Poetry has long courted the ordinary, and the marriage of the two has strategic value for each: Poems, with their frequent aspirations to be extraordinary, gain credibility from the language and images of our seemingly plain days, and that which makes up the majority of our time is dignified by the harrow that cuts and cultivates, the lines that aspire to something stranger and stronger than use.
“The light is constant,” writes John Ames, the small-town minister in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, reflecting, with characteristic humility, on the eccentricity of earthly time. “We just turn over in it.” While important poets have invested in the apparently unremarkable details of city life, it’s in rural spaces, small towns, and the suburbs that emulate them that our constant turning over feels definitive. In two new second books, Maggie Dietz and Tess Taylor, both white American women, both adept in traditional meters, make poems of the days in such places and the desire to create something while there.
Dietz, who once served as an assistant poetry editor at Slate (she and I have never met, and our tenures here didn’t overlap), opens That Kind of Happy with a poem whose last lines give the book its title. Called “Zoloft,” it begins in the altered, clarified world she saw after getting her first pair of glasses. It ends:
It was the same years later with the pills. As I walked across
the field, the usual field, to the same river, I felt
a little burst of joy when the sun cleared a cloud.
It was fricking Christmas, and I was five years old!
I laughed out loud, picked up my pace: the sun
was shining on me, on the trees, on the whole
damn world. It was exhilarating. And sad,
that sham. Nothing had changed. Or
I had. But who wants to be that kind of happy?
The lenses, the doses. Nothing should be that easy.
Dietz often makes the ordinary world interesting by being dissatisfied with it. There’s a restlessness to her attention, as in the phrase “that kind of happy,” which keeps the pressure of some worthier reality pressed up against this one. The intelligence that looks for connections (“It was the same / years later”) also keeps pulling in other possibilities, some other kind of happiness more clearly earned and less obviously self-serving, as in the italics of “shining on me.”
There’s wariness here about invention, the fear of sham happiness, in consort with the sense that some activity, some making, must be offered up in order for happiness to be earned. Those conflicting imperatives frequently register in the intricate energy of Dietz’s descriptions, which are often sonically dense, carefully lineated, grammatically complex, and observed with imaginative precision. Consider these lines earlier in “Zoloft”: “When the wind lifted the leaves the trees went pale, / then dark again, in waves.” Dietz is able to sustain the sparking charge of such observation over a long run of sentences and lines, as she does throughout the sharp and bruised tetrameter of “Still Falling,” which echoes early Robert Lowell in lines like “Fingers of smoke sift and thicken. / Ashen figures swarm the smitten / Grave.” In “November,” she turns to impatient blank verse:
Nothing left but fool’s gold in the trees.
Did I love it enough, the full-throttle foliage,
While it lasted? Was I dazzled? The bees
Have up and quit their last-ditch flights of forage
And gone to shiver in their winter clusters.
Field mice hit the barns, big squirrels gorge
On busted chestnuts. A sky like hardened plaster
Hovers. The pasty river, its next of kin,
Coughs up reed grass fat as feather dusters.
Even the swarms of kids have given in
To winter’s big excuse, boxed-in allure:
TV’s ricochet light behind pulled curtains.
This is description as its own justification, lit by worries that the life in which such observation happens isn’t worthy of attention. But like many poets who excel at description, Dietz sometimes has a hard time ending poems without too successfully pinning things down. “November” closes:
The days throw up a closed sign around four.
The hapless customer who’d wanted something
Arrives to find lights out, a bolted door.
Dietz omits a final conjunction in the final lines, adding an overwhelmingly conclusive note, the concluding metaphor so easily translated that the lights seem not so much out as unreal. She also shows a pronounced taste (as does Taylor) for the appositive verb, in which a compound verb has no conjunction: Think a phrase like “he runs, walks.” This omission of conjunctions has become familiar enough to sound like a signal that we are reading poetry now, especially when there might be anxiety over whether the materials matter enough for something so grand:
The scalding water pinked his skin, pruned
his finger bulbs so that he couldn’t see the whorls.
His mother dipped a toothbrush in acetone,
scrubbed beneath the child’s transparent nails.
“Are We There Yet?” ends in another hard stop on listed images, but it matters less there in part because those final images are so beautifully rendered. The title, with its echo of childishness, once again invokes the desire for the right experience, this time under the shadow of death: “It wasn’t how / I wanted us to end.” The poem opens in a long, jittery, unpredicated setting of the mobile scene:
On the drive from Des Moines, deer along the highway’s
gravel shoulder. Deer’s eyes flaring
from corridors of corn.
Lithe, narrow-faced silhouettes of deer
beneath rare mosquito-swarmed streetlights,
more numerous than the streetlights
floating above alfalfa, soybeans, hay,
the grid of roads dividing fields from fields.
Those repetitions—“deer” popping up three times, in three different forms; the two “streetlights” rhyming awkwardly in the second stanza; the almost random division of “fields” from “fields”—collude with the persistent verging on a complete sentence, the frequent shifts in tone, syntax, and significance just after a break. The first real verb doesn’t come until the ninth line, when the narrative is interrupted by a different subject (her grandfather’s death) and a different voice (presumably his). The deer come back, “spirits drifting, foraging, so many / souls of the damned,” a peril to the couple driving late at night on underlit roads. Notably, and characteristically, those same animals also introduce beauty into the too-predictable order of the characters’ lives.
Dietz seems drawn to violence, particularly natural violence that unburies the darkness underneath suburban life. She devotes one poem to inviting “wrathful rain” to fall and “outwit the drains”:
Gut the leaf-
rucked gutters. Wrestle reed
beds into rags. Wrench up head-
stones, grub the graves and spit
the picked bones in the ocean.
Show us nothing’s sacred,
Another poem revels in smashing words and consonants together to find language for the delight of a demolition derby, its four-beat lines breaking forcefully against the syntax of its odic lists:
Rev-engined mish-mash, mosh
pit of metal, brand-emblazoned
junk-car smash’-em-up. Trash
rodeo, trough pigs brawling over
scraps and swill. O plastic tumblers
of shwag-brew in Topsfield under an
October moon. O wrestling angels:
hum and bash your hymn of
destruction, breach and belch your
tailpipe spit and prayer. We’re happy
here where nothing doesn’t hurt.
Dietz closes the book with “Anywhere Elsewhere,” an extraordinary poem about the appetite for an elsewhere it can’t conjure or dismiss. It’s a poem of unusual violence and extremity. An intricate and almost-willfully destructive sense of dislocation draws her into the details of a particular place:
Winter brought greenish
bergs to the harbor, floes composed
of further waters. And the strange
white crows here rode them.
A mustached woman poured
scalding coffee on the feet of one
to free it from the scalloped ice
night layered on the sand.
It screamed as my lost brother
does in dreams…
Tess Taylor’s Work & Days, on the other hand, is set almost entirely in an elsewhere in which she tries, for the better part of a year, to put down figurative and literal roots. According to an interview with NPR, where Taylor reviews poetry for All Things Considered, the book was “inspired by her year spent working on a farm in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. She was there living alone in a cabin as part of a writer’s residency, finishing her first book of verse, and ‘had nothing to do but write.’ ”
Though Taylor’s biography makes sure to note that she, as the NPR piece explains, “had long volunteered at community gardens,” she comes to the farm as an outsider, and her poems engage the work and land in very different terms than, for example, a poet like Thorpe Moeckel, who has lived for years on a working farm. Work & Days more often treats the land as a kind of ancient text, one evoked in its title, with its echo of Hesiod, and often explicitly tied to her attempts to create both poems and life. She frequently does her best work in broad terms, drawing a restrained beauty from the provisional bounty of the seasons. The book opens at the end of winter, with a poem of just four lines:
Housman was right:
your life is short.
To miss even this springtime
would be an error.
Taylor writes of herself at a distance, typically as “you,” sometimes part of a “we,” but very rarely standing alone inside herself as an “I.” In one poem, she moves from the crowded largeness of the world into something plainer and vaster:
Beyond this, the constellated light-map.
Oil-drums, tankers, spirochetes,
terrorists, radios, specimens,
ice cream, methamphetamine,
pandemics, global economic crisis.
Then you burn the paper, watch its turquoise flame.
This is not always, but you think
This is my time on earth.
Taylor’s awareness that neither the small organic farm nor her writer’s cabin represents the world at large intrudes frequently, as with the oil-tankers, meth, terrorists and disease above. But those intrusions rarely seem as credible as the spacious “not always” she lifts off into there at the end, after the first “This is.” The initial “this” might take as its antecedent all that has preceded it in the poem, but it seems more likely that it looks ahead to the thinking that follows. The second “this” feels larger. It seems to mean oil rigs and injustice only incidentally; the real focus is on the majesty of one life in which those things can seem, however briefly, beside the point. It’s a risky turn, and you can hear Taylor’s awareness of the risk in that hedge—I don’t always think this way. Such a shifting in scales can be a too-easy source of absolution for the destruction our lives entail and overlook. But just as we wound, we are wounded, too, and the awestruck ability to stand inside the vastness of a history in which even all of human achievement is small is part of what allows us to heal.
Among the wounds Taylor is looking to assuage in the earth is a miscarriage, one she describes, in “Soil Black,” in unusually dense language:
The baby I planted this year
was only tissue. The botched ovum
did not grow, did not even sprout.
On the computer, its sac
was empty, soil black.
I bow into absence.
& yes, I know
many women have harder labors
strapped into the seasons
& to the children
strapped onto their backs—
I admire everything about this, including the “& yes, I know,” which in its reluctance to deal with the world beyond her immediate experience feels like a truer acknowledgement of that world. It’s a reminder that our smallness is sometimes petty, the unwelcome gravity of others’ suffering distending her grief. Yet her declaration that “I bow into absence” feels like a genuine flowering in the midst of all this, as does the terrible richness with which she describes absence in the lines that come before.
Late in the book and late in the year, as Taylor, soon to be pregnant again, prepares to head home, she records the new life, the latest harvest, and the old desires, endlessly renewed, at a fair where “In line for the bathroom, farm people check iPhones”:
On the grill, veal. On the board, tender cow.
On the roast pig’s black nose, drugstore sunglasses.
Later, fiddlers & bonfire.
Boys toss on a scrap pallet.
Light flares on our faces.
Timeless, how a few couples slink off now—
to savor each other in corn rows, in darkness.
It’s wonderfully carnal, that savoring that carries all the way into darkness. And it is, in some ways, a return to the small poem she opened with: “your life is short. / To miss even this springtime / would be an error.” The opposite of error, here, is not correctness—it’s life, and the hunger for life, for the vegetables that turn dark soil and the day’s light into sweetness and the animals that turn sweetness into their own sacrificial selves, and for our own conversions, too, the slow, brief blooming of the ordinary in the always arriving, more-than-earthly light, as we encounter it on Earth.
That Kind of Happy by Maggie Dietz. University of Chicago Press.
Work and Days by Tess Taylor. Red Hen.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.