(Kingston, WA, Two Sylvias Press, 2019)
The clusterfuck that is the year 2020 continues, unabated, and I again am reaching for poetry. I suppose poetry is a de facto litmus test for my fractured attention. If I can read a poem start to finish without getting lost in thought (otherwise known as obsessive worrying), the day is pretty good. If not, best to call the next 24 hours a wash and not attempt anything more complicated than eating dried prunes on the apartment balcony.
Today, I returned to Dana Roeser’s All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts, which I had initially read sometime in the fall of 2019. I had devoured the book in one sitting in the ninety minutes or so before my weekend acupuncture appointment. I still lived in Portland, Oregon, at that time and I remember the morning was just the right side of overcast. It was too drizzly to sit outdoors, so I enjoyed the book from a cafe window over a ginger scone loaded with butter. At the time, the world felt right: Roeser’s stories of horse riding, her father’s ailing health, and Zumba class felt familiar and natural, as if a long out-of-touch friend had pulled up a seat beside me in the cafe, and a conversation just happened. Her poetic voice is natural, accessible, authentic. She’s got a killer sense of humor, too.
I didn’t get around to writing the review Roeser deserved. A few short weeks after reading, I scrambled with my husband to pack up our home in Portland and unpack it in Hoboken. All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts stayed on top of my favorite bookshelf until this morning when the sun hit my balcony in just the right spot. The time was finally right for a re-read. Like last time, Roeser pulled me in with “Letter to Dr. M.,” the opening poem. Addressed to the speaker’s eye doctor, the poem begins:
Dear Dr. Maddingly, I’m writing
to let you know I took
seriously your admonition
not to go running for at least
three weeks until whatever the
vitreous jelly that’s
making those gray shadows tree branches
flashing lights in the peripheral
vision of my right eye gets settled.
The speaker then admits that, while she took his advice and did not go running specifically, she did indulge in some activities that he hadn’t made off-limits: riding a horse during a tornado and “fabulous” pelvic thrusting during Zumba class. The speaker’s “fuck all” attitude and light-hearted flippancy is juxtaposed against the death of a friend, Karin, who had been on life support in cardiac critical care with her “heavily sedated” brain intact. Karin’s death is handled lightly — “I went to Indianapolis to see her / yesterday. I forgot about / my retina!” — but underscores the speaker’s decision not to baby her eye and, instead, pursue the life’s joys:
[…] Sixty and going to
get a shorter haircut so I can do more
sweaty things and wash it
in the shower anytime I
feel like it. So I can smell
like horse as often as I get
“Letter to Dr. M.” felt like an appropriate poem for these uncertain days, when even a visit with family can feel like an inordinate risk. The speaker here provides a necessary reminder that risk is highly dependent on context; causing further injury to her eye is a small price to pay (in her estimation) to enjoy her life fully and physically. Karin’s death provides the context, helps her calculate the worthiness or unworthiness of the risk.
I hadn’t recalled, however, that Roeser’s poems are not consistent in tone or attitude. Many of the poems reflect a feeling of incompleteness that, perhaps due to what the speaker seems to consider an advanced age of sixty and repeated encounters with dire illness, nudge against themes of mortality, impermanence, and loss. In “Transparent Things, God-Sized Hole,” the speaker describes how her family teased her for sleeping under two down quilts and wearing a heavy hat in the summer out of fear that “otherwise I would / fly up to the ceiling.” The poem goes on:
I told Patti last night
that the God-sized
hole in me was
so big and vacant,
voracious and spacious,
it was like I was
running some kind
of desperate toddler’s
shape-sorter game, trying to find
something that fit
to plug into it. I’d stuff anything
In there, regardless
of whether the shape
the opening. It was
like I could look
at the sky and attract
space junk, broken
satellites, spent rocket
Roeser maintains her conversational tone but the hilarity of “Letter to Dr. M.” has subsided. The metamorphosis of the simile — from a child shape-sorter game to micrometeoroids equally incapable of filling an existential gap — is deeply tragic. It reminds me of the (increasingly frequent) moments of realization when a sunspot on your arm explodes into recognition of the inexplicable shortness of your life with a swift kick to the teeth. Inconsequential and innocent one moment, absolutely terrorizing the next.
“Transparent Things, God-Sized Hole” is deceptive. What I’m trying to tell you is that, while the poem is accessible in tone, the escalation of image from household to galactic-level is truly skillful and subversive work! The poem eventually lands back on earth, to “slow-moving locomotives / that may be driven by / nobody” and lingers, finally, on an image of flags flapping or falling on a “flaming maple.” These are desperate images, indicative of a speaker who is less reconciled with their limited days than earlier poems in the collection suggested.
But I don’t want to linger too long on existential questions or on the themes of illness, aging, and death that recur throughout the collection. Instead, I want to think about poetic craft.
Interestingly, Roeser is occasionally self-deprecating about her skills as a poet and artist. In “Twenty-Meter Circle,” she briefly criticizes her inability to write formal poems. Referring to herself as a “hot mess exemplar,” the speaker tells us: “(I was once / told by a / teacher – in / a forms class, that / it would perhaps // be better / if I did not attempt / it.)”
“Twenty-Meter Circle” then moves on (ostensibly) to describe her dressage lessons. The instructor stares at her foot and says: “Put // it where it / feels unnatural […] if it / feels completely wrong / then it’s right.” I see the instructor’s guidance at work in Roeser’s poetry. Her style is effective in part because it is informal and unstructured; her line breaks are happily bizarre and unexpected. I imagine many of the poems collected here would lose some of their punch and comedic timing if they were formatted more conventionally.
As the dressage lesson continues, the speaker in “Twenty-Meter Circle” realizes that the problem is less that she is an incompetent rider so much as her horse’s “real nature” is spasmodic, rushed, compulsive. Though “Twenty-Meter Circle” doesn’t say so explicitly, I think this is a finely wrought (and cleverly disguised) exploration of the craft of poetry. The struggle to translate the messiness of life into a poetic structure (even free verse) is real. Perhaps real nature simply isn’t meant to be fitted to form…and that’s why we poets are so aggravatingly insistent at coming at our work slant. I don’t know. Maybe “Twenty-Meter Circle” is about dressage after all.
I feel fortunate, this afternoon, to have re-read All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts. The subtleties of the work glanced off me the first time around and, possibly because Roeser’s voice is so un-poetic (in that it’s not stuffy or high-falutin’), I hadn’t fully appreciated the craft at work in so many of these poems. I don’t know why I missed this the first time around: Roeser is a winner of the Juniper Prize, Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. There is nothing accidental in her poetry, though she’s worked hard to make us readers feel otherwise.
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Lisa Grgas is the Supervising Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House Magazine, Adroit Journal, Ki’n, Common Ground, Luna Luna, Web Del Sol Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.