Friday, March 12, 2010

Circles That Break and Ache: Poetry from Peggy Sapphire

I've only picked up two hitchhikers that I didn't already know. One was wearing a tie and nice shoes, and turned out to be headed to the nearby Buddhist center. The other looked like some of the young men who had come home with my sons during high school: drooping skateboarder pants and an enormous skateboard clutched under one arm, other thumb extended, standing next to a local road and in need of a lift for a couple of miles.

He reminded me also of the son of my old friend Sandy, a mom whose kids often wore such clothes, so I asked whether he knew her son -- and he said, "Yeah, and I guessed right away you probably knew his mom Sandy anyway."


My hitchhiker explained, "You've got rocks on your car's dashboard. Sandy has pieces of wood on hers."

Hey, the logic wasn't stellar, but the theory was sound: We live in circles, and sometimes they meet and cross as if they were ripples in a large and welcoming pond.

Vermont poet Peggy Sapphire's circle includes conversations about Pete Seeger, whose music and freedom-fighting she admires and promotes. So when I opened her new collection, IN THE END A CIRCLE, I already had that memorable music in mind, as well as "Will the circle be unbroken by and by?"

And that, as my father would say, goes to show that sometimes what you expect is actually what you find. In Sapphire's collection, there are poems of love and longing, poems that salute an earth-committed stewardship, poems that evoke the years of the Peace Movement (how could those have ended?), and poems that pry deeply into Sapphire's life and soul -- and hence open windows into our own.

The collection opens with poems that probe Sapphire's family heritage -- one exploring her grandfather's presence in her life, another on the girl-child's museum trip with her father, and a heart-breaking one that paints the pain of being humiliated in the classroom, by the teacher. Clusters of poems collide like bubbles intercepting and joining. I found places that bit sharply, like this central portion in "Humming Cavatina":
Today's goodbye was easier
than the one long ago
to the boy who would not
disappoint his mother
who left me to kill us off

Decades of murder
to lovers thereafter
And there are delicious turns of phrase that surprise and delight. "Steamy Sunday" brings back Aunt Ida as it opens with "She's dead now / but not from / too much chopped liver" and works its way through meals and savored aromas, until it suddenly announces: "and I knew / Aunt Ida had been loved / in a tropical way." And although the later poem "Subtraction" is not about the same relative, there's a sense of familiarity in it as an older woman, married to a man whose health is failing and whose grown children whisper about it being "past time," is knocked to the floor under the "dead weight" of her husband at last.
No she didn't break any bones
not one
the heart is not a bone.
So when the title poem, "In the End a Circle," brings us a "she" who lived through the Great Depression, and we watch blindness and cancer eat into an older generation, Sapphire's blessing comes as by this point it must:
The circle is forming such as it is
and we conjure its empty space
filled with remembered beloveds

We're gathering
we hunkering survivors
making the cold warm.
I like in particular the section called "Certain as Seasons," in which frost and the mourning dove -- "poor man's owl" -- become symbols of faith and faithfulness. Sapphire promises us a hereafter that may not be in a sky-blue heaven full of white puffy clouds, but rather is enduringly meaningful. And it is a rounded circle in which all promises are kept, with both honor and love.

Meet Peggy Sapphire and hear her read from this collection on Wednesday April 13 at 7 p.m. in Montpelier at Bear Pond Books, where she will be joined by poets April Ossmann and Baron Wormser:

1 comment:

Beth Kanell said...

Here's another chance to catch Peggy Sapphire reading her work:

Poetry Open Mic with Craftsbury poet Peggy Sapphire Saturday, March 27 6-8PM at the River Arts Center, Morrisville; admission $5.00