Re- View #2: The Offering
Eleanor Kedney, Liquid Light Press, 2016
(read in final galleys)
Jami Macarty & Nicholas Hauck
Advisory Board & Editors
NH: To me, Eleanor Kedney’s The Offering is a personal, intimate chapbook of poems, dealing with memory, loss, and death in a human world, which is then (re)produced in organic (plants, animals) and inorganic (stones, wind, dirt) worlds that comprise the universe.
JM: My reading aligns with yours—I, too, describe the poems as personal. What I mean by that is the poems relate to a particular person’s life. That particular person is a woman. In the 23 poems in The Offering, she assumes multi-perspectives of womanhood—daughter, sister, wife, (want-to-be) mother. She also identifies herself as a writer/poet. In “Good to See You” (the poem we selected for The Maynard’s October 2015 issue), she tells us, “Now I write short sentences/joined by semicolons.” This poet does have a thing for semicolons and leans toward other prose conventions in the poems. I digress. In “Desert Millipede,” she “tried to write a poem” about things and incidents associated with her brother’s death. If there is any distinction between the poet and the speaker of these poems, it’s negligible. These are not persona poems, in which the poet has taken on the personalities of others and dwells in the metaphoric or hyperbolic. These are poems lived and written; they dwell in the literal, the actual, and as you say—the human. I also describe the poems as intimate. While that comports with “personal,” it begs questions: With whom are the poems intimate? To whom are they addressed? I was not clear on the who—could be the poet, could be particular or general readers. I don’t feel particularly excluded from the poems, but nor do I feel fully included. That brings me back to the “personal.”
NH: It’s interesting you feel neither excluded nor included. Now that you mention it, I feel similarly. That leads me to suggest that the intimacy is directed towards the self. The addressee is the poet/speaker. In this intimacy with the self, the particular woman you describe above, is also talking about something larger than (human) life to which all belong. We get hints of what this may be and even the speaker is at times unsure (like me, as a reader), which comes out in “Fiftieth Birthday”: “I didn’t know that I would be the one/ not at rest.” This other aspect of the personal, hinting at a universal intimacy, allows for varying degrees of inclusion.
JM: Of the poems’ subjects you name, the death of family members—brother, father, mother—comes to the fore of my reading (I did the math: Five poems are devoted to each—15 of the 23 works.). These primal and formative losses seem to cause the poet/speaker to don death-colored glasses, which makes her see or cause death in the animal world—the quail she hits “Driving from Shoshone to Pahrump” in the title poem, The Offering; the lizard who “moved its head slowly/ as though roused from deep slumber/ and not the moment before death” in “Desert Spiny Lizard”; the rabbit “lying on its side—eyes open, ears back” in “Love Poem.” The deaths of kin point to the deaths of animals and the deaths of animals point back to the deaths of family. These recursive references emerge, for me, as reflections of our powerlessness to save human or animal, and the inherent tragedy therein. The deaths become offerings—to the living. I’ve focused on the animals.
Slowly, I feel the hierarchy of standard taxonomy and classification is dissolved and the “roles” plants and rocks play in this dissolution are essential to the process of mourning and loss, which perhaps eases the pain of losing (a) human life.
NH: About the “roles” of plants and rocks, two poems come to mind. “My Brother Pruning the Sweet Gum Tree” traces parallels between brother and tree. They seem to share a similar wildness that needs “pruning.” There is an almost violent symbiosis between tree and man, moving and working together. Each is scarred by the other, “sweat mix with dirt.” But the “six feet tall and tan” brother’s “organs shut down,” while the gum tree is “still coming back/ to life, more full, every spring.” The fragility and ephemeral nature of a particular human life is held against vegetal life. This frustrates and angers the speaker—“I can’t/ prune that damn tree.” As the second poem in the collection, it comes too soon for me to realize that this is not simply frustration, but a coming to terms with a life-world much greater than the human one. In “Ajoite in Quartz,” the characteristics of quartz are co-mingled with those of the poet’s/speaker’s brother. Here, “the stria a short, broken lifeline” are synonymous with the “blue-green veins” of the heroin-addicted brother. This is one of several examples where mineral or inorganic “life” participates in all other aspects of life. Slowly, I feel the hierarchy of standard taxonomy and classification is dissolved and the “roles” plants and rocks play in this dissolution are essential to the process of mourning and loss, which perhaps eases the pain of losing (a) human life.
JM: Along with frustration and anger, I get the sense that the poet/speaker in “My Brother Pruning the Sweet Gum Tree” can’t bring herself to prune for myriad reasons—because she’s weakened by grief; is not up to the task because of her size or skill, which is no match for her brother’s; because to do so would be to prune (read: harm) him and his memory. I see her admittance as relent, resignation, and a quest to hold a space of love and role or duty for her brother—an agreement to love him as he was and for what he did. OK, I want to talk about dirt (also rocks)—earth element—and wind—air element. These elements belong to the living and mostly seem to be evoked within the poems as affirmation, and in opposition to, death. The appearances of these elements and the animals in the poems connect me to a sense of Native American/ First Nations worldview pertaining to the great cycle of energy. In this worldview, everything has a purpose and role in the cycle of life. If life at the intersection of death is managed prayerfully and consciously in honest recognition of “the offering,” then that’s more supportive of flow of energy.
NH: It’s not magical, nor animistic, but maybe a “weak” cosmology? At least the movements we’re describing as coming out of our reading are. The dedication—“for my mother, Helen,/ who loved to dance” oriented me to movement. The first and title poem, The Offering, sets up a relationship between “her still body” (the female quail and her mother) and the “circle in merriment” as darkness is chased away by light. I’ll say the appearance of Cezanne’s Bathers, “used” to describe the “plump, pear-shaped bodies” of the quail, confounds. For me, the movements of Cezanne’s bathing women doesn’t jibe with scampering quail.
JM: That simile—“Like Cezanne’s Bathers”—also confounds me, both because of the differing movements between women and birds and differing landscapes of the poem and painting. Ah well, poetic license. Back to cosmology, I’d say Kedney’s poems deal predominantly with time—specifically the past—and causality—seeking reason/ meaning. Certainly, the first poem sets up this point of view, worldview, and belief system, which I take into the reading of the following 22 poems. The title poem parallels William Stafford’s (1914-1993) infamous poem, “Travelling through the Dark.” In Stafford’s poem, the speaker finds a deer “dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.” In Kedney’s, the speaker “hit a female quail,” then “set her body/ on the side of the road.” In “Travelling through the Dark,” the deer’s “side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,/ alive, still, never to be born.” In “The Offering” as “darkness descends” on the quail’s “eggs,/ her mate will call for her.” Like Stafford, Kedney focuses on the quotidian. Both poets use a conversational manner and bring in earthy, locale-specific details. In Kedney’s case the locale is the Sonoran Desert, though some poems take place back East. Other locales are associated with institutions (religious, medical, judicial). But at cosmology, among others aesthetic concerns (e.g. concision) Stafford and Kedney differ. In fact, now I’m getting pointed toward phenomenology—that Kedney’s poems are interested in the phenomenon of death in the world because death has affected her.
NH: For me, Kedney’s manner is matter-of-fact. It’s realistic not minimalist, and tends not to embellish. “I’m not that epic,” we read in “Good to See You.” Now that I think about it, alongside the intimate and personal, there is a kind of objective observation of the world that is particular but also distanced. This is the type of observation one might expect from someone in shock or experiencing trauma. So, it makes sense in these poems. For me, this is part of the “offering”: a very personal speaker, presenting the world back to itself and to herself. That brings us to the title.
JM: At first, I take the title literally. The poems are The Offering. That’s the “what.” This brings me back to my earlier inquiry as to whom this offering is made. In this case, the offering is made to the reader/s, but there’s the feeling of there being more to it. Or, perhaps, that I simply want more? In any case, to the extent the poems are elegiac, they are offerings to the ones they are written about. I choose “about” specifically because there’s a clear sense of a triangular relationship arising out of the poems, one made up of the poet/speaker, the object of the poet’s/speaker’s attention, and the one asked to listen. Now I’m talking about the tone and tense used within the poems. Both keep the poems situated in time. Past events are cast in past tense. This somehow makes the present more present. What does time offer?
NH: Solace, peace, and rest. These are not simply given; rather they are the ongoing process of mourning and remembrance, which fuses the (human) body with other forms of life. The poems are neither spiritual nor religious, at least not in any conventional sense. There are references to churches and institutions, but their role is no more significant than the lizard’s, the quartz’s, or the gum tree’s. It’s these things that play central roles in the movements of life, death, and mourning, movements that run through the collection. Institutions (religious, medical, judicial) are minimized, while the quotidian is recognized and then shown to be much more human, more humanly comforting.
JM: Right. So, we’re saying what’s human is an offering or can be seen as one—this is a philosophy of Kedney’s chapbook. Life is an offering; so’s death. Memory and remembrance are offerings. Ah ha! That may be the specific offering Kedney intends. That her allegiance to remembering is the offering made through her poems. After all she seems to be the only one left, at least that we know of, to remember.
NH: Framing the collection, the last poem speaks of a brightening, where solace is possible but not quite attained—a release, but only from something “failed.” As if to warn against forgetting through dance. In “A Long Period of Sadness” we learn “the wind is a dangerous thing.” So, movement is neither glorified nor vilified, but accepted while distinctions between past and present, organic and inorganic, living and dead, are traversed. In some poems this is explicit, like “Between the Earth and Sky.” “Desert Spiny Lizard” and “Ajoite in Quartz” blur the boundaries more subtly. The body—in its various forms—and gesture are also prominent in the poems. The body or bodies networks with all things living, dead, and somewhere in between. That refers to the process of mourning at work in the poems.
To document parallels here, as elsewhere, in the poems is to document genealogy, and I think, more importantly to this poet, to keep alive familial connections.
JM: In some poems, the mourning process or the ideas about it seem to have been resolved before getting to the page. In these poems, the reader’s told the story and its meaning, leaving little room for autonomous meaning-making. These poems, then, document the resolution—more “evidence” that the poems are written for the poet herself. Some of the poems written in the past tense act this way. “Shades” documents parallels between the poet’s mother and herself at 16: “My mother was sixteen when her mother died… / By the time I was sixteen, my mother buried/ four sisters and four brothers.” To document parallels here, as elsewhere, in the poems is to document genealogy, and I think, more importantly to this poet, to keep alive familial connections. That makes me think again of phenomenology, being used as a way to understand, place in perspective, even normalize, death, and to measure grief. Do you sense any reconciliation with the past? I don’t, and I don’t perceive that as an intention of Kedney’s. I think the word “document” may get at the poet’s intentions. These details, of these lives and this family, must be recorded, documented, inscribed for posterity—and hope for reconciliation.
NH: At several moments in the collection, the poems alternate between present, active voice, and the past and memory. To me this displacement of time emulates the emotional voyage/journey/wanderings of loss. I wouldn’t say it progresses. Instead, I would suggest, it’s more of a necessary wandering (not circular but not linear either) and in this offering as wandering and writing, we learn to live with restlessness.
JM: If I focus on and stay in “reality of time,” the process progresses—for no other reason than time moves. But what you’re asking about is whether or not the poet’s/speaker’s mourning shifts through the poems. I might argue that the preservation of memory strived for in the poems operates to fetter or delay progress. But that’s supposing progress is of interest to these poems and this poet. I don’t think it is. At least not the progress of processing grief. The process that’s important to progress is documenting memory. That process may parallel grieving for this poet. You’re also referencing the time given to emotional engagement and development within a chapbook. Maybe that’s what’s at the center of your sense of restlessness, the too-early appearance of subjects, and progress. Achieving “right-timing” and dramatic balance is one of the tricks and trappings of a chapbook.
NH: For me, the order of the poems doesn’t support dramatic balance and emotional engagement as much as they could. For instance, the poems’ order could more directly reflect the restless and the organic qualities of grief. Like these lines: “I didn’t know that I would be the one/ not at rest,” from “Fiftieth Birthday,” which really stuck out for me. It reverses the logic of death and life, animating remembrance with a movement that rightfully straddles past, present, and future. This “dance” of time is another part of the offering. It’s interesting that in the poems about the father, he’s remembered as one who “offers,” in particular food. At the end of “Old Man in a Drugstore Parking Lot” he is “handing me/ apple pie, followed by a tap dance.” In “Apple Pie,” the poet/speaker “didn’t pretend” to be able to “someday make pie and it would taste like his.” This failed attempt to carry on the father’s recipe is like the impossibility of carrying on the brother’s pruning of the Gum Tree. When on the “morning of his wake,” the poet’s/speaker’s mother threw away the last piece of her father’s apple pie, she “lifted it out of the garbage can and ate it” resurrecting him and his offering. There’s his generosity of “sweet prodigies” in “Tomatoes,” and in one of my favorite lyrics, “Memories of My Father,” raked leaves “reappear… / …there are always more” and it’s the “wind giving them a voice.” This describes how memories are not at rest and continue to wander. The chapbook’s last three poems: “After a Death, I Take a Walk,” “Desert Millipede,” and “A Long Period of Sadness” form a triptych that potentially reverses (once and for all?) the restlessness. In “After a Death, I Take a Walk,” the poet/speaker wanders out of and back home after being led to “the remains of a quail” (pointing back to the opening poem), but not before “it’s good to linger in the cool swells of wind.” To me, this suggests a desire or even need for unmotivated movement and wandering.
JM: The point you make about the poet/speaker not being able to match the brother’s pruning or the father’s baking re-references things people did (pruning, baking) and how this doing, too, dies. To me, that’s close to the bone of the poet’s/speaker’s grief. I want to say a bit about two qualities of voice and character. First, I appreciate the self-deprecating tone the poet/speaker uses in some of the poems. This allows poet/speaker to be seen as a fallible human being. In the very first poem of the chapbook, “The Offering,” she is responsible for the death of a quail; in “What We Do,” she describes her husband as “patient” with her “OCD”; in “Twelve Days from Transfer” she provides intimidate details about her process of in vitro fertilization. Not every person or poet would allow herself to be seen in these ways. Here, she joins the company of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds, among others who also share intimate details of their lives in their poetry. The other quality may undermine or mitigate this very human allowance. In “Reading Frank O’Hara after My Mother’s Death,” the poet/speaker reveals herself as someone who has occasion to be at a luxury hotel, where “The maid at the Waldorf, a Russian Jew,” offers advice. Later in the same poem, she wears “blue topaz…/ oval stones in a bracelet and hoop earrings.” This is one of several places where privilege surfaces. These items may appear with a nod to O’Hara’s (and other New York School poets’) associative style, containing proper nouns and snippets of conversation. It is one of the more ambitious poems in the collection, bridging both present and past. It takes place in present-day Arizona, but remembers pasts in her (and O’Hara’s) New York. Also, about blue topaz: it is purported to aid spiritual communication, inspire creativity, and foster strong psychic communication. Given Kedney’s/the speaker’s interest in rocks, these details may matter. Plus, the poet/speaker says the stones are “the color of my mother’s eyes.” The poem also blends the narrative and lyric styles Kedney otherwise isolates poem to poem.
NH: I too picked up on the deprecating tone in the poems, which, like you say, displays the poet’s/speaker’s vulnerability. For me this positions the poet/speaker on an equal footing with the deceased in all of their imperfect humanness. What I didn’t pick up on immediately is the blending of the narrative and the lyric. “Shades” is interesting in this respect. In this poem, the blending of the narrative and the lyric mirrors the blending of the past and present, revealing a difference between, but also a repetition of generations. “Childless,” another lyric, and one of two poems referencing the struggle to have children, pulls me in because of the way it can be read as one of the most personal, narrative poems within the collection. The importance of and affinity to animals is present, and the description of boys playing recalls the brother. In “A Long Period of Sadness,” when “palms press against the window, feels like an echo,” the window also becomes mirror. Looking out and looking in/(back) are no longer distinct. As one of the last poems in the collection, for me it suggests a dislocation of the personal and intimate subject or self: “the calling of my name stops—released from what failed to bloom.” There is a failure to remember or mourn, but there is also a release from failure and a release as failure. Instead of trying to unconditionally assert itself, the voice gives into itself. This, for me, is one of the most powerful and exciting things a poet can do.
JM: I talked about those poems that seem to come to the page already resolved. I recognize they have value and purpose, especially for Kedney. For me, they are often a one-dimensional experience. I’m more drawn to poems that leave space for the reader to make meaning. “Between Earth and Sky” (coincidently also a title of one of my poems) and “Memories of My Father” are two of the poems that allow the reader this level of engagement. Both are lyric meditations: In one her brother, his “body in plastic beyond a window for claiming and naming”; in the other, her father, leaves “brown-edged, curled like cupped hands begging.” The former poem is in the past, the latter in present tense. Interestingly, these poems contain lots of white space. This is literally representative of the space where the reader can make meaning. These poems and “Good To See You,” “Ajoite in Quartz,” and “At the Cemetery” form the lyric center of the chapbook that culminates in the final triptych. Each of the final three poems is in present tense. In them the poet/speaker makes three moves that suggest “A Long Period of Sadness” is now at some distance. In “After a Death I Take a Walk” the poet/speaker realizes “it’s good to linger in the cool swells of wind,/ smelling new leaves,” as opposed to the “brown-edged” ones (“Memories of My Father”); in the penultimate poem, “A Long Period of Sadness,” the poet/speaker says, “no more” to the “throaty and hollow” wind that’s “dangerous” and “knocking at the screen door”; in the chapbook’s final poem, “Movement,” the poet/speaker, says, “I push memory’s mulch aside/ and listen to my breath climb/ the rungs of my ribs with more/ to give this world/ than a long cry.” Now, that’s an offering—and maybe also “progress.”