The latest poetry: aged intensity

September 15, 1996|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Three a.m. Once again I'm wide awake. All the doctor shows tell me this is what happens to a woman my age. I'm staring at a magazine distributed by a company that manufactures hormones. Loni Anderson is "Facing Fifty!" with a visage that appears to have been carved out of peach ice cream.

The essential piece of advice that most print media offer women on the subject of aging is, DON'T. I stand before the bathroom mirror doing the thumbs-and-forefingers face lift. But only for a moment. A room away, piled on my desk, is hard-copy evidence proving that some women of my generation wear their years both visibly and magnificently.

Among these women are Lucille Clifton, Myra Sklarew, Louise Gluck, Maxine Kumin, and Elaine Terranova. They range in age from baby-boomer to a good bit beyond. These women are poets. Their public faces - their poems - are grooved by aging, illness, worry, sleeplessness, laughter. They are passionate, potent faces. These women's poems are better than a face lift for my sagging confidence in my own powers.

I approach Lucille Clifton and Myra Sklarew with the ease of familiarity. Their poems are old friends - or so I thought. Surprise! "The Terrible Stories," (BOA Editions. 72 pages. $12.50) Clifton's 1996 book, and Sklarew's most recent publication, "Lithuania: New and Selected Poems," (Azul. 138 pages. $12.95) offer me experience more intense than either of these good poets has ever given me before.

Experience - experience so sensory it almost stops being secondhand, so strong it almost grooves my own skin - is what I ask of a poem. In Clifton's "Terrible Stories" my skin gets carved by the surgeon's knife and by the slaver; Sklarew gives me Lithuanian Jews for relatives and then takes them away to the horror of the ovens. Why should such horrors comfort me in the night? The answer's easy: These poems allow me to live more lives than the one allotted me by birth. Clifton and Sklarew have aged into this enormous power. It can happen.

I approach Louise Gluck diffidently. Though her poems are revered acquaintances, her poems' faces and her physical face are both so spare and elegant they seem like reproaches. But in her own way Gluck is generous. "Meadowlands," (Ecco Press. 62 pages. $22) her 1996 publication following her Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Wild Iris," lets me in on scraps of conversation or observation that reveal the secret lives of characters as "known" as the Odyssey's (but ha! we only thought we knew them before), and as unknown as a nameless married couple we eavesdrop on.

What exquisite bone structure Gluck's poems have. Consider "The Butterfly," quoted here in its entirety - five tiny lines that intimately sketch a relationship: "Look, a butterfly. Did you make a wish?/ You don't wish on butterflies./ You do so. Did you make one?/ Yes./ It doesn't count"

Sharp as a slap, this poem reminds me that I have been both those speakers.

Maxine Kumin's powers are those of a survivor. I've relied on her strength for decades. Among the many things she has survived is her legendary friendship with brilliant, tortured, destructive Anne Sexton, whose iconic suicide threatened to extinguish the artists close to her.

Kumin comforts me by demonstrating that it's possible to get on with the daily business of poem-writing, livestock-feeding, jam-stirring, grandchild- tending, while not forgetting the darks and sorrows. Forging such links is exactly what her most recent book, "Connecting the Dots," (Norton. 85 pages. $18.95) is about. But by far the most comforting thing about Kumin's poetry is that it makes old people seem desirable. Hot. I want, I lust for, a man like Kumin's husband who can say this about his future death: "I hope ... on the other side there's a lot / less work, but just in case I'm bringing tools."

Of all the women at my desk tonight the only stranger is Walt Whitman Prize winner Elaine Terranova. Or was. Now I have a copy of "Damages" (Copper Canyon Press. 74 pages. $12). A brief bio tells me she's exactly my age; has worked as an editor; has taught reading and writing in colleges.

Her poems tell me that she's spent time in Ireland, as well as on city buses, in doctors' offices, and, long ago, in dance classes. She could be me. But she takes the ordinariness we share and gives it a spin that wings it into the dark. Here's the end of "Rush Hour," a poem whose previous 24 lines matter-of-factly detail a mother on a bus with two small children, one with scabs and one with an arm in a sling: "... No one has seen what is behind/ her own dark glasses. She pulls the children to her./ Maybe she is thinking of the arm raised over them,/ its motion that would begin like a blessing."

Thanks, ladies. When daylight gets here I'm going to sit down at the computer and use these thumbs, these forefingers to pinch some new wrinkles into my own writing.

Clarinda Harriss' most recent book of poems is "License Renewal for the Blind" a recent winner of the American Chapbook Award. She is a professor of English at Towson State University.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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