Recently the Washington D.C. poet Maureen Doallas’s first collection, Neruda’s Memoirs, was published by the indie entity, T.S. Poetry Press, New York.
The press appears to be a small coalition of writers affiliated with the Christian blog network thehighcalling.org, whose several books to date are disarming, lyrical and one of which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Located in upstate New York, the press operates on patronage and does not take open submission. Look here for its catalogue.
I watched some of the work in this book evolve from the draft phase on our wonderful site Poets on She Writes, and I admire Ms. Doallas’s indisputable devotion to craft and to the art of poetry. She is a visual artist as well and the power of her imagery lies in the provenance of her eye for detail. The heart and mind that drive this work turn on great discernment and love for the world and humanity.
My first concern when I saw this manuscript was that it was quite long for a first collection; it contains 73 complete poems, and runs 144 pages. I wondered if the quality of the work would be consistent poem to poem; such a collection is what one would expect late in a poet’s career, in a new and selected volume, and Ms. Doallas is by her own admission, new to the writing of poetry and in her novitiate.
It is indeed the mission of the editor to choose only the very best, most glittering work for a collection and to invite a period of revision. About three months elapsed between announcement of the press’s intention to publish Ms. Doallas’s work and its launch—a fast production time indeed—and likely too fast—for again, a first book because corners are inevitably likely to be cut..
The book is divided into four sections: Enter, Listen, Exit and Remember, with a short essay to introduce each section. I vote against the inclusion of these essays; the work should stand on its own.
The first poem in the book, Trouble in Paradise, recasts the Garden of Eden story in numerous short-lined stanzas that take far too long for a comprehensible exegesis and the weight of its subject matter: Eve jilted by and attempting to re-woo Adam.. While there is a facetiously sweet tone here, I have trouble with the syntax : “Looking for such bright fruit/Eve denied, Adam, as he dared,/wandered/to satisfy/his quaking hunger.”
Contemporary poetry seems to me to demand a much more straightforward series of lines. Another syntactic problem for me: the archaic placement of verbs in a line such as “…once more did greet him”—a conceit I’ve noticed in the work that takes away from a given poem’s authority and contemporaneity.
I mention these things because in my view the first poem in a book should be absolutely one of the two very strongest and most stunning, to compel the reader on. In fact, the whole first section is comprised of lighter, shorter poems, some with lines of one word, that do not do justice to Doallas’s abilities, going to my point about paring this book down to the very best.
For me the first uniformly strong poem comes on page 45, The Exile: cf Frederic Chopin. “The pride in Warsaw fails,/its absence a kind of embarrassment–/like that first lesson on your childhood piano/when the notes ran around/in a panic/heavy and smudged/the mark of a fist unpleased/– here we are getting into lyrical detail and with “Your fingers slipped/on a fragment of time./A permanent dream walked/upside down in your hands.” The poet’s commitment to her subject feeds and sustains this marvelously un-selfconscious poem.
The second section of the book, Listen, includes the poet’s more mature work. The poems again have stronger imagery, longer lines, revealing what I love about Doallas’s best poetry: the tenacity with which she customarily approaches a subject and a poet’s heart in play that motivates her to take risks, to transcend that which one has already done and mastered.. A Mother’s Day is a tour d’force: …”Before her a sleek slash of gleaming black/stainless steel, its adjustable catafalque hip-high,/enwraps in white satin the third of nine/she bore as the good wife she augured to be..” This poem continues on in dazzling stanza after stanza “And now before her riot-red eyes/his working-man’s hands tied up/ in rosary beads, this son/for whom her puzzled loss cannot stand/in metered rhythms of good-bye…
I can find nothing to complain of in these lines from To be Re-enchanted is Uneasy”- “I would as soon die as miss/morning coming up, the swelling round/of cloud before light bursts, the press/ of stars to complete a night’s worth of sky/for clearing dreams…”Here we have stunning lyrical moments, and some of the poems ensuing in this section confront a variety of political situations and events in which again we see Doallas’s narrative and lyrical capabilities in concert, and accordingly, in poems that cohere.
But the true heart and soul of this book lies in the third section, Exit, which is a series of elegiac poems Doallas wrote at the death of her brother to cancer. She has stated that this event in her life sent her to the blank page in the beginning. These are wrenching poems with imagery that stuns: “…if we listen with your ears,/when would we hear the falling away of breaths/against the time you choose to speak/your final last ever words forever…if we dare not get close enough,/how would we smell the char of lungs/burned hands brain numbed,/your flesh made Holy Ghost?”
Here the poet incarnates grief in the body of the poem, which is what any poem worth its salt should do. A pivotal poem in the work: “Border Crossing”—“…lungs fill with the ticking fear/the guards always hear/just before you present your papers./You soften their gaze, hoping to hurry the line along,/mime the part of the person they want/you to be…and certainly, “Grief’s Lessons”—“I’ve learned to rock my grief/inside, the way a doctor’s fingers, /all rubber-gloved smoothness, gently massage/the chest cavity open before reaching in to expose/the raw fist-sized metronome that keeps/keeping our time perfectly, even after/the skin cracks and the bones, ossified, turn porous and hollow, more a sieve/for questions than a sarcophagus for answers…”
I love Breaking It Off: Letter from Anne Sexton for its insouciance: “Is it not enough/I have waited, a woman/with her knees bent to the dawn?” A poem that doesn’t work for me here is What It’s Like…. a series of stanzas beginning with “The feelings of loss come…” a purely inessential rhetorical device when the imagery should carry the emotional weight of the poem and need no such stanza by stanza introduction. But Ode to Grief redeems this flaw: ” Grief’s a shiv/in the heart, held/like free verse/rocking in the mouth/” . “The Art of Japanese Paper Folding” about Sadako Sasaki and her paper cranes is truly fabulous. This is a beautiful, diligent narrative poem: “A child’s fingers, like an arthritic woman’s,/can be all thumbs, refusing to obey/the mind’s commands… I will write peace on your wings/and you will fly all over the world.”’
Fittingly the last section of the book, Remember, begins with the title poem, Neruda’s Memoirs. There is a worthy emotional drive to this poem, to illuminate the life and times of one of the greatest poets of all; “…he poured his words/into the glass of another language/only some of the world speaks./he gave light to the mines of Coquimbo./now they glitter like dew on a silver fish./… when asked,/the poet shaped in the man/remembers a ride on an empty road/and the color of rain in his childhood/and the look of a long-necked swan/that would not sing when it died/heavy in his arms one undone afternoon.”
We see a number of things in this poem—in particular, that the poet’s empathies are in play and drive the lyric— which is as it should be. However the last stanza brings me up short: “Neruda wove the gaps in his life/into tapestries he hung around the world/In his own country they shimmer/like lies before the firing squad.” If this is a reference to Neruda’s own memoir published in 1974, that isn’t clear, nor whether any of this is taken from that work.
To me, these last lines are not only confusing and inconsistent with the extolling of this infamous poet that goes on in the rest of this long poem, but extremely presumptive and presumptuous lines for a novice poet to write of Pablo Neruda. There is no indication in the lines coming before of what these “gaps” are—perhaps absences would be better, or something far more concrete. I doubt that Neruda would have perceived his own life, devoted in large measure to writing a poetry to inspire, unite and ignite the people of Chile, as having any gaps at all.
Therefore, this poem to me is overly ambitious. The title itself is concerning: I wonder if even a Pulitzer Prize winning poet would call a poem “Neruda’s Memoirs”; one would simply not want to tread where angels have already been. I had less trouble with this phrase in the book’s title when it came to me as a draft with “Neruda’s Memoirs and Other Poems”—now to title the work “Neruda’s Memoirs” is to freight the debut collection of a very good and very promising poet with a significance and import that it simply does not have. If the poem is a commentary on the memoirs of Pablo Neruda, why not make that clear, as in “After Reading Neruda’s Memoirs”?
But I remember when I worked on my debut collection— a chapbook titled In Pursuit of the Family, with Robert Bly. I took my work and my book very, very seriously. I was held to only twenty poems, and I picked an austere, existential drawing for the cover that Bly wise-cracked should grace the cover of Beckett’s plays and not my book. I solicited not one but two forewords and a blurb by Bly for the back. I thought it—and I—were a very big deal.
While I do not claim that this is true of Maureen Doallas and Neruda’s Memoirs, when one is in the throes of preparing a first manuscript and working with an editor, things do feel like a very big deal indeed, and it is not uncommon to jump the gun in placing oneself in the contemporary literary canon however one can– before a place in the gallery is a fait accomplit brought about by many years as a poet, many published poems, and that one is called a good or great poet by others.
I loved holding this book in my hand when it came. It is beautiful. It is a worthy first collection, and a good read; it is, as I wrote on the jacket, “a prescient, elegant meal for the soul, not to be missed’—as a first book one would expect it to be imperfect and wonderful at the same time, and it is.
Jenne’ R. Andrews, Reunion, In Pursuit of the Family, The Dark Animal of Liberty.