Poetry,” W.H. Auden averred in 1939, “makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs.” He was writing about the death of William Butler Yeats, but he was also writing about the world. The year, after all, was the same one in which World War II started, an occasion marked by Auden in his poem “September 1, 1939.” What he is saying, then, is not that poetry is irrelevant but that it finds its own way of lasting, that the clearest path to understanding is through the corridors of the human heart. That, in other words, is “the valley of its making”—the place where external events catalyze internal responses and our inner lives merge with, or comment on, the outer world.
I couldn’t help recalling Auden as I read Amy Gerstler’s Index of Women and Kim Addonizio’s Now We’re Getting Somewhere, two new collections that exist very much between “ranches of isolation and the busy griefs.” That this is not uncommon territory for either poet goes without saying for anyone familiar with their work. Gerstler emerged from Southern California’s Beyond Baroque scene in the early 1980s; Addonizio, from the Bay Area a decade later. Both are writers of astonishing variety and grace.
“Maybe all freedoms are stained,” the latter observes in “Happiness Report,” one of the poems in Now We’re Getting Somewhere, and it’s a line that resonates—not just for her book but also for Gerstler’s, since each addresses, directly and indirectly, this strange, suspended time of waiting, when desire and longing, distance and proximity have all been necessarily recast. “Maybe time melts when one’s confined / to quarters,” Gerstler notes toward the end of “Earth, Temple, Gods,” “staring at photos of beautiful ruins, / statues sans noses, some with only half a face.” For a reader, the way these two lines appear to echo each other is part of the point.
This is not to suggest that Index of Women or Now We’re Getting Somewhere is pandemic poetry, for these are writers with more encompassing concerns. At the same time, they are also aware that lockdown is, if nothing else, just another way of being alive. Gerstler investigates such issues more directly; many poems in Index of Women deal with questions of aging, mortality, and loss. “Woman Looking at a Drop of Seawater Under the Microscope” uses a reflection about a “little bit of spillage / contain[ing] multitudes of what we all // boil down to” as a setup for what becomes an existential rumination: “Why, then, have I been so afraid // of what I am made of breaking down / into constituent parts, of one day // rejoining this infinitesimal assembly, / of becoming an orgy of particles // too (beautiful and) numerous to count?”
In “Poof,” on the other hand—which is perhaps my favorite piece in Gerstler’s collection—she mourns a close childhood friend, “the girlfriend I practiced kissing / with in sixth grade during zero-sleep / sleepovers,” now dead at 60, leaving behind two husbands and, “of course, your impossibly handsome son.” Everything about this is mundane, as it should be; the memories it recounts are those of anybody’s life. Lest we be lulled, however, Gerstler opens the third stanza, “We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished.”
The effect is to flip the poem on its head. Think of the implication in that past tense “lived”; it is as if Gerstler is mourning, or at least acknowledging, the fact of her own death as well. Such a clarity, or ruthlessness, has long been one of her abiding gifts as a poet: the ability both to see things as they are and not to look away.
Addonizio, too, is a ruthless poet, or can be, although at the heart of her sensibility is a hard-won empathy. In “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall,” she sets the scene. “If you ever woke in your dress at 4 a.m. ever / closed your legs to someone you loved opened / them for someone you didn’t,” she writes, cataloging betrayals great and small. The poem is funny and also tragic, but in its last line it takes an unexpected turn; “listen,” Addonizio confides, “I love you joy is coming.” It’s a line as offhand as a whisper, and it offers an astonishing release.
Such small redemptions—or, perhaps, connections—mark many of the poems in Addonizio’s book. “All Hallows” uses a joke about being alone on Halloween (“You have to turn off your lights & hide from the doorbell”) to evoke the ghosts she wants to bring back, her “weird sisters”: Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and “all the blottophiliac girls / longing to faceplant in Mr. Death’s crotch.” It’s a feminist lament, but Addonizio is not content with grieving; she has reclamation on her mind. “Ladies, women, darlings, bitches,” she instructs,
Stop it right now & pay attention: Virginia Woolf is rising
from the river, sloshing home to Leonard in her Wellingtons
nothing in her pockets but bread
How fantastic is that image? What necessary work it does, transforming the stones Woolf used to drown herself. Imagination, the poet is telling us, is all we have to make it through this world, to transform the brutality of experience into something we can use. “I gave up on mercy a while ago,” she writes, but if that’s the case, it’s only because mercy is a fiction she can no longer use.
Addonizio, of course, is not the only one. Gerstler feels it too. “Giraffes,” the last poem in Index of Women, offers a stream of consciousness that returns us to the contradictions and the conflicts of the age: “acting as if nothing terrible has happened / is a failed strategy…,” Gerstler declares, “and this docility / has ruined and crushed us.” It’s impossible not to agree.
How do we live now? That is the question both of these books, and poets, are asking, and the fact that there are no answers only makes us need the question more. “I went straight from our backyard to the zoo and / freed the giraffes,” Gerstler tells us in the closing lines of both the poem and the collection, “and all the wronged animals and / conferred with them about government overthrow / but I haven’t done anything that revolutionary, yet”
It’s an open-ended conclusion, made more so by the lack of a period. The inference is that we have no choice but to decide for ourselves.•