Friday, June 29, 2007

Precisely the Word: Powerful Poetry from Ellen Doré Watson

I wonder whether the painstaking work of translation -- the dive into the soul of another writer, in another language, then the grueling swim back to the surface with the words, metaphors, lines and rhythms, all tugging at your responsible shoulders -- can act to sharpen. For weeks, I've been tracking that sense of knife and precision cut, through the three available poetry collections by Ellen Doré Watson (her early chapbook is out of print). Why don't the names of powerful poets have a claim to the daily news, the radio interview, the television special? After these weeks of reading and thinking, I find it startling that this poet isn't better known.

Director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, translations editor for the Massachusetts Review, and poet/translator for works from Brazilian Portuguese (11 books, including THE ALPHABET IN THE PARK: SELECTED POEMS OF ADÉLIA PRADO), Ellen Doré Watson has also co-translated from Arabic a volume of poems by a contemporary Palestian. Yet despite this global reach, her own poems linger luxuriously in her own western Massachusetts home -- with formidable results.

LADDER MUSIC, winner of the New York/New England award from Alice James Books, came out in 2001. It's Watson's most vivid collection by far. In the poem "Freight" she neatly grafts the shocks of the world onto the strands of her young daughter's life, a good example of the surgeries of words here. The poem opens:

I followed a truck of guns to work today,
crates lashed to a flatbed, dash of red
FRAGILE and taillights. Ugly March buffered
and air-brushed by fog, sun making promises
from offstage, but walking around my head:
the ones that particular freight would kill how long
from now.

But Watson's day will later include her school-age daughter:

... In Della, calming beneath my wide
mother hand, unloading the day's cruelties, kids
with their own invisible bullet holes who shoot hurt
like buckshot.

And within the poem is also a classic Watson thread of sensual attention to her husband, as well as the quickly disciplined emotions and mind that "hold the driver blameless... it could just as well be cabbages he's hauling."

That willingness to braid experience, love, and philosophy all at once develops a delicious savor in this collection. Watson can ask, as she does in "Imperfect Knowledge,"

But has my glass ever been utterly empty
or full? I know how to drain it, but not
who to ask about the long tunnel of light.

Yet each stretch for meaning is firmly rooted in physicality, as in "The Sounds Between What's On My Mind," which offers:

I was awake to see my baby, fat and happy,
when they cut her out of me, but still
they took someting I'll never get back--
my best chance to learn the bodily

meaning of yield. Wind is the sound
of the world refusing to budge.

Forms nudge their sharp bones under these narrative poems, which sometimes break in five-line stanzas, sometimes in couplets, sometimes in blocks of text where enjambed lines double as enjambed ideas. Emotions shiver under the intellect, too, flashing joy, love, fear, and a shivery premonition through the poems.

Most of LADDER MUSIC takes a jazzy style to riffing off family and the kind of great sex that can almost become routine in a long and satisfying relationship. Some of the poems slip into concerns about her mother's memory losses, but Watson never goes soft -- each line is a blade. From "Before Bed":

The word I leave out on the stoop to shiver
like a cat that tears up a couch in the night
is forget.

That's a precursor to the later litany of "She Forgets Aphasia":

She forgets aphasia and all of Asia
She remembers Bangkok and birch bark, babies
She forgets the cats' names, clocks gone cock-eyed ...

--and at last the poem closes,

She forgets to wonder Y
She forgts to zip her pants but not to unzip her face:
A zinnia

LADDER MUSIC is a huge generous collection to enjoy and to cling to. From its strengths, it's interesting to step back in time to Watson's 1997 collection, WE LIVE IN BODIES, and see the precursors, equally direct but not as focused or as infused with certainty. And this pair of books is the pair of water wings needed for a cold wet plunge into the 2006 volume THIS SHARPENING, a volume of agony, doubt, and loss, as Watson explicates the drastic dissolution of her marriage. The sturdy sensuality and the adored daughter were somehow not enough to make a fairy tale endure. Yet the poet's grief becomes another blade that again sharpens the choice of words and narratives. What emerges from this collection is a leaner, tighter writing self that shivers with wounded fragility, yet moves forward into the stripped beauty of midlife and hard-gained wisdom.

Parallels? I pulled out Ruth Stone from the shelf -- especially her IN THE NEXT GALAXY -- and also found similar intensity (yet controlled so that the line has meaning, the image has dimension) in Edward Hirsch.

With all this, it's no wonder that Library Journal named Ellen Doré Watson one of its "24 poets for the 21st century." I look forward hugely to her reading on July 14 (see Presses and Poets 1, earlier this month), as part of the Four Poets and a Publisher celebration of the work brought forth by Alice James Books. And what is she writing now? It's got to be good.

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