Sunday, October 19, 2008


The candor of daylight

During the past month I've read two books of poems by Kirsten Dierking, One Red Eye (Holy Cow! Press, 2001) and Northern Oracle (Spout Press, 2008). I hadn't read Dierking's poetry previously. I read Northern Oracle first, and liked it enough that I immediately sought out her earlier book. I found both collections strong and compelling, poems lingering with me after reading them. I've gone back and re-read poems in both of the books.

One Red Eye is a connected sequence of poems coming out of the poet's experience of being raped and assaulted shortly in 1983 shortly after she went away to college in Arizona. The first section of the book, made up of poems that deal directly with the rape and the immediate aftermath, is numbingly powerful and devastating. Dierking writes in clear statements without ornament, relating the night of the assault, the days talking to police and prosecutors, going to a battered women's shelter, and then then leaving town to go back home.

There's a hand on my mouth,
so I'm dreaming, right,
the pillow, the sheet,
the dark, night...

An arm at my throat.
Something... God,
has got me, grabbing,
dragging, hold on,
I crash to the floor,
there is somebody here,
is it me screaming?

the arms lock tight,
screaming, screaming,
screaming, clawing,
kicking, ripping,
dizzy as I hit the wall.
(From the poem "Dying.")

In the second of the book's three sections, Dierking tells of the subsequent weeks and months and years of moving in and out of pain and numbness, "drifting, almost drowning, in the aftermath," as she puts it in her Foreward; in the third section, she recounts her gradual emerging and movement back toward wholeness and healing. Here the poems become somewhat quieter and more reflective, often with a purposeful solid tactile quality, evocative of the experience of coming back to the world after profound injury. From the poem "Delacroix's Vision":
Ophelia hangs still tangible
in a pool so green it drifts

between a languid peace and a
dead calm. She is holding onto

a branch, her mouth passive,
but well above her liquid line

of obligation. Maybe she'll
float for one afternoon, drag

herself out, but this is only
a dream, unframed. The branch

she is holding is not even
as thick as her arm. [...]
There are ancient myths in many parts of the world in which a hero figure is in life-and-death battle with some beast or monster of overwhelming power, and must somehow guess or deduce the terror's name and speak it out loud. And in so doing, the dread power of the monster is reduced and removed. To say the true name of a thing of fear and danger can, sometimes, take away its power over us, or at any rate make it less vast and overwhelming to contend with. The poems in One Red Eye clearly represent an act of deep courage; that they were born of necessity does not diminish this.

Some of the poems in the third section of the book reach far out into the world, and the psyche of the teller begins to find ground again. And the perception of the world is slowly transformed. One of the poems I found most evocative is "Main Street," which describes returning to a small midwestern town:
Where the lake was drained
so long ago, soil was money.

Where the park was built
so long ago, they put up

swings for new generations.
You drive by vacant,

startled storefronts,
decades late for closing time.

Roll through irrelevant
four-way stops. Turn beyond

the catatonic wooden arms
of the railroad crossing,

into a new construction
zone at the nursing home.

Here you find them. Reeling
with stories so crisp and vibrant,

you almost forget
they are all past tense.

Walk your grandfather down
the linoleum tiled

new main street. Wave
to the neighbors waiting inside

their numbered doors.
Look out the window.

Watch as all the buffalo ghosts
stampede out of town.
In Kirsten Dierking's recent book Northern Oracle, many of the poems are brightly evocative of life and places in the northern Midwest, and bear quiet undercurrents growing out of Dierking's discovery in 1990 (as she relates in a brief author's note) that many of her grandmother's relatives in Finland are Sami, an indigenous culture of northern Europe. The poems often have a spare quality, working and moving with a light and careful touch. From the poem "Older Now":
[...] I didn't see

the evening coming,
I didn't notice
the last hot spell,

I was listening to
a remake of a song
I loved at twenty-one,

for a moment I felt
a terrible craving for all
the things I wanted then,

it felt like a clock
was leaping from summer
to longing to aging,

how did I get here

holding my sandals,
walking barefoot
over the snow.
This poem had a resonance for me that it may be difficult to convey to anyone who has not lived in a cold climate. I have in fact (just once or twice, and just briefly, but have in fact) walked barefoot on snow. The winter cold can have a remarkable clarifying quality, sharpening everything to its essence.

One of the sections in Northern Oracle is made up of poems written after the events of September 2001 and during the build-up to the current war in Iraq. In the poem "January 2003", Dierking describes the dangers of thin ice, "the lakes forming open holes/ of black water," and then continues:
So many are rushing toward it.
Always amazed when the landscape
wavers, always surprised
when the frigid water won't let go.

Tonight, on tv, the president
tells us the state of the union.
Words in the language
of freezing lakes, threats
with the footing of shifting snow.

So many cheering for war.
Applause like the crack
of rotten ice under our feet.
In the first poetry writing class I took, in the summer of 1970 (I was not quite 16 at the time), our teacher, poet John Caddy, told us at one point a Hindu story about poison-changing: that the deity Krishna once swallowed poison, and transformed it inside himself into divine song. I found it hard to find my way into the story at the time -- it was many years before I began to feel a close connection to myths and stories of the ancient world, and their potential value in modern life -- but I kept the story with me, and thought about it from time to time over the years. And gradually it began to take shape for me.

I believe strongly that one of the potential uses of poetry (and other creative work) -- and one of the tasks facing poets and anyone else who does creative work -- is to do poison-changing: to take the sorrow and terror of the world around us, the public and political world as well as inner and intimate life, and to find ways to change it in ourselves, through our creative works, our art, our poems, into something that affirms the value of life, and brings light and clarity to our daily struggles to exist and thrive and grow.

I find this transformative power, this evocation of the beauty and greatness of life, in the poems of Kirsten Dierking.
Sometimes I think the future begins
at the bottom of lakes. The next day rising
toward sound and action and easier
breathing. Darkness wanting
the candor of daylight, the simple shapes
of high noon, the plain faces with no

I watch for an omen, but three feet
down, the sun disappears into murk
and secrets. The waves are reading
the lines of my palm, but show only this:
tomorrow coming like shimmering scales,
like transient bones fanned into dazzling,
silver fins.
(From the poem "Northern Oracle" in Dierking's book by the same title.)


Kirsten Dierking's website (which includes, among other things, links to further information about Sami people and culture, and Finnish North American literature) is here.

More information about poet John Caddy (mentioned above) is at his website Morning Earth.

I just tried to post and got an error message and my post was gone when I back arrowed. Suffice it to aay that she sounds like a brave, magnificent writer and I'm putting her book on my list! Thanks.
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