Poetry Comment

When I accepted three of Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s poems I didn’t realize that, in different ways, they were about the dialogue of life and death. That’s a measure of her variety of tone and her skill as both a poet and a storyteller. In “To Live,” a father is killed by a cluster bomb as he protects his child with his body. (Well, there are worse ways to go, like “a bullet / to the head, / after worse has been done.”) Is the child damaged, not physically but emotionally? Possibly, but the poet’s wish is that the father’s sacrifice is healing: “I want you to live / each day from a surfeit of that love.” To die to save another is a better farewell than the self-destruction in “Death of a Neighbor,” which will leave the woman who left the neighbor accused by her community: “they will blame her for walking out the door with her life.” Women aren’t supposed to do that. They are supposed to stay with their man and save him from himself. And so the woman stays fixed in the snow, in her long coat, for a long time before vanishing from the poet’s sight. In “Every Secret Is a Little Casket,” the poet and her mother tidy the father’s grave. Something strange is going on, but what? “Not knowing the question, I couldn’t ask it.” Ominously, The mother’s grave with its “single date seemed to wait.” Death is mysterious, as mysterious as life.

Like Kirkpatrick’s, Rachel Hadas’s poems depict the complex entwining of life and death. “Mother. Here. If.” beautifully portrays the garden of her dead mother as a kind of heaven, made of hard work and now going into beautiful ruin: “If she is anywhere, she’s here.” People shape, preserve, and change nature, long after they’re gone. After all, “who planted that foxglove”? In “A Piece of Wood,” Hadas burns wood to keep warm in a cold house in the country. She connects it to the Greek myth of Meleager, who was fated to live only as long as a log his mother saved from burning. Does Hadas’s dwindling woodpile measure her own life span? She boldly “feeds the flames” anyway. “The Thumb of Thetis” is a kind of companion piece: here, Achilles’s mother, a sea goddess, immerses her human baby in magic water to make him invincible—except for the foot she holds him by. Love protects us, but not enough—as all mothers know.

—Katha Pollitt

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