Sunday, March 01, 2009

“Rooms and Their Airs”: Jody Gladding Paints in Voices

Vermont poet Jody Gladding’s first collection, “Stone Crop,” took the Yale Younger Poets prize and was published in 1993, when she was 38 years old. Even then, she spoke in the tongues of plants and animals, taking meaning from their presence in her paths. Her poem “Fish Song” entwined her own longings with an underwater moment of humor: “the heron is / my patience // my thoughtfulness / the loon // the kingfisher / my nerve // but the osprey / I am wholly // the osprey’s--” (yes, that’s the entire poem).

Yet Gladding also aligned grief and loss with the natural world, recalling how the ghostly blessing of a distant deer becomes an unforgettable source of pain when there’s a wounded animal that has to be tracked and shot (“Deer Crossings”). And her vulnerability to these echoes was laid on the pages along with her deep affection for a friend, “Beth,” with whom she explored the Vermont landscape and to whom she sometimes wrote.

So when Gladding’s new collection, “Rooms and Their Airs,” opens with “I’ve sold my parents’ house,” a space for expression of the griefs of midlife opens on the page. It’s a space wide enough also for the way body and soul create pathways for birth: Many of the poems in this new collection either paint the birth and nurturing of Gladding’s daughter Aneleisa, or offer conversation to the maturing woman-child in the framework of exploring the prehistoric caves of the Dordogne.

Using a sequence titled “February 14—Dordogne,” Gladding offers the stages of maternal and child life together: “1 She slips free,” “2 She lies on my ribs,” “3 She laughs,” “4 She starts to walk,” “5 She wants to sleep in her own bed,” “6 She comes home sick,” “7 She says the snow,” “8 She kneels out.” Aneleisa, and Gladding’s observant parenting, expand and blossom. Tucked among these flowering moments, though, are needles of grief again: I was shocked in the third segment by the phrase “when Beth dies,” which is tucked into a vivid cameo of how life can callously go onward in spite of immense shock and loss.

This collection demands comparison with other poets. Gladding’s interactions with the caves of the Dordogne call forth those of Clayton Eshleman: Both poets regularly translate from other languages, and their overlays of meaning on the images within the caves resonate with difference, with gender, with how each one construes family and insight. The forms Gladding chooses – ragged open ones for her “Moon” poems, blocky enjambed ones that pry apart the layers of being among trees, flowers, herbs, birds – take me into re-reading poems by Martha Collins, another poet who translates. And the work of Jane Hirshfield, especially in “After,” has some of the same feel, but with a more direct declaration of the self through “I,” compared to Gladding’s most memorable moments of discovery through her daughter’s emergence.

I can’t offer the Moon poems here, because their careful lace of space and location won’t translate readily into this review’s text format, but they are among the innovations of the collection: crocheted from Native American moon names, dark hungers, and feathers of meaning splashed with white glimmering light. It’s significant to me that the cave poems, the moon ones, and the family/friend interactions offer such diverse ways to walk with Gladding within one slim volume of poems. There’s space to read as one who identifies and one who differentiates from the voice on the page, all at once. It’s a delight.

But let me end this exploration with the slender “For Piano and Strings,” from the second of the book’s two sections, for its elegant crossover from the heart of loss to the labor of practice and performance, as good a range as any for Gladding’s voice:
In G minor
is that high note
then descending
the bows drawn
than healing
at the broken
surface where business
must go one
so many little steps
for the restless

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