Monday, August 24, 2020

What Keeps Us Here

Today, in the cool comfort of my home office, because it was too hot outside, I read What Keeps Us Here, by Allison Joseph (Ampersand Press, 1992). This must be a re-read, as all the sweetness, particular candies, and images of "Penny Candy" came rushing back to me, but I probably didn't read it back in 1992, when I had a two-year-old and was in graduate school. I remembered vividly. too, the innocent thrill of "[f]our brown skinned young girls" discovering their naked bodies in a basement in the poem "Accomplices." And the sorrow of losing her mother to cancer. 

Probably different things took hold of me this time. This time, I was struck, in "Endurance," by these two lines: "I should say this plainly: / a woman, dying, seeks God." Yes, so plain, so strong. And the terrible, beautiful, true moment, in "At That Moment," of learning of her mother's death by telephone while away at school. This one connects with a story told yesterday, on Zoom, of when our family friend learned of her father's death by phone while staying with my parents. She wailed all night long, and my mother sat up with her. And, in Joseph's poem, "They put me to rest / in the narrow dorm bed, / my room now strange, unfamiliar..." The disorientation of trauma, of grief.

Later, some comfort from "The Idiot Box." I was glad to see again "Lucy bawling after Ricky, The Odd Couple / clashing, Spock and Captain Kirk / on the flimsy set of the Enterprise" via reruns on late-night tv. Then the poems "Falling Out of History," its content and its epigraph by James Baldwin, and "Broadside: from Decade's End" connect to my side-by-side nonfiction reading this week: We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I have just finished his essay on Malcolm X, and here in Joseph's book I read:

     First day freshman year,
     I saw two other black faces,
     was dumbfounded later when
     a roommate asked, What's lynching?
     her eyes lifted from Malcolm X's story.

But back to life in the tender and fleeting moment. I love this imagery in "Rationale," a poem about visiting "the fire-singed tenement" of an old lover:

     Now we're nervous memorabilia:
     letters, cards, one pressed flower,
     colorless. Wanting you, I'm skittish,
     quick as a hand of three card monte.

And my heart is breaking at the beautiful lovemaking "keeping us here just one moment / longer" (love that line break!) in "Preservation" and risky nights of "In Fear of Sleep": "I may seem frail, but it's / you who fights, who could / blink away before I could // do anything." The fragility of life so present:

     you might not wake--your breath
     stopping dozens of times
     throughout the night, heart
     thudding to keep you alive.

In "What Keeps Us Here" are lines that remind us that we slip away:

                        Soon you'll sleep,
     close your eyes to drift
     through its uneasy thoroughfares,

     its way stations and islands
     of dream, terrain where your footing
     slips, balance sliding out

     from under you.

I wish Allison well in her ongoing grief, and thank her for these poems.

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