Refusing Despair: Selected Poems and Journal Writings by Teresa Anderson
(West End Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Street Sweeper Press, Cedar Crest, New Mexico, 2008)
Teresa Anderson -- "Terri" to her friends -- lived from 1944 to 2006. The poems and notes in this book were compiled by John Crawford and Amanda Gardner. The sources for the first half of the book were Anderson's 1979 book Speaking in Sign, a handful of Pablo Neruda translations from 1980, and a 1982 manuscript titled "Fertile Are These Bones"; the second half of the book consists of "new writings" from 1992 to 1999, poems from 2003 to 2005, and journal entries from 2004 and 2005.
Given the posthumous assembly of the collection, its mixed-bag quality was perhaps inevitable. Anderson was clearly admired and adored by friends and colleagues (Naomi Shihab Nye among them) and both Crawford and Gardner attempt to convey what they remember as her larger-than-lifeness in their postscripts to the collection.
As someone who has lost parents, uncles, and friends to cancer, and a witness to how it can sap its victims of strength and focus, I find Anderson's determination to keep writing wholly admirable -- so it saddens me to report that, for the most part, I found neither her poems nor her journal entries to be compelling. There is a "singing to the choir" quality about them to my ear -- that is, if you already share Anderson's politics (very left-wing), sensibility (underpaid, underappreciated wandering poet-teacher), or romantic baggage (several failed relationships before marrying the right man in her mid-40s), then there may well be something in or about her poems about those topics that will click with you.
I frankly felt like a stranger being given a tour of an acquaintance's photo albums; not having known Anderson myself, most of the poems just don't strike me as distinguishable from what I might find in an average literary journal, and the medical poems/entries seem unremarkable in comparison to other patients' essays and blog-posts I've happened upon over the years. I'm not saying Anderson's body of work is worthless; according to Gardner, Anderson's influence continues today" in, among other forms, "workshops at homeless shelters, prisons, and jails" and in the work of students whose careers she helped cultivate (including that of the editor in question), which suggests that there exists a body of readers who see a richness and depth within Anderson's work to which I'm regrettably blind. The flip side of that, however, is me wondering if it’s the memory of Anderson's vitality that enlivens her work for its partisans. Gardner writes that Anderson taught her "more by her presence than any direct instruction," and I can't help thinking that that could account for the divide between my indifference to Anderson's poems and Gardner's love of them: I see only the words, whereas Gardner sees the legacy of a beloved teacher.
Let's take a look at some of the passages that didn't work for me, and then a couple that did. First, from "Remember the Land":
I could go back to the harsh land
with you, my love, all my life
I have always been reaching for you
wanting your voice, I listened to meadowlarks
in the long backs of horses
I caressed with my eyes
your strong and luminous body
and now everywhere over the land
a softness descends
young fruit trees in blossom
exposed roots protected by green water
are the fingers
I long to fold against my breasts
Tomaso, remember the land we have made our own!
I picked this excerpt because, as with a number of other verses in the collection, I feel like I was supposed to be swept up in the poet's longing for the countryside and for her lover. I wasn't. It's not terrible poetry, but neither is it sufficiently precise (the under-punctuation is irritating), and the language teeters between bland and risible: "I could go back to the harsh land / with you, my love, all my life" is downright stilted; "I have always been reaching for you" verges on cliché -- I can think of situations where it might pack a punch, but it doesn't carry one here; the closing line and its exclamation point simply aren't earned, at least not from a lyrical or even logical point of view. (Coming from an exile, what does the phrase "land we have made our own" even mean, other than wishful fantasizing?)
On a similar level, the poem "Lorca in San Antonio" is one where the language fails to live up to the pleasing conceit that drives it, that of the narrator telling her student Federico about the many ways he reminds her of the poet:
I saw a photo of him once
small he was
with eyes as large
and luminous as yours. […]
I did not know
until I met you this morning
where spilled blood goes to or
what becomes of the ones who perish
under the iron wheels of the dictators.
But now here you are
in San Antonio, on Durango Street,
in my sixth grade class
living right here all the time.
This may well appeal to some readers as a pleasing fantasy of reincarnation. The language comes across to me as contrived ("small he was") and unconvincing ("the ones who perish / under the iron wheels of dictators" -- saying that to an eleven-year-old? Seriously?) , even though I liked the later image of the student's shy but unsurprised smile upon learning he shares his first name with Lorca.
The "Scary 'Big C' Poems" demonstrate my issues with Anderson's deployment of language in another way: when I mentally remove the line breaks in her poems, to test my impression of them as prosy, I don't find that I miss them. For example,
The world since then
has remained forever divided
into a before and after
before when I was
a middle-aged cancer survivor
and after when I became
almost instantly elderly […]
it is a miracle of modern science
and I know how lucky I am to be here
but now I'm always on the lookout
for a recurrence, appearance of another tumor
growing in secret, hiding somewhere else
in another bone, in the liver, in the lungs
never really free,
never a full day of sweet oblivion
Tragic, yes. Poetic? Not really. Not enough. (And again, the maddening un-punctuation.) It might even have been more powerful in paragraph form. It's not that Anderson lacked things to say -- it's more that her ability to present them to maximum effect only went so far.
All of that said, there are several poems in the collection that I marked as "rereads." In the opening poem, "Delphine: the Return," the ruined state of a Kansas homestead is marvelously evoked by "the / well overgrown with sunflowers / and the front porch sagging / under the weight of a sleeping cat." "Alone after Sixty Years" is a moving portrait of a man three months into life as a widower, effective in its juxtaposition of an orderly routine against the grief that appears in the "turning back / in the dark closet to touch again / the dusty jersey of her Sunday dress."
Although the language in "Reading My Mother's Betty Crocker Cookbook" doesn't grab me, I was intrigued by the architecture of the poem, which is tied both to a series of festive menus and several repeated motifs (the father's dogs, the wandering wits of grandparents, the presence of a four-year-old child at the dinner table). "Weekday Morning, 4 A.M." is a significant better poem than "Green Valley," an earlier poem whose ending it echoes:
In spite of the fear
in spite of the uncertain future
in spite of the old woman's walk
I must endure, I remain
living with hope and happy fortune
in spite of the ashes of my beauty
still here on this whirling orb
wavering toward the flickering light
- "Green Valley"
…the girl upstairs always starts her shower
just as I begin drinking my tea
and lighting incense for asking
a walk with patience and light
giving thanks to the dawn
for granting me one more day
on this whirling orb
inside this maze of a city
one more day of doing my part
carrying my load
before the coming of night
- "Weekday Morning, 4 A.M."
The latter I find far more evocative and self-aware than the former -- far more convincing about its narrator's professed convictions, as it were.
The other pair of poems I found especially memorable were the two drafts of "Refusing Despair" (the first draft placed on page 100 as an excerpt from Anderson's journal, and the official version on page 90 as the opening poem to the "Wilson Hospital Poems" section). Both dated "July 27, 2005," they amply demonstrate the world of difference precision of word choice and placement and punctuation can make:
soon winter will come with its implacable force
and we will not survive
but oh we have savored
the essence of joy
But winter will come
with its implacable force
withering our fields
and we will not survive
but, oh, have we not savored
the places where under snow
we touched the sleeping roots of joy?
If I think too hard about this metaphor, it falters for me (wouldn't the most loving thing to do with sleeping roots be leaving them undisturbed?), but I get the emotional drift, and here I'm willing to suspend my hyper-analytical drive for just a moment, to accept the analogy Anderson was stretching for. And perhaps that is the paradox of attempting to assess this book: I personally don't feel it makes a persuasive case for the longevity of Anderson's overall body of work, at least in terms of literary merit. But I can certainly sympathize with the determination of her survivors to preserve what they see as "the beauty, clarity, and tenacity of her work" -- and it is their tenacity that may well have the last laugh here. Because, after all, literary merit is by no means the sole determination of a poet's shelf-life (consider, for instance, Pulitzer winners Audrey Wurdemann, John Gould Fletcher, Leonard Bacon...); for someone to continue cherishing what we've written after we disappear -- in the end, is that not a form of "ever after" for which most of us yearn?
Peg Duthie graduated with honors from the University of Chicago, followed it with an MA at University of Michigan, and has since worked a variety of jobs, ranging from yogurt machine cleaner to military software designer. Her poems have appeared in flashquake, Strange Horizons, the Hay(na)ku for Haiti series (#10), and elsewhere. Her favorite poets include Vassar Miller, Alison Luterman, and Lynda Hull.