The poems in Kathleen Graber’s Correspondence advise a wise discomfort with finality and a suspicion of answers that come too easily. Graber’s meditations meander purposefully, as she yields to the free associative impulse while remaining aware that the first thing that comes to mind is not always the best thing to bear in mind. She frequently acknowledges her philosophical influences, which include Lou Andreas-Salomé, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Heraclitus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and—more than any other—Walter Benjamin, not surprising for a poet so interested in collecting. But in doing so she is not looking for shortcuts around the demanding work of reflection and communication. In her intellectual openness, she invites her readers to share her world more completely.
She doesn’t assume, though, that they share her enthusiasms—only that they are willing to care. Graber’s compulsion for thorough examination, for treating every recollected image as if it might answer a question yet to be determined, is clear in the expansiveness of her lines, which she keeps from becoming plodding or prosaic by the richness of their imagery and by her masterful manipulation of the potentials of enjambment. In the collection’s first poem, “Between Laurelton & Locust Manor,” Graber compiles fantasies of a neighborhood life that its speaker may not have known in more than mere passing, giving herself a chance to assert the importance of self-conscious wandering. Early in the poem, what begins as a tentative avowal of art’s purpose ends in despair at art’s ineffectiveness:
Isn’t this art, this careful arrangement of what is
If it occurred at the end of the poem, this question might come across as yet another hair-twisting, self-pitying bemoaning of the difficulty of mattering—or, worse yet, defining art itself as trafficking in “what is useless.” To counter the fear (and accusation) of uselessness, she looks to
“an ancient urge that rises up from the base of the skull & ferries us
to the harvest of whatever we can….”
This rising, irresistible urge delivers us—“ferries us”—beyond our comfort in the ordinary. But, as the second line makes clear, it offers no deliverance from the responsibilities of being human. The harvest of meaning from what we’ve seen, recalled, or known—and, moreover, from our reactions to it—may be desperate, even harried. But it is ready, however thin or bountiful the results may be.
Graber reminds us that such acts of imaginative sympathy should not end in self-satisfaction. The speaker of “Another Postcard”, one of the many poems-as-letters in this collection, examines an old postcard whose sender and recipient she does not know. A photograph of an apple stand, the postcard carries only a brief message: “Miss Annie—/How are these for apples!” It’s not even clear whether it’s the message or the sending that matters most—or whether it’s a platonic or romantic gesture in either case. She tries out possibilities for their identities from the little evidence available, but if speculating is so appealing, she suggests, the next step is to wonder why:
“ . . . . And what’s any of this got to do
with us? Total weight, 12 lbs. The answer’s printed cleanly
on a placard to the right. It’s a careful arrangement. Cultivation.” (69)
That “[i]t” has many antecedents. The apple-seller’s arrangement, the intriguing possibilities we could imagine for Miss Annie—reading the postcard doesn’t end with these. Our lingering over the postcard is as purposeful as the writing on the apple-seller’s sign. What life have we given to Miss Annie, and how pleasing has that story been? Stopping to wonder at our wondering, we have to face the patronizing distance we may have placed between ourselves and those we’ve written to or written about.
In “Thinking of the Summer Solstice on the Longest Night of the Year,” a desolate walk home from the train prompts memories of overheard confidences and surprising reunions.
“We can’t stop believing this matters, or else we believe
it doesn’t matter at all: a roadside motel, an amusement pier,
the Tilt-a-Whirl, the ferris wheel, the garishly buttoned saddles
of the two-tiered carousel—
the details, the things we’ve known
all our lives”
To dismiss such unexpected returns would be to deny the power of their source, the same source that will sometimes offer as clear a connection as this chain of carnival images. To accept that what returns is significant, though, is to commit to chasing down, in memory or in correspondence with others, understanding that doesn’t come easily.
But there’s the problem—correspondence. Graber generously, it might seem, assumes a closeness with her reader, a shared frame of reference, indicated by her recalling
our tiny afternoons, our tiny expeditions, the way our mothers sent us off
to the grocery for milk, or to the five & dime
for hem tape, Coats & Clark thread, tucking into one pocket
She makes this claim, though, only in order to point out its insufficiency. “[M]aybe it wasn’t like that for you,” she admits, continuing later:
I mean, how could anyone
Recognizing that she can’t assume the reader’s sympathy, she is acknowledging the job she has to do, as a writer, to allow it to develop. To establish a relationship that is transformative, as all correspondence seeks to be, she has had to consider the realities of other possible lives.
Communication demands that the urge to express ally itself with the urge to understand—oneself and others. Merely putting oneself on display will not do. Given the chance to talk about themselves, the proud do little more than recite their accomplishments, name their own parts. Graber knows that gathering the harvest is only the beginning. As she observes, as this poem comes to an end, “how lonely the sufficient are.” Their shame is that they never care to ask why.