The Watch by Norita Dittberner-Jax (Whistling Shade Press, 2008)
It was rainy and cool the day I picked up St. Paul-based poet Norita Dittberner-Jax’s collection The Watch. I settled in with tea and a warm cat and read the book in one sitting. It’s a beautiful collection. The poems are mostly short, and each reads like an individual encapsulated narrative. Her word choice is easy and forthright, and her form is classic. The collection is about marriage, divorce, home, travel, illness, and family, threaded through with an abundance of love — this sort of palpable love that catches in the throat. Love of place, love of family, love of art, love of the body.
For the most part, the poems are humble and measured, but that, combined with her easy writing style, makes this a collection of incredibly beautiful and understated poetry.
The concept of home as a place, a person, and a body is a recurring theme in the book. She starts readers out with one of my favorite poems in the collection, “All the Lost Homes,” which reads like a short account of the speaker’s homes, both former and current. It opens with a description of a childhood home: “The first house, the colonnades, the beamed ceiling/is the lost life of childhood, the house I can’t enter,” and goes on to describe later homes of the “new mother,” “the divorce,” the “displaced person,” and “shared custody.” It ends with a description of the speaker’s current house and home:
Now in the duplex on Goodrich, we live the close life.
The large sunny living room opens into the interior
where we cook and eat, wash and sleep, a found life.
I think there is a life ahead, the last lost life, the one in which we’re
happy and the kids come and go, where Muffin dies at Christmas
and we cry ourselves to sleep and Muffin joins what is lost to us.
“All the Lost Homes” sets the tone for the rest of the book as it bounces between the speaker’s recollections and her current place in life; a place that feels joyful, contented, and thoughtfully reminiscent.
Continuing with the theme of home, Dittberner-Jax visits the concept of body as home in her beautiful piece, “Meditation on the Body.” The poem seems to say that the body is a “temple” to be revered in all its stages — sensual and strong (“the body in lovemaking,/the rosy interior revealed”), old and frail (“The body in its frailty…removing/everything until you are down/to synapse, pulse, breath.”). She writes,
The body as cathedral–sanctuary,
dome, cloister –
coming full circle
from my early schooling,
the body as temple, the holy.
Finding a sense of home within the context of a close relationship is the theme in “Repairing the Body,” a poem in ten numbered stanzas. This is one of the slightly longer poems in the book, and it reads like a short narrative about the emotions surrounding the serious illness and eventual recovery of a spouse. Like the other poems about illness in the collection, Dittberner-Jax avoids the territory of melancholy and pity, instead preferring to focus on reflection and hope:
I cannot stop thanking the doctor
who fixed you. The crease
in his trousers is precise, his nails
immaculate. Praise him.
Silence entered me this year,
I didn’t rush to cover it, but let it fall.
Gradually it settled like sunlight
on our sofa.
You mend, your stitches
the railroad tracks crossing
a country I love.
Like in “Repairing the Body,” she writes often of spousal and familial love. Her poems about such are certainly among the most powerful in the book. These poems are just as understated as the rest, and somehow her gentle and conversational tone only serves to make the subject matter that much more relatable for the reader. A personal highlight was “Anniversary,” a fantastically affecting poem about a late father, where Dittberner-Jax writes,
Father: I remember your death
not from the calendar
but from the light
in late winter
When we traveled to Germany, our ancestral home,
reel after reel, nightmares, fantasies,
all the parts of my life
flowing into each other
but one gem,
one sweet dream in which you and mother appear
as yourselves, vigorous, hearty,
my richest inheritance.
She again writes about familial love in the equally beautiful “Saying Goodbye to My Daughter”:
I wish they were neater, our goodbyes.
Instead we fall into each other’s arms
and all of the goodbyes of the past
echo in the valley between us:
Baby girl, born at midnight, spirited
down the dark corridor, the first
time I missed you.
At the front door now, with all
that clamoring to move on, we stop
to enact it all again.
In all of the poems quoted above, like many others in the book, very real emotion courses just below the surface of the restrained and unassuming language. But readers will appreciate that, even though the book includes a healthy dose of poems about decidedly difficult subject matter, Dittberner-Jax avoids letting herself delve into the familiar poetic territory that is woe. Rather, the difficult subject matter feels delicately tempered by the hope and love that is so tactile and apparent in these pages.
Repeatedly throughout this collection readers will be surprised and delighted by Dittberner-Jax seeming to gently (and successfully) remind us that love and life are not always grand affairs, but rather, a “sunny living room,” a spouse napping in an armchair, the sound of car doors on Thanksgiving day, “the smell of coffee, the stretch…the old joy.”
What other authors manage to evoke such emotion while using surprisingly simple language? Do you think it’s more difficult to write emotional poetry when writing in this restrained style?
This week, I have stairs on my mind. A specific stairwell is on my mind in particular, but I won’t bore you with those details today. Instead, I’ve collected three sets of stairs for you, to prompt your own step-minded thoughts.
Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York.
Tamara Thomsen, Stairway, 2008. Watercolor on paper. www.tamarathomsen.com
M. C. Escher, House of Stairs, 1951. Lithograph.
Reading this lyric essay is an explorative dive journey. We join McCarthy as she explores sexuality, self, and the roots and sounds of language. The dictionary is a supporting character throughout, offering a framework from which McCarthy jumps into her oral exploration. This playfulness of language seeps into every line, and it’s apparent early on why the essay was named “An Oral Poetics”:
I’m still an oral character. I taste surge like lapping up hot milk. my tongue lolling the urrrge luridly, dripping form the roof of my mouthcave. My mouth is a chamber of resonance, or is it reactivity?
The pleasure in language is paired with her explorative tone to lighten the heavier content: slaughterhouses, blowjobs, a nuclear leak in Middletown, PA are all topics throughout the essay. This is an informed essay—there are footnotes to other texts throughout, and we see familiar faces in the poets mentioned such as C.D. Wright, Louise Glück, and Emily Dickinson. McCarthy writes also of Cinderella, popsicles, and preschool, but these innocent-seeming moments are rife with dark undertones, as we see in this passage about Cinderella’s slipper:
A vair slipper. This is footwear for a virgin, made from coats of squirrels with grey backs and white bellies. In the original Cinderella, the prince fitted her with a vair slipper, not glass. If I wake up in the mirrored morning and see their girl, the only choice left to me is what I put my foot in today: shard or squirrel? I choose my mouth.
As you can see, her playfulness also comes from turning a phrase on it’s head, and mixing up well-known adages and stories: Cinderella’s slipper, putting her foot in her mouth. These stereotypical cultural stories are revealed for the complex and flawed story lines that they are. These moments of poetic surprise keep the reader tumbling through the essay greedily, enjoying the romp.
While labeled an essay, SURGE feels more like a long prose poem. It also includes interjecting sections in smaller, italic font that act as mini poems within the larger prose piece. The section about the nuclear reactor failure in Middletown, PA, is a bit abrupt; however, McCarthy warns us of this right away, starting that section off with, “Abruptly, I confess—” The section reads more like a nonfiction essay instead of a lyric essay, which works because it juxtaposes the harsh facts of this leak that was never admitted to, but clearly affected those living in the surrounding areas.
The ending comes sooner than you’d like, as a strong, forceful wave of an ending. Here’s the beginning sentence of the last paragraph:
My girl of desire, my blazing hungry unfinished girl wants a poetry that bleeds into the ground, poems that seep into anyplace you are porous and make you twitch and ache and heave.
This poetry does just that: seeps in, and leaves you heaving and aching. It’s poetry that stays with you in your bones, tickling at those pre-conceived cultural notions as you go throughout your day.
Luckily for anyone in the Twin Cities area, you can hear Opal read along with Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, and our very own Timothy Otte TONIGHT! Join us for Incident: A Reading at 7:00 pm at Rosalux Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis.
Do you think the line between lyric essays and long prose poems is blurry, or definite? What other writers flip fairytales or stereotypes on their head?
This Thursday, please join the Hazel & Wren team at Rosalux Gallery in northeast Minneapolis for Incident: A Reading, in collaboration with the current exhibition, “Incident: Rebecca Krinke and Duane Ditty.” A night of community, art, feathers, —and of course, writers— the evening will feature three local poets: Timothy Otte, Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, and Opal McCarthy.
This week, I’ve collected three images inspired by Krinke’s and Ditty’s “Incident” show, and which should in turn provide some inspiration you. Incidentally, these three images are also excellent preparation for Thursday night, when we’ll be writing a collaborative, audience-generated poem inspired by the artwork. Sound like fun? Good. See you there.
Josef Sudek, Remembrances of E. A. Poe, 1959. Photograph. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Missy Hammond Dunaway, A Quiet Bird and a Noisy Bird, 2010. Archival ink on paper. www.mhdunaway.com
Beth Dow, Clearing, Wakehurst Place, 2004, from In the Garden series. Photograph. www.bethdow.com