Saturday, June 23, 2007

Real, Realer, Realest: Amy Dryansky, How I Got Lost So Close to Home (Poems)

Amy Dryansky's first collection of poems won the Alice James Books New England/New York Competition. Brava! Her second, THE ART OF REFUSAL, was a 2007 semifinalist for AJB's Kinereth Gensler Awards. And the names keep reeling from the spool of info that the press gives about this poet.

Her poems are narratives: they nail moments and decisions onto frames, stretching them and padding where necessary. Don't think padded bras -- think taxidermy. After soaking up the scenes in HOW I GOT LOST SO CLOSE TO HOME, I could see each one frozen in its place on a pedestal or wall mount, red glass eyes meeting mine. I felt haunted.

HOW I GOT LOST ... opens with "Today Everything Hurts." Enjambed lines expose the people you see in a parking lot, the fringes and worn spots of their lives dangling in front of your eyes until they shut their minivan doors and drive away. The final three lines put Dryansky into the scene, too:

The woman trying not to shake the screaming child.
The child's older sister trying to keep out of the way.
It looks like she can't.

Every time I've stood in a supermarket checkout line listening to a frazzled mother threaten her child (or pretend to ignore the whimpers and sobs) swept back over me. It's a bruising first poem to experience. True to its position in the collection, it's a mild sample of what's ahead: Dryansky's poems, deceptively simple in form (free verse, couplets, nothing distracting), tell complex short stories of humilation, hurt, even death. And oh yes, of survival.

It's not fair to assume that the "I" in any given poem is the poet, of course. Even when the speaker and author coincide, details can extend into the "more real" realm of embroidered disclosure, or symbolic revelation. That's one of the graces that makes it possible to read these poems without calling 911 or a women's group. A little distance helps a lot.

On the other hand, Dryansky's public appearances in western Massachusetts since her first book have been under titles like "The Ups and Downs of Personal Poetry" (with a group of other women) and "The Art of Refusal: Poetry and Motherhood." So it seems likely that she's writing from what's been real for her or for the people she cares about. From "Merit Badge":

...My merit badge sits on my chest
like a leather button on an old army coat. Its says Do not remove
under penalty of law
. It says don't tell, don't tell
if you break something or something breaks you. Don't ask.

And then, most brutally, at the end of the poem: "And I let her. My merit badge says I let her."

Yet there are also poems of holding a bird; making a place for the soul to fly back inside the body; renewing the way love can braid into lust, so that sex takes on a warmth and fluency entirely "other" from what it means in, say, rape. Dryansky can offer:

Lately I've wanted to kiss my husband
as if he were a handsome stranger,

and she can turn midnight in this way into a moment that glitters with the silver of restoration and reclaimed memory, even if it hurts.

Did all this pain happen to one poet? Or is she a magnet for the stories of others, stories she can comprehend and retell? For me, reading these again and again, I came up with an answer to a different question at last, the question of what makes Dryansky's work important. It's four reasons at once: (1) It happened (to someone). (2) It can be spoken. (3) It is spoken, here. (4) There are survivors -- who can kiss, love, speak, and write.


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