Winning work

A poet’s loss is our gain

by

The Dropped Hand, Terry Blackhawk’s third book of poems, has all of the elegance and attention to sound and form a reader would expect, but the pressure to communicate is more intense than ever.

The book is organized into four sections, which could be entitled four views of loss. Elegies, or poems commemorating loss are part of the tradition of poems in English, but Blackhawk’s poems are infinitely more complex than the usual pattern of memory, mourning and ultimate reconciliation. Perhaps that is because her poems include details of losses most of us would like to ignore. Especially poignant are the recurring poems that deal with the loss of language and the attenuation of relationship that inevitably follows that loss.

The first poem, "Everything About Elephants," addresses an older person already curled into the fetal position of the dying. Although the mother has lost common words such as stir-fry, Kleenex and hope, her daughter’s report of elephants slowing traffic on a freeway makes her sit up and laugh. The convergence of life and death and that extra element of the marvelous or strange, illuminates all of these poems. Loss is set against the riches of the sensory world and contained by the richness of Blackhawk's craft, as well as the speaker’s gratitude for the visible world, for elephants’ "stately walk / to the grounds of their dead...."

These are tightly linked poems. In this book a bridge can be physical, or it can connect this world and next. The two long sequences of poems, "Signaling Bridge and "The Dropped Hand," are full of images of contract bridge, a game of signals which become a form of communication for the father. As his words evaporate, as he tries to remember how to say his name, the father says, "call me...." The speaker is reminded that this man once played Internet bridge under the name Ahab. This was a man steeped in literature who recited "The Highwayman" to his young daughter and knew the opening sentence of Moby Dick as well as he knew his name. The internet will never connect this scholar to the community again. A series of poems in part II traces the diminishment of memory and communication. In "Primer," a perfect sestina, the speaker considers the words taped to objects in the father’s room: Hearth table window chair. He has no words at his command any more, just pieces of paper in his pocket.

In her acceptance of double meanings, of words and the significance of human signals when words finally fail, we see some of Blackhawk’s deepest meditations. If humans are joined by a bridge of words, what happens to the desire to communicate when the capacity for language is gone? Loss is the immediate topic of The Dropped Hand, but connection is the the reverse side of that loss. Blackhawk celebrates the complex web of relationships that weave through each individual’s life. This is a book that articulates grief which is never generic.

Primer

by Terry Blackhawk

These were the words

You put in your pocket—

Hearth table window chair.

These were the lifelines

I wanted to give you

In order to help you read.

You taught me to read

The music of words.

I felt so grown up beside you.

I found tobacco in your pocket.

I loved reading the lines

As I sat with you in your chair.

Today you sit in your chair

No longer expecting to read.

The doctor said: Try headlines.

You creased and caressed the words

Before putting them in your pocket,

The ones I prepared for you,

Each word a sign for you

Taped to table or chair.

How precious they felt in your pocket,

Even if you could not read

Them— those fat, large-font words

With their unfamiliar lines.

Now Mother says the lines

Of your own poems for you.

Sometimes you recall the words.

Hearth window chair—

Find other ways to read

Them. Put them in the pocket

Of your pajamas, pocket

Of sleep and dreams. Line

Them up heart-wise to read

However you can. I know you

Disdain the utility of chair

Without the magic of words.

So I say to you, Father, read the moon. Tonight

She pulls songs from the lining of her pocket

and sings them for you, rocking in a chair of words.

Dawn McDuffie is a poet whose recent book is Carmina Detroit. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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