-edge urgency, lyrical precision, gorgeous imagery, and emotional depth of Deborah Digges, perhaps “Poetry” itself would, well, matter more. The greatest tribute to Digges would be, as Pound said of Eliot at the latter’s memorial service, to “READ [HER].”

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